Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Russia Dissolves Its Federal Space Agency, What Now?

Igor Komarov, head of Roscosmos. Credit: TASS

Russian president Vladimir Putin officially put an end to the country’s Federal Space Agency Roscosmos on Monday, Dec. 28, by signing a decree dissolving the agency. The decree comes into force on Jan. 1, 2016, when the space agency will be replaced by Roscosmos State Corporation, which was established earlier this year. So, what does that actually mean for the space industry?

The change is a part of a reorganization of the Russian space sector started in 2013. In August 2013, the United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC) was formed by the Russian government to renationalize the country’s space sector. The Federal Space Agency is now merging with URSC to create Roscosmos State Corporation. Igor Komarov, the former CEO of URSC and the current chief of Roscosmos will lead the new entity.

The new organization will be run as a corporation, controlling the entire space industry. It should ensure the continuity of powers and functions to be handed over from the dissolved federal space agency. However, the reorganization process itself is unlikely to bring any radical changes.

“The Russian Federation Government has been instructed to ensure continuity in carrying out the powers and functions being transferred to Roscosmos that had previously been performed by the abolished Federal Space Agency, and to resolve financial, support and other issues pertaining to implementation of the Executive Order,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

Putin instructed the Cabinet of Ministers to resolve other financial, material, technical and other issues in connection with the implementation of his decree. In the near future the government should carry out liquidation procedures, as well as provide the agency's employees with legal guarantees and compensation.

Putin’s move to centralize Russian space sector is a response to a series of problems strangling the country’s space industry. Roscosmos is trying to recover from a series of setbacks including mission failures, delays, corruption and bureaucracy issues. 

On Dec. 5, the Kanopus-ST satellite failed to separate from the launch vehicle what resulted in the loss of the spacecraft designed to observe the Earth. Earlier this year, on May 16, a Russian Proton-M booster that was intended to deliver a Mexican communications satellite into orbit, exploded shortly after liftoff. Each failure caused serious delays for Russian space programs. What is significant is that Proton-M vehicles have suffered four malfunctions since 2012. This streak of failures was a major prerequisite for government officials to start considering reorganization and reforms of the space sector.

After one of the accidents in July 2013, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the space industry said that the failure-prone space sector is so troubled that it needs state supervision to overcome its problems. The Russian government has announced that extremely harsh measures would be taken and “spell the end of the Russian space industry as we know it”.

The Russian space industry is also suffering from corruption, financial problems and bureaucracy, what is seen very clearly in the process of construction of the country’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome. The corruption investigations and lawsuits, hunger strikes over unpaid wages and anti-competitive collusion when choosing subcontractors, have delayed the scheduled opening of the spaceport several times.

Russian officials hope that the newly launched Roscosmos State Corporation will overcome these difficulties.

“There will no longer be so much bureaucracy. Everything will now be part of a state corporation which will design new spacecraft and implement new projects by itself," Rogozin said.

However the main challenges for the new state-run corporation could be budget cuts and competitiveness on the commercial launch market. The updated version of the Federal Space Program (FSP) for 2016-2025, suspends the Russian manned lunar exploration program. Roscosmos would rather focus on the development of a new super-heavy space rocket for deep space exploration purposes. The corporation has already begun the work on this rocket’s first stage, named Fenix.

Roscosmos State Corporation will seek solutions to minimize spending on spacecraft launches to compete with commercial launch providers. Rogozin believes that such solutions will be found. Cheaper orbital launches will help Roscosmos to attract more commercial customers, currently choosing companies like SpaceX and Arianespace to send their payload into orbit.

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