What's Happening to the Russian Space Industry?


ILS Proton Launch of Intelsat 23

On the morning of August 6, the Russian space industry woke up to yet another failure in a long list of failures over the last 2 years. 2 months later, on October 16th that failure became a catastrophe with the explosion of the Briz-M upperstage. Are we witness to the end of the dominance of the Russian space industry?

Launches of Russian satellites and various space vehicles have become a routine occurrence, and why not? On the one hand, they have a wide array of launchers, from the small Dnepr and Rokot, to the medium sized Soyuz and Zenith, and on to the giant Proton. To go along with the launchers, they have a wide selection of launch sites, from Plesetsk and Baikonur, located well for polar missions, and the floating launch platform Odyssey, ideally located west of California for communications satellite launches. With such a wide array of capabilities, it's no wonder that 40% of the world's launches are Russian launches.

However, from a lofty 96%, the Russian launch success rate has plummeted to below 90%. That drop doesn't seem like much, but when each failed mission costs 300-400 million dollars, it's highly significant. This article will try to shed light on the reasons for this trend.


The success of "Sputnik" in 1957 astounded the world, and caught the American space industry totally by surprise. No one in the west had any idea how advanced the Soviet space program was. The explanation, both surprising and unexpected, was the openness, and competitive nature of the Soviet space program. While NASA, under the leadership of James Webb, completely controlled and dominated the direction and development of the American space industry, the Russian program was openly competitive, with various engineering groups, both military and civilian vying with one another in creating original and daring concepts, as well as setting the goals for the entire program.

This internal competition brought the Soviet Union to a leading position in space exploration according to every parameter. Among the achievements of the Soviet space program are the first satellite ("Sputnik", 1957), the first data transmission from space (1959), the first pictures from the far side of the moon (1959), the first man in space (1961), the first formation flying of two space vehicles (1962), the first woman in space (1963 - 20 years before an American woman went to space), the first space mission with a crew of more than one (1964 - three cosmonauts), the first space-walk (1965), the first unmanned landing on the moon (1966), the first docking in space of 2 unmanned space vehicles (1967 - accomplished by the Americans only in 2006), the first robotic vehicle in space (1970), the first space station ("Salyut" in 1971), the first successful landing on another planet (Venus in 1975), the first African in space (1980), the first permanent space station ("Mir" in 1986), and lastly, the first crew to spend more than a full year in space (1987).

At the beginning of the 80's, the Soviet space agency was working on the space shuttle "Buran" which was an upgrade of the American space shuttle. While the Americans were planning to use the shuttle mainly as a service and supply vehicle for the international space station (which was mainly made of Soviet modules), the Soviets were planning to use it for a manned mission to Mars. On November 15, 1988, "Buron" made its maiden flight, orbited the earth twice and then successfully landed a few kilometers from its launch site at Baikonur. However, that was Buron's last flight. The breakup of the Soviet bloc, the end of the cold war, and the re-allocation of scarce and dwindling resources to other important issues, brought the Soviet (and now Russian) space program almost to a complete halt.

As a result of this economic crisis, the Russian space program, returned to innovation and the search for creative solutions, mainly in an effort to survive. These efforts resulted in the first commercial advertisement made in space, (an Israeli commercial for Tnuva milk in 1997), the birth of space tourism (space flight of billionaire Dennis Tito in 2001), and even the rental of space facilities (the space station "Mir" was rented out for a period of a year). During this period after the breakup of the Soviet empire, the space program invested most of its energies in survival, resulting in few if any significant achievements in research or development.


In 2005, renewed economic development in Russia caused the Russian government to consider an enlarged budget for the Russian space program. A budget of 900 million American dollars was approved for 2006, with an expected annual growth of 5% to 10% over a period of 10 years. This renewed budget coupled with a burgeoning world interest in space technology, and the Russian government's interest in returning to world prominence, resulted in renewed development of several major programs. Among them were the navigational system "GLONASS", which was planned to provide world-wide coverage by the end of 2012, and more significantly, the commercial launch program.

The prescient conversion of ballistic missiles to be used as satellite launching platforms allowed the Russians to offer launch services at significantly lower prices than the Americans, the French, the Indians or the Chinese. Even the Israeli space industry has made great use of the launch capabilities of the cheap and dependable Russian launch systems, and it would be possible to write an entire paper on this relationship. In fact, all the commercial Israeli launches, except for "Amos 1", were launched by the Russians. "Amos 3" for example, was the first western communications satellite launched directly into a geostationary orbit by the Russian launcher "Zenit", and the maneuverable upper stage "Blok-DM".

During the years 2008, 2009 and 2010, the Russian launch industry was responsible for 40% of satellite launches world-wide. While the American and Chinese launch industries were busy with internal launches, the Russian launch industry specialized in commercial launch services. Russian missiles like the "Soyuz", "Zenit", "Dnepr", and "Proton", along with maneuverable upper stages like "Blok" and "Briz" have been providing launches at a rate of 3-4 per month and at with a success rate of over 96%. In comparison, the French Arianne, during the same period, had a launch about once every 2 months.


At the end of 2010, things changed. The frequency of launches continued, and with the increase in cost of alternative launces, the general outlook was that it would continue to grow. However, a series of failed launches occurred which changed this situation.

It started on December 5, 2010 with the launch of 3 "GLONASS" satellites atop a "Proton" launcher. The launch failed and the 3 satellites fell into the ocean. This failure caught the attention of the president's office in Moscow, particularly in light of the governmental decision several months earlier to remove the military oversight of the space industry, and turn the space agency into an independent body, with commercial aims.

This unwanted attention resulted in a purge of the agency's management team and a partial "changing of the guard". This in turn resulted in great uncertainty among the remaining leaders of the space agency.

The failure of December, 2010, was quickly followed by another failed launch in February, 2011, this time a military satellite "GEO-IK". On August 18, there was a failed orbital insertion of a communications satellite, "Express-AM4" because of a fault in the "Briz-M" upper stage, and only a week later, there was a "Soyuz" launch failure of the supply satellite "Progress M".

The series of failures continued with the failure of "Phobos Grunt", with a Chinese micro-satellite onboard, when its motors failed to operate. Instead of going to Mars, it eventually burned up in the atmosphere as it fell back to Earth. This awful year culminated in another failure of a "Meridian" military satellite launch, on December 23.


The following year, 2012, started off very well, until the failure of August 6th, which developed into a full catastrophe.

After the launch failure, Vladimir Popovkin, the Head of the Russian Federal Space Agency ROSCOSMOS, assured the world that although the stranded Briz-M upper stage was heavily fueled, it is safe and should not endanger other space assets. On August the 16th, ITAR-TASS reported Vladimir Popovkin as saying there was no danger of an explosion of the Briz-M because internal pressures in the propellant tanks had been reduced to zero.
On the evening of October 16th, Space Track suddenly deleted the Briz upper stage from its tracked space debris catalogue, and later on replaced it with a growing number of breakup debris, a clear indication of an explosion.

On Oct 19th, a notice went up on Space Track reporting the breakup of the Briz-M. Russian press agency and newspaper web sites carried a press report on October 22nd quoting Space Forces spokesman Colonel Alexei Zolotukhin saying that Briz-M had broken into twelve fragments and they were being tracked, but the formal debris count from US and European sources stated that there are at least 80 significantly large (more than 10 centimeters diameter) debris particles being closely tracked.

Initial analysis of the "breakup" points to a possible mixture of oxidizer and fuel within the Briz-M, causing the heavily fueled vehicle to explode. The Russian space agency apparently did not take all the necessary safety measures, allowing the oxidizer and fuel within the tank to heat up whenever the Briz swept through its low altitude perigee at a velocity of more than 7 kilometers per second (more than 15,600 mph). Not surprisingly the explosion took place when the Briz was at its closest distance from Earth.


The Debris cloud is at a trajectory that puts a significant number of LEO satellites at risk, and especially the manned International Space Station. According to a source in Space Track, the debris is crossing the ISS orbit at almost right angles in its 50.2° inclination orbit.

Unfortunately, the intersection of the two orbits occurs where the debris is at about the same altitude as the ISS (about 405-425 km altitude). The Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space) has reported it "is currently tracking over 500 pieces of debris".

According to Zarya.info, unlike other recent fragmentation events, such as the interception of Fengyun 1C, fragments from this event pass through the orbital altitude of the ISS. The differing rates at which the two orbits precess around the Earth's polar axis mean that the ISS orbital path will periodically move in and out of the debris cloud, and will sometimes spend several days at a time with a large part of its orbit within the cloud.

Depending on the actual number of fragments, this event may eventually be considered to be the most dangerous fragmentation event ever to have occurred in space.


So, what's the problem? Why did the removal of military oversight, which was supposed to bring renewed flourishing of the Russian space program, apparently result in an unprecedented series of failures?

The reason is probably rooted in the complex structure of the Russian space industry, which is made up of tens of companies, each specializing in different areas. In the structure used in the past, all of the Russian space industries were under oversight by one central body. This meant that all the companies involved, large or small, be they manufacturers of computers, solar cells, motors, structural assemblies, whole satellites or launchers were subject to the same oversight and quality control by an experienced group of professional military officers and engineers, who knew how to demand compliance to standards, and force corrections when necessary.

The disbandment of this central oversight group meant that each company, both large and small, had to establish its own quality control capability. The larger companies built their own in-house capability, or hired outside consultants from Europe or the United States. On the other hand, the smaller companies found it difficult to contend with the demand for in-house quality control. They found themselves fighting increased competition, and locked into demanding schedules without proper quality control capabilities. Apparently, this is the prime reason for the spate of expensive failures over the last 2 years.


It's unlikely that the Russian space industry will return to military oversight anytime soon, however we will probably see a trend of mergers and acquisitions among the Russian space companies, in an effort to reduce the disparities in the level of quality control of the process of building and checking space assemblies and systems.

Despite this, we have to keep in mind that the Russian space industry has been and still is the busiest space industry in the world, with the highest number of launches, and the widest array of launchers, satellites, and launch facilities available anywhere in the world. There's no reason to doubt that the adoption of improved quality control practices, as well as advanced work techniques, as practiced today in Europe and at NASA, will restore the bold Russian space industry to its position as one of the world's leaders.

Meidad Pariente is the CEO of SPACECIALIST, and is an expert on risk analysis of satellite projects, among them Russian space projects, for international insurance companies.

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