Fifty years ago this week, Russia launched the first satellite spacecraft and began the space race. Now, after years in the doldrums, its industry is resurgent
Five decades after the launch of Sputnik created one of the 20th century's biggest geopolitical shockwaves, Russia's space industry is still recovering from the Soviet Union's collapse 16 years ago. And that pioneering satellite's manufacturer Energia has not escaped the turmoil.
While the world's space agencies discuss the co-ordinated exploration of the Moon in the next 20 years, Russia's Federal Space Agency is still working to rebuild a space infrastructure suffering the after-effects of the last decade.
Since the 1990s, when it cancelled the Mir 2 space station, Russia has struggled with larger internal reforms. "The workforce fell by three-quarters. Budgets collapsed and most of the money allocated never actually arrived. Parts of the cosmodromes fell into disuse and became overgrown. Suppliers went unpaid and wages ran long into arrears. Artifacts of the 1960s were sold in public auction in a desperate effort to raise funds," says Brian Harvey, an expert on Russian space programmes.
An industry that stretches geographically from Moscow-based rocket maker Khrunichev and propulsion company NPO Energomash, to manned spaceflight specialist Energia in Korolev and satellite manufacturer NPO PM in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, has faced oblivion and survived.
The one step forward during the 1990s was Russian president Boris Yeltsin's decision to join the US International Space Station programme - a project that would, 10 years later, deliver unexpected income from US taxpayers. But in the 1990s, to survive, Russian industry had to embrace the commercialisation of its once secret technology.
Jerry Grey, a visiting professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, was advisor to then Atlas rocket manufacturer General Dynamics in 1992, and remembers how Russian engines came to be used for a US launcher carrying military payloads. "[The GD science advisory board recommended] this would be an excellent approach to resolve one of Atlas's major shortcomings, too-low acceleration on launch, due to the relatively low thrust of the Rocketdyne three-engine booster rockets. So we recommended [that GD give] Energomash the $100,000 development contract they were asking for."
That supply of engines continues today and, after three five-year plans stretching from the industry's nadir of 1991, there are still 112 space companies within Russia. Once state-owned, many have been privatised as joint-stock entities, with ownership shared between investors and the FSA.
Like the previous two five-year plans that ran from 1991 to 2000, the 2001-5 plan saw the industry struggle with inadequate funding, achieving just 40% of the objectives and with only 73% of the necessary financing provided. The satellite industry secured few orders and no Earth-observation satellites were put into orbit, requiring Moscow to rely on its remaining military assets. Russia did replace some communications satellites, but only because without them it would have lost control of critical frequencies registered with the International Telecommunications Union.
Rocket manufacturers fared no better, as the 2001-5 plan saw the delay or abandonment of projects for new launchers. But the improved Samara-built Soyuz 2-1a did achieve its maiden flight in November 2004 and the launcher's Fregat upper stage entered service. And while Khrunichev's Proton rocket gained new capability with the Breeze-M upper stage, its new Angara family of common-booster rockets to replace the Soyuz languished in development.
Angara was supposed to fly by 2008, but first flight is now unlikely until the end of the decade. Today Samara's Soyuz is seeing ongoing upgrades that mean its -2 variant will match the capability of the planned Angara 3, raising questions as to why the FSA would want to spend money to have two launchers that do the same thing.
Today Russia is providing more realistic funding of its new space infrastructure, following the launch in 2005 of the government's first ever R305 billion ($12.2 billion) 10-year plan. Angara is now just one piece in a broader plan that includes replenishing constellations for fixed and mobile communications, broadcasting and Earth observation maintaining the cosmodromes science missions for Mars, the Moon and the Sun satellite technology demonstrations a new manned spacecraft and completion of the Russian segment of the ISS.
Launching the 2006-15 plan, FSA head Anatoly Perminov said he also wanted Russian industry to gain a greater share of the world space services market. While Russia has a leading position as a launch provider, the FSA admits that is only up to 10% of the total space market. One major player should be the state-owned communications and broadcasting satellite operator Kosmicheskaya Svyas - it already has 80% of Russia's market - but it is not clear from the 10-year plan how it can meet the target of growing its global market share.
As a first step to service market expansion, the Moscow government has announced that the signals from its military Glonass global navigation satellite system will be available to civil users, just as the US military's GPS already is and the European Union's Galileo will be. However Glonass is paid for and managed under its own project separate from the FSA, and remains an example of Russian industrial weakness. Such is the state of the Russian electronics industry that Moscow has had to purchase technology for Glonass from French company Alcatel. Now the failure of the Proton Breeze-M on 6 September may delay the launch of Glonass replacement satellites.
Boosted by Russia's oil wealth, the military space forces budget is a potential revenue stream for the recovering space industry, but its priorities are shrouded in secrecy. And not all the industry's problems can be solved with more cash for civil and military programmes.
The dismissal of Nikolai Sevastianov as Energia president in July is indicative of the ongoing governance issues. Sevastianov's appointment in 2005 was supposed to be a key pointer to the intent for the 10-year plan to reorganise the Soviet industry and make it more competitive. But the plan has not become a rationalisation process. Instead, senior Russian space industry sources tell Flight International that it has become more of a voluntary plan for major companies, such as Energia and Khrunichev, to seek amalgamation with subcontractors.
Unfortunately for Energia, the lure of space tourism and extravagant projects such as the doomed mini-shuttle Kliper were more attractive than supplier management. Sevastianov, a man from the post-Sputnik generation, spent the company's funds on these pet projects, driving the prime contractor deeper into the red. This was not the plan when his predecessor, general designer Yuri Semenov, was fired for putting the company into debt.
A new page
With Sevastianov gone, and perhaps with an eye to October's 50th anniversary, Perminov announced on 31 August a 30-year vision to 2040 for a space industry serving a 21st century Russia with a rapidly growing oil-fed economy. Looking beyond the current 10-year plan to 2015, one of the vision's first targets is a new man-rated rocket and launch site by the middle of the next decade, ostensibly for a new-generation Soyuz capsule.
This next-generation capsule and launcher will service a new Russian space station that will operate after 2016 whether or not the ISS is de-orbited as planned that year. And the new spacecraft could be capable of manned missions to the Moon by 2025 and servicing a permanent lunar outpost from 2032 at the latest.
Even more speculatively, Perminov foresees manned Mars missions after 2035 using huge interplanetary spacecraft assembled in Earth orbit a task that the new Russian station would perform after its completion in 2025.
But for now, Russia is benefiting from US transport needs to the ISS and from space tourism. Since 2001 it has launched one space tourist a year, allegedly for a price tag of $20 million or more, and has a queue of customers for future trips. And in April this year the FSA signed a contract with NASA worth an extra $700 million for ISS services up to 2011.
"In the short term, with the advent of the six-person ISS crew [from 2009], it will mean more manned missions, which means more flight opportunities," says Rex Hall, chairman of UK space exploration advocacy group the British Interplanetary Society's Soviet and Chinese space programmes forum.
Another tie-up that could bolster the coffers of Russia's manned spaceflight contractors is the joint ESA/FSA Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS) project. Energia and a European aerospace consortium met for the first CSTS industrial meeting on 3 September. The current preparatory phase will see a vehicle design selected, probably a development of Russia's Soyuz-TMA.
The biggest issue for CSTS is not so much its design, but which country and industry will get what share of the vehicle and funding. When the FSA and ESA discussed using the now-aborted Energia Kliper, Perminov said Europe could provide control and cabin systems, while Russia would provide the engines and structure. But such a work breakdown was a stumbling block for ESA members' involvement and under CSTS it is likely that European companies like EADS Astrium, Thales Alenia Space will provide more than the electronics.
Launching Russia's new space vision in August, Perminov described the new manned spacecraft as being a Russian project with help from ESA. This may be because continued ESA involvement will depend on a decision at the agency's ministerial conference in the fourth quarter of 2008.
Watching the chinese
As well as a new Russian manned spacecraft, Hall expects "that when [ISS] has had its time it will be deserted and a new space station be launched which will be [a] Mir 2. Russian national pride is a big player here and seeing what China does, Russia would not want to be behind them."
While pro-space US Congressman bang the table at the prospect of a Chinese manned Moon landing, Hall believes the reality in the next decade is probably an Asian-only space race. Russia will want to stand shoulder to shoulder with superpower-to-be India, which is planning a post-2010 human spaceflight capability, and China, which wants its own space station in a similar timeframe.
After the trauma of the 1990s, Russia remains the most frequent satellite launcher and its successful Soyuz rocket is being readied for commercial launches from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana. And as the world's space agencies draw up plans for a lunar outpost, Russian technology is expected to feature prominently. The simple signal from a small satellite, received 50 years ago this month, will echo far into the future.