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Russian space program still plagued by numerous problems

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Mon Mar 3, 2008 9:40 am
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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) – The development of Russia’s high-tech sector, primarily the national space program, resembles a Camel Trophy race, while official reports do not always reflect the real situation.

In late February, Anatoly Perminov, director of the Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos), told the respected Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Space News) magazine that he positively assessed the results of Russia’s space exploration in 2007. He said that all projects had been financed in line with official programs.

According to him, successful efforts were made to implement the federal space program until 2006-2015, to deploy the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) and to expand national space centers under federal target programs.

The following Russian joke highlights a tendency to divide any problem into many aspects. A duty officer told the regimental commander that everything, except one mere trifle, was all right. However, it later turned out that the unit banner was missing.

With the exception of two mere trifles, the 2007 space program has yielded mostly positive results. In late November, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who oversees the space program and the high-tech sector, severely criticized the work of Roskosmos. He said the agency had completed all Soviet-era projects and was no longer able to manufacture up-to-date and competitive products. On New Year’s Eve, Ivanov told a meeting of the Roskosmos board that the agency had failed to fulfil the GLONASS program.

In mid-February, the Audit Chamber’s board assessed Roskosmos operations and said GLONASS was unlikely to offer serious competition to the U.S. GPS (Global Positioning System) Navstar system. The Audit Chamber also annulled the results of a 2006 tender for developing the new-generation Kliper spacecraft.

In effect, the Audit Chamber doubts the widely advertised commercial aspects of the GLONASS program.

Roskosmos, the main agency implementing this program, has repeatedly mentioned the impressive advantages of its brainchild, claiming that GLONASS would be cheaper and more competitive than GPS Navstar, would feature better receivers and provide more precise coordinates.

Perminov told a news conference on New Year’s Eve that the market had shuddered when the first Russian-made GLONASS receivers were offered for sale. This is rather unusual because GPS Navstar has been catering to hundreds of millions of users worldwide, including Russia, for several decades. Moreover, one multi-service GPS package costs only a few dollars and is quite a match for the 100-200 unwieldy GLONASS receivers that are inferior in every respect.

To be honest, anyone familiar with Russian roads would hesitate before seriously talking about the commercial success of GLONASS.

National security is an entirely different story because the Russian Armed Forces require their own navigation systems that would not depend on GPS providers. However, airlines all over the world, including Russia, rely heavily on the GPS Navstar system, and it would be impossible to change this situation.

Although GPS receivers have become extremely popular with the world’s motorists, Russia has only 600,000 kilometers of paved roads, while the minimal nationwide requirement is 1,200,000 kilometers. European Russia has eight times less roads than Poland and seven times less than Latvia. The situation east of the Urals range is even more deplorable. Arctic regions and other areas with the same status account for 60% of Russian territory and for just 15% of the country’s roads.

It appears that the ambitious GLONASS network will have very few users here.

Roskosmos used to advertise the Kliper spacecraft as a replacement for the obsolete Soyuz taxis until August 2006, when the new system, developed by the Rocket & Space Corporation Energia headed by Nikolai Sevastyanov, was rejected completely.

Exorbitant R&D costs and the seemingly unattractive winged design were cited as the main reasons for scrapping the Kliper project. Consequently, the Russian space program, which sorely needs a new transport system, has been hurled back. And it is absolutely unclear when a new spacecraft will appear.

In early February, Vitaly Lopota, the newly appointed Energia CEO, told respected daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the R&D effort still continued. He said that the spacecraft design would be unveiled before August and that it would take at least six to seven years to develop a new spacecraft.

Lopota hinted politely that Roskosmos should not impose the space-capsule concept on designers. It is common knowledge that the space-capsule concept had been proposed as an alternative to Kliper, advocated by the rebellious Sevastyanov.

The year 2007 can largely be called successful in terms of space exploration. However, the Audit Chamber believes that Roskosmos programs are not market-oriented.

Sergei Ivanov is right in saying that the long-term guidelines of the national space program’s development will be determined in 2008. This probably implies that we can retreat no longer.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Copyright 2008 RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

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