Energia-ology: Is Sevastianov about to fall from grace?

One regret that Cold War watchers had with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the end of Kremlinology, the “science” that attempted to ascertain Soviet intentions from the few photographed appearences and statements of the then ruling Communist Party’s leadership.
The era of Yeltsin and the rather chaotic form of democracy that embraced Russia in those final years of the twentieth century seemed to end forever the characteristics of Russian society that led to the western perception of it being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – to quote UK primeminister Sir Winston Churchill.
But the rise of Vladimir Putin and the return of the country’s security-military complex, that largely ran the Soviet Union, as the central organising power within Russian society has returned many loved emblems of “the old times”, for example the year 2000 return of the National Anthem of the Soviet Union, originally called the Anthem of the Bolshevik Party, as Russia’s official national song.
One other emblem is the mysterious rise and fall of individuals and factions within the higher echelons of Russian society, whether they be involved business or politics.
The Russian space industry, like the nation’s oil companies, falls under both, having increasingly heavy government interest in its fortunes while operating in a commercial market.
And its looking very likely that the latest victim of this will be Nikolai Nikolaevich Sevastianov, president and designer general of the Moscow area based S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia.Sevastianov, apparently a one time director of the Gascom satellite communication joint venture of Energia and Gazkom, replaced Yuri Semyonov, a man in his 70s, long time head of Energia, in May 2005 after what some claim was a power struggle.
This was between the Kremlin, who backed Sevastianov, and the supporters, well Energia employees, of Semyonov, a man that represented the generation that saw Russia take leadership in space.
Why a power struggle? The theory goes that in the political chaos of the Yeltsin years Energia had become the true leader of the Russian space programme and not Russia’s space agency, known as Roskosmos. Semyonov was running the show but in the wake of savage space spending cuts by the economic wreck that was post-Soviet Union Russia Energia eventually went into the red on its balance sheets – and that was enough for Putin’s team to move in.
However two years is a long time in Kremlin politics and Sevastianov is according to state owned Russian media sources now getting to know how Semyonov felt.
Sevastianov is being ousted by the very people who put him there. Colonel General Anatoly Perminov had been appointed chief of Rosksomos in March 2003, after years as Commander of Russia’s Space Forces.
It was his Roskosmos that saw Sevastianov replace Semyonov but this new partnership between government agency and leading aerospace company does not seem to have been a good one.
Attending aerospace events I had noticed one interesting aspect of Russian space programme press conferences, how Sevastianov and Perminov never sat on the same platform together. Seeing NASA and its contractors have joint press conferences is so common its just not note worthy. But I noticed, especially at the Farnborough air show 2006, that Sevastianov was reduced to sitting in the audience when Perminov was on the platform. When Sevastianov was speaking, Perminov was not even in the room.
Why the breakdown? Sevastianov’s announcements over the last two years have often sounded less like a businessmen promoting his products and more like a politician making grandiose statements about glorious plans for space conquest.
There seemed to be two different messages coming from Energia and Roskosmos. Sevastianov had a fantastic message with his Clipper (or Kliper as we call it here at Flight and much of the world has adopted that spelling), a winged mini shuttle, to replace the tried and tested Soyuz capsule and his $100 million lunar tourist trips using his new vehicle.
Roskosmos, meanwhile, with its ten-year space programme, had focused on the societal needs of Russia. Its announcements were about a revived navigation constellation, replacement telecommunication and broadcasting satellites, Earth observation projects and other endeavours with obvious material benefit for the wider Russian society. I got to learn more about this when I was in Russia with the Moscow Bauman State Technical University on a week tour of Moscow area space companies.
Sevastianov seemed to make the big mistake of megaphone diplomacy to push his ideas about what Russia’s space programme should be. Perhaps he had “gone native” once he was among the engineers at Energia? There must be some reason why he became another Semyonov.
Talking to senior Russian space industry sources recently they confirmed that Sevastinov’s days are numbered. To be perfectly honest I was not surprised having met Perminov on a number of occasions now and after hearing Sevastianov speak at various events.
Another indication of Sevastianov’s future was the ups and downs in Kliper’s popularity with the European Space Agency – see my blog dated 23 November 2005. It and its member states have been signing various deals with Russia on various aspects of space technology and co-operation.
ESA was all for Kliper when it was first proposed but as time went on and Roskosmos and Energia and ESA discussed this project that enthusiasm waned, especially in the capitals of the major western European space powers of France and Germany and Italy.
A signal that Kliper and Sevastianov were in trouble was when Roskosmos started talking about a two-stage process for Kliper, and officially this is still the case. Kliper being the second, post-2010, stage of a space transportation programme that begins with Soyuz improvements. Can Sevastianov make a sentence out of, grass, long, kicked, Kliper, into?
So Sevastianov’s days were probably already numbered when Roskosmos made this change and pushed Kliper aside, agreeing to the lunar Soyuz, Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS) project with ESA. The lack of enthusiasm by ESA probably allowed Roskosmos to push Sevastianov and his pet Kliper project to one side as well.
Personally I think ESA’s enthusiasm with Kliper and plans for a lunar capable version of Soyuz have more to do with political positioning to rally support within the Russian government and industry for the agreements the western European space coalition really want.
So don’t be too surprised if ESA’s ministers kill off the CSTS project at their 2008 ministerial conference.
Whether you like President Putin’s Russia or not, its new found oil wealth and increased spaceflight investment is going to bring about a more lively and interesting Russian scene with the added spice of Kremlinology, much missed for more than a decade.

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