Launch pad for Soyuz rocket in Vostochny in April 2015. Image credit: Russian government

Apr 22, 2015 Vostochny: The political history of Russia's spaceport

Sen—In the past few months, the Russian media, which is usually tame when it comes to criticizing anybody in or around the Kremlin, suddenly went berserk over the “problems” of the Vostochny Cosmodrome—a spaceport being built in the midst of evergreen Taiga in the Russian Far East. No, Russian propagandists are not questioning why their government wasted billions of rubles to build this remote facility for a soon-to-be-obsolete Soyuz rocket, which already has launch sites on three different continents, nor do they ask why the Kremlin badly mismanaged this project leading to billions of overspending, while leaving its workers for months without pay. Instead, the indignation of the Russian media is focused on the likely failure to launch the first rocket from the spaceport before a seemingly arbitrary and meaningless deadline at the end of 2015!

This is even more surprising given the fact that practically every single project managed by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is currently years if not decades behind schedule. Ironically, the one rare exception is Vostochny, where workers are putting the finishing touches on many key facilities, with delays measured not by years, but by weeks or months, which is perfectly natural for a project of this magnitude. Yet, despite huge progress achieved on this monumental task in the past four years, Vostochny has suddenly become a political hot potato. As it approaches the finishing line, it has triggered several high-profile corruption investigations and landed its key manager in jail, while unpaid ordinary workers had to go on a hunger strike, in turn, requiring a personal intervention by Putin himself. So what's really going on?

Built six time zones away from Moscow, the Vostochny (Eastern) launch site was conceived to give Russia access to space without reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which ended up in the newly independent republic of Kazakhstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Beyond its space role, the Kremlin saw Vostochny as an "anchor" for the continuous Russian presence in the remote and sparsely populated region of the country, which fell under an increasing economic influence from near-by China.

In 2007, along with the decision to go ahead with the construction of the new site, the Kremlin made a very public commitment to launch the new-generation Rus-M rocket from Vostochny at the then distant date of 2015. In the following three years, the same rocket was promised to be ready to carry the new-generation manned spacecraft, so far known only as PTK NP. Together, they would replace the veteran Soyuz rocket and its name-sake spacecraft based in Baikonur.

However many things did not go as planned. In 2011, the civilian space agency, Roscosmos, axed the Rus-M as duplicating the capabilities of the military-led Angara rocket project. As a result, the yet-to-be-built space center ended up without a rocket to launch, despite the huge political importance given to Vostochny by the Russian government.

In an effort to meet the political requirement to launch anything from Vostochny in 2015, the then head of Roscosmos Vladimir Popovkin decided to build a Soyuz pad at the site. However the veteran Soyuz rocket was too small to carry the new-generation spacecraft. To make matters worse, launching a crewed Soyuz spacecraft from Vostochny was associated with serious safety issues. In case of the need to abort the Soyuz ascent to orbit in an emergency, its crew module could end up parachuting into the heavily wooded and rugged terrain surrounding the spaceport. If the rocket failed later in the ascent, its cosmonauts could end up in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, requiring an armada of rescue ships stretched thousands of kilometers along the flight trajectory during each launch.

In the end, the Soyuz pad in Vostochny was designed for unmanned launches only. Given the already available pads for Soyuz at the Russian military site in Plesetsk, in Baikonur and at the European launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana, very few payloads would be available for launches from Vostochny. Even more importantly, the time and money spent on the construction of the Soyuz pad delayed the coming to Vostochny of the new-generation Angara rocket to 2018 at the earliest. Human missions on the Angara have had to be pushed back until at least 2021. Unlike Soyuz, the Angara was designed to replace the flagship of the Russian rocket fleet—the Proton—whose toxic propellant was the cause of most concerns for the government of Kazakhstan. 

In his televised interview last week, known in Russia as the "Direct Line with the President," Vladimir Putin explained the need for Vostochny by the fact that Plesetsk belongs to the military, even though the site has a long history of launching civilian payloads, including foreign satellites. The proponents of Vostochny also argued that the new site had a much better geographical location than Plesetsk and also matched the latitude of Baikonur, thus allowing the Soyuz to carry the same payloads from inside Russia. However this argument does not hold water either, because Vostochny's Soyuz pad will not be able to launch manned Soyuz meaning the rocket would have to continue flying from Baikonur. In a sense, Russia would now be paying twice for the same capability, except that the remote location of Vostochny would certainly make it more expensive!

Finally, a hypothetical scenario, where Kazakhstan would suddenly ban Soyuz launches from Baikonur is just that—a hypothetical scenario. Unless the Kremlin finds another equivalent of the Crimean Peninsula to annex from Kazakhstan, its agreement with the Central-Asian republic covers Soyuz launches until 2040s. Certainly, none of those reasons could justify the hysteria over not launching Soyuz from Vostochny in 2015.

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Deputy Prime-Minister Dmitry Rogozin inspects Vostochny in February 2015. Image credit: Russian government

One reasonable explanation for all the brouhaha around the urgent inauguration of the new spaceport at all costs is the aspirations of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin for the Kremlin's throne, the Moscow edition of the Forbes magazine suggested. This ultra-nationalist politician, who was appointed to oversee the Military Industrial Complex, made Vostochny into his pet project. "By 2015, we will make a cosmodrome, I give you my tooth," the outspoken Deputy Prime Minister famously said in a TV interview in April 2012, "I will tear the head of anybody who would steal even a ruble from Vostochny," Rogozin was quoted as saying.

These high-profile statements came back to haunt Rogozin, as Vostochny inevitably fell behind schedule and got marred in corruption and mismanagement, despite Rogozin's repeated helicopter tours of the site and Twitter promises to complete the project on time.

Now, Rogozin's political enemies are apparently preparing to use his "failure" in Vostochny as a pretense to stunt his political growth. Obviously, the real reasons for Rogozin's stumbles are not in the taiga of the Far East, but in byzantine labyrinths of the Kremlin. In the wake of the far-from-successful war in Ukraine, Rogozin's Rodina (Fatherland) party reportedly went on a collision course with the pro-Moscow's boss of a breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Relying on his private army, Kadyrov made considerable in-roads in the Kremlin, but Rogozin apparently still remains a force to be reckoned with.

Not surprisingly, Rogozin will go out of his way to make the first launch in Vostochny anytime before the clock on the Spasskaya Tower over the Kremlin strikes midnight on Jan. 1, 2016.

A further blog on the current status of the construction of Vostochny can be read here.