This spectacular crash of a Proton rocket in July 2013 became a culmination of several high-profile failures in the Russian space program, which prompted latest changes at Roscosmos. Image credit: Roscosmos

Feb 20, 2015 Back to the USSR? The latest reform at Roscosmos

Sen—In the classic Russian fable called Quartet by Ivan Krylov, a monkey, a donkey, a goat and a bear start an orchestra, however, when their performance turns out to be really sour, they try to fix the sound by endlessly re-arranging their positions in the quartet. In the end, a nightingale explains to them that only skill and talent can make a musician and hapless amateurs are bound to fail no matter where they sit. For the past decade, the Quartet has been a perfect metaphor for the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. Last month, the Kremlin once again fired the captain at the helm of the nation's troubled space program, the third such move in just four years. A veteran of the Russian automobile industry Igor Komarov replaced Oleg Ostapenko, who himself took the post from Vladimir Popovkin in 2013, who, in turn, replaced Anatoly Perminov in 2011.

As before, the management reshuffle was accompanied by another promise for restructuring of the industry to increase efficiency and reduce failures. However the question remains, whether this time around will be any different than the previous two.

According to available information, by Jul. 1, 2015, the former space agency will be replaced with a State Corporation, taking under its umbrella all space companies, which in turn, will be grouped in the so-called holdings according to their specialization, such as manned spaceflight, rockets, military missiles, propulsion and avionics. Currently, the Russian space industry is comprised of a patchwork of organizations with a different level of government involvement.

It appears that the essence of the latest change is the Soviet-style centralization of the space industry and its policies under one roof. The previous idea of turning Roscosmos into a NASA-like strategy-making body separated from the industry, which was entertained last year, seems to have been abandoned.

"The centralization calls for combining the control over the company's assets and its business with the responsibilities of an executive federal body, including the development of strategies and federal program, regulating functions within the industry and the distribution of funds," Igor Komarov explained in an interview with the Rossiya 24 TV channel on Jan. 26.

According to Komarov, the new organization would be fashioned after Rosatom, Russia's powerful nuclear ministry. "The nuclear industry is very competitive and demonstrates very effective organization of work," Komarov said, "We are looking at the positive experience that Rosatom has."

However critics noted that Russian laws on State Corporations make such an organization extremely non-transparent. For example, State Corporations are exempt from requirements for most public disclosures, from regular bankruptcy laws and from oversight by local authorities. Even government audits are reportedly restricted. Komarov countered this criticism by saying that a representative of the state will be participating in the work of the governing council of the corporation.

It is also unclear whether the experience of Rosatom is really applicable to Roskosmos. As an energy producer, the atomic industry has higher profit margin than the space sector, whose activities are much harder to measure in monetary terms, making the comparison between the two rather difficult.

Ironically, the latest reform of Roscosmos seemingly goes the opposite way to the trend in the West to privatise space activities. Instead of looking at the way NASA is outsourcing to commercial businesses such as Boeing and SpaceX, Moscow is seemingly going back to the system that once helped the nation to win the race to put the first human into space—the Soviet model.

Counterintuitively, the space industry might still benefit from a centralized government control, due to its unique nature as a multi-level, multi-disciplined field aiming, first off all, to fulfill long-term strategic goals of the state rather than produce a sellable product. Interestingly, Russian strategists did not miss the fact that despite all the "privatisation" of space in the U.S., there is general sense that it has failed to compensate for the lack of leadership and strategic direction at the federal level, leaving generally well financed NASA drifting aimlessly in the winds without well defined national goals in space.

While the latest reform will require time to bear fruit, early moves by Komarov at the helm of Roscosmos give a glimmer of optimism. For example, he declined a parallel position as the head of the Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, at Roscosmos, which he had been entitled to hold. Unlike administrative and political responsibilities of the agency head, the NTS chairman focuses on technical and engineering issues facing the industry.

With that move, Komarov essentially admitted his lack of experience on the engineering side of the space sector. However much more importantly, he offered this position to Yuri Koptev, who led the Russian space program through the economic catastrophe of the 1990s. Despite dramatic shrinking of the industry, brain drain and deterioration of space infrastructure in the first post-Soviet decade, Koptev is widely credited with fast transition of once top-secret space conglomerates to international commerce. He also played a key role in forging a deal with the US that married NASA's Space Station Freedom with the Russian Mir-2 to create the International Space Station. The 1993 agreement saved both projects from all-but-inevitable cancellation and with them Russia's manned space flight.

However in 2004, the Kremlin "thanked" Koptev by pushing him out of the agency. From that point on, only high-ranking military officers were occupying top posts at Roscosmos and at some key space companies to the discontent of many scientists and engineers. The military-style management was unofficially blamed for many poor decisions within the industry, as well as for corruption, nepotism and mismanagement.

Now, the appointment of Komarov and the return of Koptev heralds the "demilitarization" of Roscosmos and thus, makes the latest management reshuffle drastically different from three previous ones.

In an interview with the Rossiya TV channel on Jan. 25, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the military-industrial complex, said that the latest wave of replacements at the top of the Russian space sector had had a goal of "rejuvenating" the management. Rogozin listed replacements at the top of GKNPTs Khrunichev, the developer of the Proton rocket, and at RKK Energia, the key manned spacecraft contractor, as examples of the effort to promote younger leaders within the industry and attract the new talent.