Launch pad for Soyuz rocket in Vostochny in May. Image credit: Roscosmos

Jun 3, 2015 First rocket to arrive at Russia's new launch site

Sen—What a difference a month makes! Back in April, Russia's future launch site in Vostochny was plagued by investigations into corruption, severe cost overruns and seemingly inevitable delays. Hundreds of unpaid personnel refused to work and dozens more declared a hunger strike. Some workers were staying put only because they had no money to buy a one-way ticket out. Behind the scenes, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and the main building contractor, Spetsstroi, were bickering over who was to blame for the mess. Yet, today, key contractors report on-schedule work, Kremlin officials post pictures of all-but-finished facilities on social media and headlines about the labor problems have disappeared from the press.

"We passed the most critical, the toughest moment," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told journalists at the end of April.

Looking at this dramatic turnaround, it is tempting to make a comparison between Vostochny and the Kremlin's preceding mega-project, the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Like Vostochny, this prestige-driven effort was years in the making, severely over budget and close to missing its completion deadline. Yet, to the surprise of the world, Moscow managed not just to save the games, but also turn it into a huge propaganda coup, almost at the last minute.

Both projects seem to illustrate not just how Putin's government works, but also provide a lesson about Russian culture. "Russians are very slow to harness but really fast to ride," according to an old proverb. Indeed, the Kremlin first gave the go head to Vostochny in November 2007, yet, for almost five years, barely anything moved at the remote decommissioned ballistic missile site. In fact, in the years following the decision to build a spaceport at Vostochny, there were reports of locals stealing concrete blocks which paved the roads to abandoned missile silos.

Only at the end of 2011 did workers start to clear trees for future facilities. The foundation for the launch pad was excavated during 2012 and concrete works started in the middle of that year. Even then, many facilities began rising off the ground without proper legal permits and sometimes even without final blueprints.

From the outset, a careful observer of the local press and social media could see reports about labor problems, including complaints about the withholding of salaries to ordinary workers, even though none of these issues would make headlines in Moscow at the time. Corruption investigations at various levels of the project also popped up without attracting much attention.

Despite all these problems, the entire new space center has emerged in the midst of the Taiga in less than four years. The spaceport's development includes a massive launch pad for the Soyuz rocket, the sprawling rocket and spacecraft processing complex, a tracking station, a logistical and administrative center, a state-of-the-art train station with many kilometers of new railways, automobile roads and power lines and, last but not least, the first apartment blocks of a future space city, with its first building declared completed on Monday.

However in April, problems around Vostochny exploded on the front pages of the Moscow press and even made it into the international media. It took workers, whose corrupt bosses reportedly spent their salaries on fancy houses and yachts for themselves, to declare a hunger strike and to paint a desperate plea for help to the Russian President Vladimir Putin on the roofs of their makeshift homes. As it turned out, a total of 5,900 workers were reportedly owed 21.7 million rubles ($411,000) in unpaid salaries. To illustrate the scale of the problem, the entire workforce in Vostochny was 7,188 people around that time, according to official statistics.

first-rocket-to-arrive-at-russia-s-new-launch-site_1433277916

"Four months without pay," says message addressed to Putin by workers at Vostochny. Image credit: Amurskaya Pravda

During an annual TV press-conference with Putin known as the "Direct Line with the President," on April 16, one of the strike leaders in Vostochny even dared to contrast their neglected case with all the attention and money given to Crimea. Putin's response was to the effect that although the Crimean situation was indeed more important to the nation, labor problems in Vostochny would have to be addressed as well.

One sharp-tongued commentator in the U.S. considered the very fact of public discussion of labor problems in Russia to be big progress. Indeed, after some moves by Spetsstroi management in Vostochny to fire all the strikers and accuse them of sabotage, the Kremlin appeared to be taking a populist pro-worker stance.

At the beginning of May, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin already claimed that not a single worker in Vostochny was owed money any longer. "We put three in jail, fired two (managers), all others immediately started paying salaries," Rogozin told the Interfax news agency on May 9, "If you don't pedal nothing is going to happen," he added. The head of one of the construction companies at the center of the scandal was arrested in Minsk, Belarus, while driving a white Mercedes apparently encrusted with Swarovski rhinestones. At least one company with a particular high number of unpaid workers was reportedly disbanded and its personnel transferred to Spetsstroi.

Nobody knows where the Kremlin found the extra cash to re-pay the workers and to fill the budget shortfall, but according to Roscosmos head Igor Komarov, Vostochny would require an extra 22 billion rubles ($417 million) to complete 11 critical facilities required for the first launch from the site slated for December 2015.

The Soyuz rocket for the mission is now expected to arrive at Vostochny as early as this month. Also, in June, the Tyazhmash company promised to deliver a huge transporter/erector informally known as crocodile—one of the final pieces of critical hardware still missing at the launch pad. The crocodile will carry the rocket into horizontal position from the processing facility to the launch pad along a railway line and then install it into the liftoff position.

first-rocket-to-arrive-at-russia-s-new-launch-site_1433277812

A transporter/erector for Soyuz rocket undergoes testing in May before its delivery to Vostochny. Image credit: Tyazhmash

In parallel, workers were recently spotted clearing trees for the second launch facility in Vostochny intended to host the new-generation Angara rocket.

Given a potential role of Angara as the carrier of future deep-space missions, the new facility was already (and rather fancifully) nicknamed the "Martian pad" by government journalists.

According to the current schedule, the first Angara pad will be completed in Vostochny in 2018 and it could host the first liftoff of a spacecraft with a crew in 2021.