A Cosmonaut Is Demoted And Russia’s Star-Crossed Space Agency Lurches. Again.

International Space Station file photo

(Article text ©2021 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Mike Eckel – July 20, 2021 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/russia-space-agency-scandals/31368764.html)

There was the mysterious man-made hole that appeared in a Russian-built module of the International Space Station. There was the satellite-carrying rocket that failed because it was mistakenly programmed as if it were blasting off 6,200 kilometers to the west. There was the emergency landing following the unsuccessful launch of a rocket carrying a Russian and an American aboard a Soyuz capsule. There was the report that $400 million went missing last year.

Now add this to the litany of woes roiling Russia’s space agency: A respected former cosmonaut was demoted last month, reportedly after he questioned the agency’s decision to let a major Russian action movie be shot on the orbital station. The move prompted unusual public pushback from Russia’s professional cosmonaut corps.

As U.S. private companies rush to build new space vehicles, and China’s space agency pushes new frontiers of exploration, Roskosmos, the state-owned corporation that is heir to the venerable science know-how that gave the world Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, is sputtering in the 21st century.

“You might say this is a failing space agency,” said Douglas Loverro, a former head of NASA’s human spaceflight program and former Pentagon official overseeing U.S. space policy. Loverro lays blame largely at the feet of Dmitry Rogozin, who’s been the director of Roskosmos since 2018.

“Rogozin has created a mess. There’s a lack of funding, the lack of true purpose…for Roskosmos. They haven’t articulated a plan. What are they going to do with the International Space Station? Where are they going? What are their priorities?” Loverro told RFE/RL.

Roskosmos did not respond to e-mails from RFE/RL with a list of questions about Rogozin and about the company’s operations.

Workhorse Technology

Formerly known as the Roskosmos State Corporation for Space Activities, the state-owned company in its current form came into existence in 2015 as part of a wholesale reorganization of the Russian space industry — essentially a consolidation and a nationalization combined.

Rogozin, a former journalist who has served as ambassador to NATO and as a deputy prime minister and who was openly critical of the country’s space program, took the post of director-general three years later. With an estimated budget of around $2.8 billion, as of 2020, the company holds essentially a monopoly on the civilian aerospace industry, overlapping only with the military demands of the Defense Ministry and armed forces.

The workhorse technology used in its capsules and rocket designs is considered old, but reliable. First developed by the Soviets in the mid-1960s, the engineering designs have powered more than 1,700 manned and unmanned launches, making the Soyuz capsule the most-used launch vehicle in the world by far.

For the better part of the 2010s, Roskosmos also held a monopoly on transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The U.S. decision to ground its aging space shuttle fleet in 2011 meant U.S. and European astronauts relied solely on Soyuz capsules to commute to the orbiting station. Cargo supplies went on Russian-built Progress craft.

It was enormously lucrative for Roskosmos, with NASA paying up to $100 million per ride.

Russia for years was a dominant player in the commercial satellite launch industry. And it was also a singular source for rocket engines in another area: American commercial and military satellite launches — something that has bothered some U.S. defense officials and members of Congress for years.

After Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, pressure mounted in Congress to more quickly wean U.S. satellite launches from the engines, known as RD-180s. The United States is to officially cease using the RD-180 next year — slicing revenues for the manufacturer, NPO Energomash, which is now part of the Roskosmos conglomerate.

The advent of private, mainly U.S.-based space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin also deprives Roskosmos of a steady revenue stream from U.S. taxpayers. Following the March 2020 delivery of U.S. astronauts to the ISS by a SpaceX craft, NASA has moved to end the purchase of seats on Soyuz flights for U.S. astronauts.

Despite acrimonious relations between Washington and Moscow, the Russian and U.S. space agencies have continued to work together; in June, the two sides extended, until 2030, a cooperation agreement that largely centers on the continued operation of the ISS.

But Rogozin, who himself is under U.S. and EU financial sanctions related to the seizure of Crimea, has threatened to pull Roskosmos out of joint work on the station early. “Either we work together, and then the sanctions must be lifted immediately, or we will not work together and then we will deploy our own station,” he was quoted as saying in June.

More tellingly, Rogozin has complained that U.S. sanctions are hurting efforts to develop Russia’s space industry. Two major Roskosmos subsidiaries — TsNIIMash and Progress — were blacklisted by the U.S. Commerce Department last year.

“We have more than enough rockets, but there’s nothing to launch,” he was quoted as telling Russian lawmakers last month.

Rogozin also signaled that Moscow would be looking elsewhere for new partners, and in March, the agency signed an agreement with China’s space agency to build a base on or around the moon — a rebuff to NASA’s invitations for Russia to join a similar U.S.-led lunar effort known as Artemis.

Roskosmos said it made around 12 billion rubles ($160 million) in profit in 2020, according to Maksim Ovchinnikov, its top economics and finance officer. He also said the company had reduced its workforce by some 10,000 employees since 2019.

From Baikonur To Vostochny

Despite drawing on vast infrastructure, decades of experience, and world-class engineering talent, the past few years have dented Roskosmos’s reputation.

Russia’s main launch facility is located in Kazakhstan, at Baikonur, a legacy of the Soviet Union but one that makes the Kremlin nervous about losing access.

The Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far Eastern Amur region is supposed to complement, or even replace, Baikonur. But construction, which started in 2011, has been rife with corruption, embezzlement, production delays, and strikes by workers over unpaid wages. Its budget has ballooned past $7.5 billion and counting.

Prosecutors have opened a series of criminal investigations into the spaceport’s construction companies, amid allegations that money has been siphoned off to offshore accounts, leaving workers unpaid.

Just eight launch attempts have taken place from Vostochny. At the inaugural launch in April 2016, which President Vladimir Putin attended, engineers canceled blast-off minutes prior — a move that was seen as embarrassing for Putin and Roskosmos.

Earlier this year, Aleksei Kudrin, the head of Russia’s Audit Chamber and a former longtime finance minister, told Putin that auditors had turned up 30 billion rubles ($400 million) in financial irregularities at Roskosmos in 2020.

Though Kudrin gave no specifics, the meeting was televised on state TV, a signal of its political significance.

In June, Yury Roslyak, a deputy director at Roskosmos with oversight of Vostochny’s construction, was removed from his post — a move that followed Russian news reports about new embezzlement investigations for unfulfilled contracts.

2018, however, was an epic year for the agency.

That August, the crew on the ISS discovered a tiny hole in a Russian segment of the station, around 2 millimeters in diameter, that was causing a leak of oxygen. Roskosmos later announced the hole appeared to be man-made, though it was unclear if it had occurred in space or on the ground during assembly.

Rogozin raised eyebrows in Washington when he suggested that one of the U.S. astronauts might have done it deliberately; one American crew member shot back with a TV interview. “I can unequivocally say that the crew had nothing to do with this on orbit,” commander Drew Feustel told the U.S. television network ABC from on board the station.

“We certainly don’t want to ever see that happen again,” he added. “And I hope the teams on the ground do proper due diligence in trying to solve this problem because the implications are enormous to the whole space program, not only to us in the U.S. but also in Russia and internationally for all the partners.”

To date, Roskosmos has not released the findings of its probe. The agency did not respond to RFE/RL’s inquiries on this and other questions.

In April, NASA said the investigation was completed, but gave no further details.

“Roskosmos identified the hole as being in a Soyuz module and briefed NASA about it, but you should contact Roskosmos for specific questions,” spokesman Sean Potter told RFE/RL in an e-mail.

Two months after the discovery of the hole, a Russian rocket that blasted off from Baikonur carrying a two-man Russian-American crew malfunctioned, prompting an emergency landing on the Kazakh steppe. There were no injuries.

It was the demotion of one of Russia’s best-known cosmonauts in June that drew an unusually public hue and cry, and put the spotlight back on Roskosmos’s management.

In May, Roskosmos announced it was sending a well-known TV director and a famous actress to shoot a feature film on the orbiting station. Rogozin was named as a co-producer.

The decision reportedly sparked dissent, including from Sergei Krikalyov, a famous cosmonaut best known for being temporarily stranded on the Soviet space station Mir in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.

‘Yachts And Vanity Fairs’

Now a top executive with Roskosmos, Krikalyov reportedly objected to spending budgetary funds on the project, particularly given budget cutbacks. According to the newspaper Novaya gazeta, that pushback resulted in his demotion on June 11.

“It seems that Roskosmos’s current leaders are scared to have a host of people who understand space well. Therefore, knowing Sergei Krikalyov, I am not overly surprised by his dismissal. I am really impressed with how long he held on in this system,” another cosmonaut, Fyodor Yurchikhin, told Novaya gazeta.

Krikalyov could not be reached for comment.

“Rogozin was sent in there, as best as I can tell, to politically clean Roskosmos up, which had become too bureaucratic for its own good,” Loverro said. “Rogozin is making sure that Roskosmos is aligned with policy. It’s not about if it’s run well, it’s about: ‘Is it aligned with Russia’s national policy?'”

For the moment, Russia has virtually no private space industry, and dwindling budgets means turning to other revenue sources, like partnerships with China’s more robust and ambitious efforts.

After British billionaire Richard Branson flew to the edge of space on July 11 on a private spacecraft funded by his company, Virgin Galactic, Rogozin appeared to call out Russia’s own superrich tycoons to join the development of the country’s space industry.

“I hope that one day our billionaire oligarchs will start spending their money not on more yachts and vanity fairs, but on the development of space technologies and knowledge about space,” he said on Twitter.