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Energia and Buran
The Energia launch vehicle and Buran space shuttle on the launch pad, during better days for the Energia company. (credit: RSC Energia)

Death throes and grand delusions

After the Cold War ended and capitalism came to the former Soviet Union, a lot of Russians had a difficult time adapting. Westerners visiting Moscow in the early 1990s reported seeing pensioners on the street selling possessions to make money. But the things they were selling were junk: rusty bolts, broken cups, pieces of unidentifiable household objects. It was not simply that these people were poor and had nothing else to sell; the real problem was that they had no concept of what capitalism meant. They did not realize that what mattered more is what people wanted to buy, rather than what you had to sell.

Many Russian industries experienced the same shock, discovering that the things that they believed were valuable had no worth in a capitalist economy. In the heady days of the early 1990s, many Western aerospace firms (not to mention the CIA) went to Russia on a buying spree, hoping to cash in on advanced Russian space technologies. What they discovered were a lot of advanced technologies, such as space nuclear reactors, that had no commercial value. Naturally, Western companies were interested in Soviet-era technologies that could be converted to commercial use. Russian communications satellites were of little value and Russian imagery satellites were not for sale. Russian rockets, however, had more to offer, and it was not long before Western companies signed deals—approved by the US State Department, of course—to utilize the powerful Proton rocket built by the Khrunichev design bureau.

While struggling through the post-Cold War world, Energia’s leadership still clung to the hope that the former Soviet space program would rise once again, and they kept pitching expensive space projects to a Russian government that was dead broke.

The most famous Russian space development corporation, however, was Energia, which had built the Buran space shuttle, the Soyuz spacecraft, and the heavy-lift Energia rocket. However, Energia had two problems when it came to working in this new capitalist environment. The company’s first problem was that its goods were not particularly attractive to American buyers. The Energia rocket, for instance, was far too big for any reasonable commercial payload, although the company’s leaders did want to find customers who wanted to use it and even produced large color posters depicting the rocket on its launch pad. Recognizing that their rocket might be too big, in the early 1990s Energia proposed a downscaled version called the Energia-M, which was capable of placing up to 34,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit, or approximately twice as much as any other commercial rocket then in service. Nobody wanted to buy the Energia-M either.

But there was another problem with Energia as well. Those Westerners who were trying to make inroads into Russian aerospace found that working with Khrunichev and Energia was like night and day. Khrunichev was open, accommodating, and interested in cooperation with Western firms. Energia was in many ways still fighting the Cold War.

Energia’s leadership was not very interested in Western business and its forays into capitalism were little more inspired than the little old lady sitting on the Moscow sidewalk trying to sell rusty widgets. Western aerospace engineers returned from trips to Russia with stories about how Energia’s massive atmospheric test chambers were being used to dry firewood to generate revenue.

By 1993 the United States and Russia had signed an agreement for the use of the Proton rocket for launching Western satellites to geosynchronous orbits. Soon the Proton was carrying Western satellites into space, followed by the Zenit and the Soyuz—none of them built by Energia.

While struggling through the post-Cold War world, Energia’s leadership still clung to the hope that the former Soviet space program would rise once again, and they kept pitching expensive space projects to a Russian government that was dead broke. They sought to continue flying the Buran space shuttle into space and using it to construct a new “Mir-2” space station. Other plans were even less realistic—by the early 1990s the company was pushing the idea of launching three massive 18,000-kilogram communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit. This was supposed to help modernize Russia’s communications infrastructure, with each satellite hosting tens of thousands of telephone channels and lasting for ten years. Critics pointed out that there were many flaws with this idea. For starters, Energia had not built many communications satellites before and had never built a satellite that lasted anywhere near ten years. The massive comsat would be the most sophisticated satellite ever built. And what if it never reached orbit? The risks of a launch failure were immense.

In addition to the giant comsat, the company proposed a massive reconnaissance/arms control satellite and a massive land-monitoring satellite. Energia’s leadership also proposed a number of projects that would have made The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns salivate with envy: a city-illuminating satellite, nuclear waste disposal satellites, and a fleet of ozone replacement satellites that would rebuild the ozone layer over Antarctica by bombarding the atmosphere with fancy devices called “lasers.”

Energia did receive some new infusions of money in the latter 1990s as a result of the International Space Station program. But for the most part the company limped on, a pale imitation of its former greatness.

Unfortunately, despite many years of experience, Energia’s leadership appears to have learned little about grand plans that are unsupported by the Russian government. A recent staff shakeup that installed new vice presidents at the company may hint at things to come, and there are widespread rumors in the Russian space community that Energia’s president may soon be replaced.

The story is not quite as complex as a Russian novel, but it is odd. In May 2005 Energia’s longtime president, Yuri Semyonov, was pushed out of the leadership position that he had held since 1991. He was replaced by Nikolai Sevastyanov. Semyonov was the favorite of the company’s employees and had been involved in the development of the Buran as well as all of the country’s space stations from Salyut to participation in the ISS. But Semyonov was old and, more importantly, viewed as stubbornly resistant to change by the leadership of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos.

Sevastyanov made no secret of the fact that one of his goals was to make Energia a leader in the extraction of helium-3 from the Moon’s surface to power Earth’s nonexistent fusion reactors.

Sevastyanov was much younger and also the favorite of the Roscosmos leadership. More importantly, he was considered to be a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had worked for Energia from 1984 to 1993. He had then worked for Gazprom, the giant Russian natural gas company that Putin had regained control of early in his term. More specifically, he worked for Gazkom, a telecommunications subsidiary of Gazprom. Sevastyanov was no poseur—he had the credentials of a genuine space engineer—but his ascension at Energia was widely viewed as a move by Putin to put one of his people in control of a company in which the federal government owns a 38% percent stake, and to bring it to heel.

But while Sevastyanov was a Putin crony, he was also a space cadet. He made no secret of the fact that one of his goals was to make Energia a leader in the extraction of helium-3 from the Moon’s surface to power Earth’s nonexistent fusion reactors. In the two years since becoming head of Energia, Sevastyanov has announced an ambitious agenda for his company that bears little relationship to reality.

Sevastyanov has announced that Russia will explore the Moon in three stages, starting with a Soyuz spacecraft flight in 2011–2012. This will be followed by the construction of a permanent lunar base. The third stage will involve the “industrial exploration of space around the Earth’s satellite.” That will include transferring environmentally unfriendly industries to the Moon, as well as helium-3 mining. Presumably the Russian government will pay for all of this.

In January, Sevastyanov’s comments about sending humans to Mars drew a rare public rebuke from the Russian space agency. Roscosmos is working on a future space policy strategy that should be completed sometime in 2007. Sevastyanov’s comments about sending humans to Mars were not appreciated by a space agency that still has not developed its long term plans yet.

Although Sevastyanov’s enthusiasm for bold space plans was apparently no secret when he took over the company, his recent comments have gone much further. One possibility is that the robust Russian economy has led him to expect bigger space budgets. Russia’s gross domestic product has grown from $200 billion in 1999 to $1 trillion last year, measured in constant dollars. Much of that can be attributed to increased oil and gas prices worldwide, which directly benefit Russia.

But Sevastyanov’s plans are not supported by Roscosmos and this has created a strange rift in Russian space policy. Whereas Sevastyanov wants to build a new manned spacecraft called the Clipper to replace the ancient Soyuz, Roscosmos will not finance it.

Recently, a Russian cosmonaut confirmed the existence of a massive rift between Roscosmos and Energia. Pavel Vinogradov gave an interview to the Russian space magazine Novosti Kosmonavtiki that undoubtedly ruffled a lot of feathers in the Russian space program. But his comments also apparently reflect the frustrations felt by a lot of those in the Russian space program who feel that if their country was moving any slower in its space program, it would be traveling backwards.

For those who don’t know, Novosti Kosmonavtiki, or Cosmonautics News, is the most professional and comprehensive space magazine in the world. It has thick, glossy, full color pages and detailed articles on numerous space programs around the world, as well as the best information on Russian space programs. Some very insightful articles on the American military space program have appeared between its covers. Alas, it is in Russian, which might as well make it a dead language to Americans who have little affinity for other languages at best, and currently are slightly more preoccupied with learning Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese.

Vinogradov was commander of Expedition 13 to the ISS. In the interview he voiced considerable distress at the state of his country’s space program, the leadership at Energia, and frustrations with the United States. The Russian human space program, Vinogradov said, is in its “death throes,” for which he blamed Roscosmos and its policies toward building more Soyuz spacecraft. Rather than sell Soyuz seats at a profit, Vinogradov says that Roscosmos is selling them at essentially a break-even point. Worse, the agency has agreed to the American policy of increasing the ISS crew to six by 2009 and ramping up production of Soyuz spacecraft to support the larger crew size. The Americans are paying for the Soyuz, but insist that they be the current proven design rather than a modernized version that Energia has proposed.

In Vinogradov’s view, the policy of selling seats on taxi flights to the ISS has a detrimental effect on the cosmonaut corps. Cosmonauts are not getting the flight opportunities that they need because the seats are taken up by foreigners. He thinks that the solution might be to sell dedicated tourist flights instead of simply seats on ISS missions.

Vinogradov’s bitterness about the equipment that he and his fellow cosmonauts are forced to use is palpable.

At the same time that Russia is extending its Soyuz production, Vinogradov notes that the United States is building the Orion spacecraft that can eventually take the place of the Soyuz at the space station. The outcome of these policies is that the Americans will eventually have a new spacecraft whereas Russia will be stuck producing an outdated spacecraft. Somewhat surprisingly, Vinogradov does not view this as a nefarious plot by the Americans. Rather, it is simply the logical outcome of policies pursued by both Russia and the United States. “…In five or six years time the Americans will tell us ‘goodbye’. They're only tolerating us now because they need time to build their Orion. After that they’ll send us you know where with our 40-year old Soyuz,” Vinogradov said.

In the interview, Vinogradov’s bitterness about the equipment that he and his fellow cosmonauts are forced to use is palpable. He noted that his American counterpart on Expedition 13, Jeff Williams, viewed the Soyuz’s primitive systems with disdain. “It's a shock for them. And we’re talking here not just about ordinary people. Many of them are test pilots who’ve been through a lot and have something to compare Soyuz with. When they pulled Jeff out of the return capsule he said: ‘Jesus, is this what you call a soft landing? I wonder what a hard landing is like then…’”

In Vinogradov’s view, Roscosmos’ policy toward the future of Russian manned spaceflight is tremendously shortsighted. “We should already be past the stage of supporting initiatives, we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting down to business,” Vinogradov said.

But while Vinogradov believes that Roscosmos should do more to fund Energia’s proposed Soyuz upgrade and the future Clipper spacecraft, he did not mince words about Energia either. “I get the impression that most people at Energia work just for the sake of working and not to obtain results,” he said. But ultimately, Vinogradov sees the problem as a lack of leadership at Roscosmos.

Vinogradov noted that one of the problems with Roscosmos is that there were not enough cosmonauts in important positions in the Manned Spaceflight directorate. The equivalent NASA division has six of eight key posts filled by former astronauts. “There is not even a single cosmonaut in Roscosmos whatsoever,” he said.

In this candid interview he also said what other people in the Russian space industry have been saying privately for months—Sevastyanov’s proposed plans for Energia have convinced a lot of people that the company is completely out of touch. “I think we’re facing a collapse, the more so because half a year ago Roscosmos’ relations with Energia took a turn for the worse. N.N. Sevastyanov, who was initially supported by [Roscosmos head] A.N. Perminov, began… generating uncomfortable ideas, disturbing the peace at Roskosmos…”

While firing this broadside at Roscosmos and Energia, Vinogradov also voiced an opinion about the utilization of the ISS that sounded like many of the critics of the space station in the United States:

Whereas many members of the Russian space program are quick to blame the United States for ensnaring Russia in what they view as a subservient partnership in the International Space Station, Vinogradov points out that if the Russians want to save their human spaceflight program from its death throes, they will have to do it themselves.

“…Why do we need to increase the size of the crew? What will they be doing? [At a recent meeting of the Council of Chief Designers] Sevastyanov and Solovyov showed only two slides related to experiments. This is exactly what we should be preparing for 2009, to keep the crew occupied with scientific experiments and not just have them service an aging and excessively big station. We are now flying with zero efficiency. We’re carrying out 30-year-old experiments. Even if they are very important, do they move us forward? I have no idea. The Americans are doing experiments that we did back in the Salyut and Mir days. Why? Can’t they find the results [in Russia]? Or don’t they want to? This is amazing. I always thought we have to fly in the interests of science, to produce results needed by many people, and all we’re doing is keeping the station in working order. 62% of our time goes to servicing on-board systems, 15% to personal needs and only 23% to science… One would think that if the crew size is increased those percentages would change in favor of science, but no! The [long] lists of experiments that should be queuing up to be carried out on board are not there, nor will they be in 2009, because money has to be invested in them already now and this is not happening. And so the six-man crew will be wasting its time…”

Vinogradov’s remarks are candid and rare. They appear to reflect a thoughtful—if somewhat bitter—assessment of the current state of Russian space policy. Whereas many members of the Russian space program are quick to blame the United States for ensnaring Russia in what they view as a subservient partnership in the International Space Station, Vinogradov points out that if the Russians want to save their human spaceflight program from its death throes, they will have to do it themselves. They will have to start funding spacecraft upgrades and scientific research, and heal the rifts between their space agency and its primary contractor. And Energia’s leadership will have to realize that what matters is not what the company wants to sell, but what the government wants to buy.


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ISPCS 2014