Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Russia’s space plans more fantasy than fact

When is a space announcement not worth a plugged kopek? When it’s about Russia’s space plans.

Roscosmos is assessing its future programs, an article from the Commercial Space Blog, outlined some of Russia’s ambitious space plans: A low-orbit space station, a high-orbit space station, a super heavy-lift Moon rocket, nuclear space tugs, and a Moon base.

Ah yes, the Moon base, Russia’s pet fixation. Back in 2012 Russia wanted to team up with the United States and Europe to build a research colony on the Moon. Earlier this year the Russians wanted to buddy up with the Chinese on the Moon base idea.

It seems that the only country Russia hasn’t yet considered as a Moon base partner is the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.

Russia released its newest space plan for 2016-2025 last April 23. As reported by SpaceFlight Insider, Russia’s new space program: Search for extraterrestrial life amid budget cuts, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, wants to search for extraterrestrial life and send satellites to the Moon and Mars. Those Moon landing plans are still in there, too.

Roscosmos has one small problem—their budget has been cut by 35%, which will affect some of those projects including that Moon rocket.

All of the grand plans announced over the past few years are more fantasy than fact. A song from a 1972 movie musical called “Cabaret” sums up why. The song is called “Money.”
Money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world go around
Money makes the world go around
It makes the world go ‘round.
Money also makes space programs go ‘round. That’s why you can disregard these announcements. Russia doesn’t have the money.

What’s causing Russia’s monetary grief? For one thing, sticky fingers.

Some comrades have taken the words of the song to heart...just not in a state-approved way. A Moscow Times story, $126 million stolen from Russian Vostochny Cosmodrome project - Prosecutor General, says contractors at the site of the new spaceport in Russia’s Far East have skimmed 7.5 billion rubles (US$126 million) despite warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin that they were being watched.

One of those enterprising nouveau capitalists, accused of swiping 4 million rubles (US$75,000), was highlighted in The Siberian Times story Got him! Director accused of fraud at new spaceport is detained in Belarus. He was arrested while driving his diamond-encrusted Mercedes. (Is driving around in a bejewelled Mercedes chic, gauche, or just “hey, investigate me” dumb?)

Even without the embezzling, the Vostochny facility has problems. A Sputnik International article, First manned launch from Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome delayed until 2025, quotes a Roscosmos offical as saying the first crewed launch at the Cosmodrome has been pushed back from 2018 to 2025. They’ve decided to wait for the new Angara rocket rather than using the site for the older Soyuz.

It’s the same Angara rocket that’s been under development since the early 1990s and has been delayed because guessed it—money, money, money.

But it took more than creative skimming to put Russia in this mess.

According to an article in The Telegraph, Oil and gas crunch pushes Russia closer to fiscal crisis, the big problem is the resource-based Russian economy.

Revenues from oil and gas are dropping due to reduced demand from Europe. Foreign partners have pulled back from development projects because of the political sanctions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Russia made a big bet on the oil and gas industry. They let their manufacturing base erode and failed to develop a high tech industry. They have nothing to pick up the slack due to falling oil prices.

Some analysts say there is some good news. The Moscow Times reports in Is the worst of Russia's economic crisis over? that the economic decline may have bottomed out.

Don’t break out the vodka just yet, though. The prognosis is “cloudy” because the measures taken—the government devalued the ruble and increased spending to prop up the economy—were used twice before during recessions. The benefits in each case were short-lived.

The story goes on to say that this strategy has prevented the Russian economy from diversifying, which maintains the status quo and leads to a new financial crisis.

Russia’s economic problems are starving their exploration and commercial space programs of the money they need, putting Russia further behind other space nations.

Money makes the world, and space programs, go ‘round. It could be that the only spinning the Russian space program will be doing is spinning its wheels.