Russian space chief told to drop grandiose talk, get more done

The Russian space program is in crisis, with recent failures of its Soyuz launch system, declining orders for its commercial services, and funding problems. These problems certainly did not begin under the leader of the Russian Space Corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, but they appear to have worsened since he took office in May, 2018.

On Wednesday, the prime minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, expressed his displeasure with the situation. During a meeting in Moscow with senior Roscosmos officials, Medvedev made sharply critical remarks that were reported by several Russian news organizations, including Gazeta.RU and RIA Novosti. (Translations were provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell).

“This is a blunt and direct assertion: We need to quit projecting future plans, stop talking about where our missions will land in 2030, get to work, talk less, and do more,” Medvedev said. “We need to be more active in commercializing our space industry and increase Russia’s international market share of commercial launches.”

Such comments coming from Medvedev, the head of government who reports directly to Vladimir Putin, were striking. As the Russian space agency has faced setbacks in recent years, its response has been proposing large, ambitious civil space projects—such as their own lunar landings by 2030 or the development of large new rockets—as if they had the funding to carry them through. They don’t, and some Russian commentators have warned the space program is nearing the “dark ages.”

Now Medvedev, in a public setting, has called Rogozin out for this tactic. He also expressed concern about Russia’s success in attracting commercial satellite launches amid the rise of SpaceX and other international competitors.

Commercial decline

As recently as 2015, Russia was the clear leader in global space launches, but after that, the United States (with its burgeoning commercial industry) and China pulled even. The situation worsened in 2018, when Russian launched just 20 orbital rockets. In doing so, Russia fell to a distant third place behind China (39 launches) and the United States (27). As demand for the Russian Proton and other launch vehicles declines, this disparity may only widen further in the future.

“Our space industry could be a commercial success, but Russia is far from that at present,” the prime minister said. “We must not forget that spaceflight is a huge marketplace where real competition exists, so we need to work seriously in order to remain in the market. Our rocket and space industry can and must become a commercial success in today’s conditions. We are for the time being far from it.”

Also at the meeting was Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who oversees Russia’s Military Industrial Complex, which includes the space program. He made similar comments during the meeting and afterward with journalists. While Russia should have ambitious goals in space, they must be grounded in reality, Borisov said.

“We must also contemplate a lunar landing and the exploration of deep space, but all of these goals must be part of an overarching strategy, not just populism and grandiose projections,” he said. “The space industry today is fairly commercially successful in the world, and we must approach issues of space exploration and providing all space services with a certain amount of practicality.”

It’s not clear how Rogozin, who has had a sometimes pugnacious personality on the international stage, will react to these criticisms. However, his problems come at a crucial time in the US-Russia partnership in space. Later this year, or early in 2020, NASA will begin using privately developed commercial vehicles to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. This will deprive the Russian space program of a key source of its revenue amidst its financial crisis.

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