Russians face their space crisis

Image: Padalka autograph
Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka signs his autograph on a Soyuz capsule after his return from the International Space Station on Sept. 17. After the landing, Padalka complained about the antiquated condition of Russian space hardware.Shamil Zhumatov / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Special to NBC News

A veteran Russian cosmonaut’s cynical and bitter words about the dire state of the Russian space industry seemed to spell his own career’s abrupt end after his return to Earth from the International Space Station. But within a week, his unprecedented public criticism was echoed and elaborated on by Russia's top space officials.

Perhaps telling the truth is catching on in Moscow, but perhaps it's already almost too late to save the Russian space industry. Over the past two years, program leadership has appeared powerless to stop a series of embarrassing failures in spacecraft launchings and flight operations that have cast the future of the entire program in doubt.

At the traditional Russian post-landing press conference on Sept. 21, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka complained about the "spartan" conditions aboard the Russian side of the station, especially as compared with the American side. The conditions were cold, noisy, overstuffed with equipment, and cramped — each Russian had about one-seventh the living space that the American astronauts had. "All of this gives serious inconvenience in the operation of the Russian segment," he said.

Padalka compared the living conditions to the mass housing thrown together in the 1960s by Nikita Khrushchev — housing where many Russian city dwellers still reside. The apartment building is called a "khrushchevka," a bitter word play on both the late Soviet leader's name and on its root meaning, "beetle" (as in "bug house"). As the cosmonaut explained to reporters, he had spent his last three missions totaling about two years in duration aboard a "small-scale khrushchevka."

Padalka found the idea of spending an entire year in space, as has been proposed, to be completely unacceptable without major improvements in crew comfort.

Out-of-date equipment
The equipment, he continued, was reliable and safe but was decades out of date. "Nothing has been done in the 20 years since the foundation of the new Russia," he complained. The Russian space technology is technologically bankrupt and "morally exhausted." It was, he told reporters, "frozen in the last century."

He contrasted those conditions with the spaciousness and modernity of the American modules, and praised the advanced technology he saw there: the robotics experiment ("As always, still under study in Russia") and SpaceX's commercial spacecraft docking, for example.

In recent months, top Russian government officials have argued over exactly how deep the problems go within the Russian space industry. For some, it is a "systemic" crisis due to aging equipment and workers, avoidance of the industry by bright young engineers, and too much reliance on potentially biased "self-checking" of delivered hardware. Other officials deny any industry-wide weakness and attribute the public humiliations to localized problems.

Padalka didn’t care about the origin of the crisis, just that he was at the "point of the spear" where the consequences were sharpest. "Maybe it’s not a systemic crisis," he said, "but nonetheless, a crisis exists, and it is being felt."

He may have felt nearly alone in space, and perhaps speaking out the way he did made him feel even more alone in Moscow. But he wasn’t alone for long.

Vindication from the top
2011 was a rough year for the Russian space industry. In March, a communication glitch forced the delay of a Soyuz launch to the space station. In August, Russia's Express AM-4 satellite was lost after being launched to the wrong orbit, and an unmanned Soyuz rocket carrying cargo to the space station crashed shortly after liftoff. In November, the Mars-bound Phobos-Grunt probe never made it out of Earth orbit, and crashed back down to Earth two months later.

After those setbacks, the Russian government tasked a deputy minister named Dmitri Rogozin to develop a strategy for fixing the aerospace industry's failings. Although his primary aim was defense-related technologies such as missiles, he was also responsible for space technology.

Rogozin developed and published a get-well strategy in March, and by all accounts it was realistic and reasonable. The strategy admitted that the visible setbacks were really consequences of deeper problems. But outside observers worried that it just wasn't possible to fix the problems without resources that the government was reluctant to commit.

Worse, the main problem Rogozin found was actually external to the Russian space industry. He realized that the Russian government didn’t really have any idea what to do with the industrial base left over from Soviet times. He found that Russia wanted to continue human spaceflight with the International Space Station, and also "was planning to fly everywhere" without really understanding why. “There is no architecture of values, no clear understanding of concept,” he complained.

“There is only one main task today,” Rogozin told reporters this month. "Russia must determine its goals in space, what are we seeking?"

To be "provocative," he suggested a manned moon base as a guide to focusing the program.

Otherwise, he observed, there was no way to evaluate which components of the program were really even needed, and which were superfluous. "The industry is excessively large," he pointed out. "In our country, there are several large concerns that simultaneously produce similar products: control systems, launch systems, space satellites, engines. Inside the country, we cannot generate sufficient demand for the industry ourselves, it is working at about half of its capacity, and we also cannot control quality, with such a wide range of products it is impossible to control everything.

"The issue has arisen that indeed a very deep reform is necessary," he concluded. But rather than a short-term approach to "quality control" for the kludge of redundant factories and institutes, he stressed that the first step on a get-well strategy was to know where you wanted the program to go.

Reforming Russia’s NASA
That’s not to say that there weren’t obvious fixes to implement within the Russian Space Agency, the small central bureaucracy tasked with coordinating the semi-independent space and rocket firms spread across Russia.

The man chosen a year ago to reform the space agency, Vladimir Popovkin, is a military officer with experience in space operations. He's also an expert on the true state of Russia's aerospace industry, thanks to his tour of duty as deputy defense minister for procurement. Over the past 12 months, he has been firing and hiring managers to carry out reforms.

On Thursday, while Padalka’s post-flight complaints were still echoing in the Russian news media, Popovkin made a major policy speech to engineering students at a Moscow institute. He agreed with Rogozin, and also sounded as if he was channeling cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.

Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka rests outside a Soyuz capsule in Kazakhstan after his return from the International Space Station on Sept. 17.

Popovkin validated Padalka's assessment of the lack of technological progress by warning that Western advances into privatized space launch services would soon drive Russia out of the last corner of the international space industry where it had any standing. "We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures," he told the students.

He warned that the foreign customers who currently channel almost a billion dollars a year into the Russian space industry for launch services could turn to the newer, cheaper, more reliable private rockets now under development in the United States and elsewhere. "I speak one seditious thought," he said. "My deep conviction is that in about five years SpaceX will be owned by either Boeing or Lockheed Martin. Believe it, it will."

In order for Russia to achieve the requisite level of quality, he continued, the country's rocket builders will have to become competing firms from which both the Russian Space Agency and foreign clients can purchase services.

He also told the students that the current space workforce was too old — and too large. "The average age of a worker is 43.9 years," he said, "and only 20% are under 35." The age of scientific workers is even higher, he continued: The average age of Ph.D.'s, for example, is 59.2 years.

Like Rogozin, Popovkin complained that there were too many people in too many firms that were set up in Soviet times. "If today over 250,000 people are employed," Popovkin said, "then we calculate that the maximum should be 150,000 to 170,000." This comment was made to encourage young people to seek space industry employment and redress the demographic imbalance.

Will anything help?
Cosmonaut Padalka’s complaints, in this context, look a lot less heretical. They seem well within the range of reformist suggestions, as being implemented by Dmitri Rogozin and Vladimir Popovkin.

Since Russia is an intimate partner of the United States and other nations on the International Space Station, and is seeking closer international integration on deep-space missions, the prospects for its future reliability have profound implications for worldwide space planning.

Perhaps a leaner and younger space team can concentrate on a narrower selection of projects with reasonable hope of success. That may yet happen, but it's now clear that such an eventuality must be proved out with actual deeds, not with historical analogies, bold promises and optimistic assumptions.

Even in Russia, some observers believe that the "good old days" will never come again in space. Konstantin Bogdanov, aerospace correspondent for the newspaper Izvestia, wrote a thoughtful essay on the occasion of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight in April 2011. He called his essay “” and suggested it would never be able to revive the past glories that were nostalgically celebrated over Gagarin:

"Its capacity for working miracles disappeared in the 1990s when the colossal monolith crumbled along with the system that had spawned it, leaving a sea of bitterness and grudges in its wake, as well as nostalgia for a lost paradise for engineers and technicians. The fall of the aerospace industry was cruelly sobering after several decades of intoxication with the limitless possibilities afforded under the Soviet space program.

"The seeds of the Soviet space industry’s tragic downfall had been sown in its very creation. It could not have been otherwise. Without those fatal flaws it would have never emerged, and would have failed to accomplish all those stunning feats that won respect the world over."

What Bogdanov referred to were specific conditions of the 1960s. The top engineers and scientists from all over the Soviety Union were channeled into the space program. They were rewarded both with rare perks — better stores, better hospitals, less ideological monitoring, access to foreign contact and even travel — and with a once-in-a-lifetime pride for pioneering world history. Money, materials, and manpower were unmatched.

Fifty years later, all of those conditions are gone, never to return.

"Even the Soviet Union, with its supposedly developed socialist society, could not escape the Darwinist dialectic," Bogdanov concluded. "Highly specialized 'species' are unavoidably doomed to a bright, albeit brief, existence when the environment to which they were so perfectly adapted vanishes in an instant."

Like a hothouse orchid, brittle in its demand for precise support conditions, the Russian space program may have bloomed spectacularly when the conditions were right, and then wilted irremediably as the conditions vanished forever.

Time will tell if the Russian space program can retain the talent and the governmental support to surmount this chosen new challenge, the greatest in 50 years. Dedication and history they clearly have in abundance, along with an inspirational motto that got them through the dark days of the privations after the Soviet collapse: "The difficulties ahead of us are less than those we have already overcome," workers told each other then. Today, will that be enough?

More about the Russian space program:

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on space history and space policy, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."