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The run-up to the 50th anniversary of the first ever flight into space was rather short of glorious. The countdown to the landmark celebration was marred by delayed space launches, possible sackings in the Space Agency and, most embarrassingly, the crash of a rocket in December of 2010, which cost the Russian taxpayer 2.5 billion rubles. Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced an increase in funding and reiterated ambitious plans for Russia’s space flights. But Roskosmos’ Chief Anatoly Perminov came back yesterday with a scathing verdict of the space program, in what may have been his last address to the Federation Council.
Anatoly Perminov, who is expected to be sacked after seven years at the helm of Russia’s Space Agency, on Wednesday rubbished the possibility of flying to Mars on existing spacecraft as “absurd,” and said that it will not be possible before 2035. He also said that Russia’s rocket industry is falling short of the goals that the state arms procurement program set. He then complained that his agency could not be expected to expand its share of the global space market without more financing.
An urban legend has it that NASA once invested millions in creating a zero gravity pen for space travel, while the Soviets simply brought a pencil. With or without mythical resourcefulness, the gulf in U.S. and Russian space funding is considerable, albeit narrowing slowly. Perminov contrasted NASA’s 2011 budget of $18.7 billion with Roskosmos’ $3.1 billion. Roskosmos’ 2011 budget allocation is actually the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and almost triple what it was in 2007. President Dmitry Medvedev is credited with the rise in funding, as he named the space industry in the same breath as his broader bid to modernize Russia in 2009.
But despite improved funding, the recent months have made even patriotic Russian space dreamers squirm. On Wednesday, a Soyuz rocket adorned with a portrait of Yuri Gagarin took off after a week of delays, only then delivering three astronauts, two Russian and one American, to the International Space Station. Worse still, a Russian Proton-M rocket propelling three satellites took off from Baikonur last December, veered off course, and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean. The satellites were supposed to complete the GLONASS navigation system, Russia’s answer (and rival) to the American GPS.
After these blips, 65-year-old Perminov was asked to step down by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov due to his age, although he refused to comply until he is asked by either Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev. Kommersant a week ago concluded that the authorities are now waiting for Gagarin’s anniversary to blow over before they ask Perminov to step down. In a possible hint of realizing his impending demise, Perminov said yesterday: “I also am punished,” as a result of the insufficient funding from the government.
Yuri Gagarin’s anniversary has thrown up a lot of tough talk from commentators on the space program, although some have tried to remain realistic. Anton Sanin of the Russian Space Academy said that the Soyuz rocket’s key role in transporting crews to the International Space Station guarantees that Russia’s space program remains at the world’s forefront – particularly as the U.S. Space Shuttle is being mothballed this year. "The fact that America has done away with the Space Shuttle basically means that the Russian Soyuz is the only remaining way to get to the International Space Station. This just goes to show that everything is not as bad as some people allege."
Critics, however, are angered by Russia’s role as little more than a cosmic “taxi-driver.” Yury Karash, a member of the Russian Space Academy, said: “I don’t like saying that our space program has stagnated, but that is the way it is.” He said that the space program’s reliance on its former grandeur was like a form of “Dutch disease,” and that the leadership is in danger of letting the head-start in the space race from Gagarin slip through their fingers. “The sector clearly wants to move forward, but the management is saying, 'we do not need to, we are the leaders in space.' They say, 'we have the Soyuz spaceship, everything depends on Russia, we put the most rockets up in space – what more do you want?'" Karash said.
Perminov also stressed that investment in new areas of the space industry is crucial, although he noted that Russia has the most satellites in space due to its superior space launch capabilities. "We have to acknowledge that imported components account for between 65 and 70 percent of electronics in the spacecraft launched last year and those set to be launched this year," Perminov was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.
Premier Putin last week hinted at future funding increases when he said that Russia intends to increase its share of the global space market, while developing a new launch pad in eastern Siberia at Vostochny. It is expected to launch manned flights by 2018. Russia will provide 50 percent of global space launches – a $200 billion market, Putin said.
The premier also mooted possible space flights for the Angara, the long-touted replacement for the Soyuz. Putin said that the Angara carrier rockets will be finished in 2013 and launched from the Plesetsk pad in Arkhangelsk. Perminov specified that the heavier classification would only be ready by the first quarter of 2014.
After the media furor it seems unlikely that Perminov will cling onto his job, but analysts believe that the anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight could revive what Karash called the “stagnated” space program. “I think the anniversary can be a catalyst for expanding the space-rocket industry in the long term,” said Alexander Zheleznyakov, a leading space program commentator. “Of course the space program will be carried on the huge wave of public interest, on the wave of tasks carried out by the government and scientists as well as through the additional funding being assigned. I greatly hope that all these highly ambitious plans to fly to Mars and the moon come to fruition.”
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