By Peter Sarukhanov
So we have started losing them. A lot of them - all over the world.
Three GLONASS satellites were lost on 5 December.
A Geo-IK-2 geodetic military satellite was lost on 1 February.
The Express-AM4 space satellite was lost on 18 August.
On 24 August, the M-12M Progress met with an accident while being launched by the Soyuz-U booster rocket and was destroyed.
Investigations go on and on, commissions and ad hoc groups are being set up and official theories are proliferating. But does that make any difference? The Bulava missile does not fly, GLONASS does not work, and an expedition to the International Space Station is about to be disrupted.
A couple of days before the Progress crash, the media reported an incident involving the Express-AM4 satellite, which was put into the wrong orbit and could not be contacted.
“This is the first instance since 1998, when Russia bought a Western communications satellite”, Igor Lisov, a writer for the journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Space News) told Novaya Gazeta at the time. The customer, the Kosmicheskaya Svyaz state-owned enterprise, hoped the device would perform safely over its 15 year lifespan. Although Russian satellites are gradually approaching world standards, they still have some way to go and they malfunction more frequently. If the Express-AM4 is not located and put into the right orbit, its loss will deal a tangible blow to the future of satellite communications in Russia.”
And then came a new accident, when the Progress spaceship crashed for the first time in more than 30 years.
“The engine of the third stage malfunctioned in the 325th second of the flight, leading to emergency switch-off”, the Roskosmos press service reported promptly. Progress disintegrated and fell to the Altai territory, about 50 km from the village of Karakoksha, where a state of emergency was declared. Roskosmos claims that the accident “will have no impact on the support of crews 28/29 of the ISS expeditions”. The cosmonauts’ personal belongings, food and water supplies for the crew, books, fuel, medical supplies and scientific payload perished together with the spaceship. All in all, the accident stopped 2.67 metric tonnes of freight reaching the station.
In the opinion of the American partners, the accident may have been caused by a malfunction of the third stage fuel system, as NASA ISS programme manager Michael Suffredini said several days after the disaster. Vladimir Popovkin has decided to set up a task force to supervise implementation of the manned spaceflight programme.
What happened to Progress?
The crash of the Progress carrier dealt a hard blow at the Samara plant where it was built. This is the production centre for the famous “space trucks” and it is particularly distressed about what happened.
The findings of the state investigation committee leave many questions unanswered. The management of Central Specialised Design Bureau declines to make any official comments. Yet the disaster and its consequences have far-reaching implications for the entire Russian space programme. Novaya Gazeta has managed to get comments from specialists in Samara close to the space industry.
“The disaster is more than a blow to our city’s prestige and a piece of bad luck. It puts the future of the aerospace cluster in the Samara Gubernia into question”, the experts said.
What happened to Progress and why? The members of the commission have established that the engine was working in unscripted mode because the gas generator broke down. This was given as the “cause of the Progress crash”. And that was all. Conclusions have been drawn and measures have been taken. Only, was it really because of the gas generator? Where is the proof that it broke down? Most importantly, how was this allowed to happen? Novaya Gazeta has sent two queries to Roskosmos asking for more detailed information but so far there has been no answer.
“The Roskosmos press release attributes the accident to a malfunction of the engine due to a faulty gas generator”, a source close to the management of the Central Specialised Design Bureau in Samara told Novaya Gazeta. “This language does virtually nothing to explain the situation because the gas generator can malfunction for a variety of reasons: the generator walls might burn through, fuel might stop being fed or the oxidiser might stop being fed, etc. The purpose of the gas generator is to produce high-pressure gas; it is basically something like a pot made from heatproof steel. Part of the liquid oxygen and kerosene is fed into the gas generator. As a result of burning, gas goes directly to the turbine and, from the turbine, it is fed along four pipes to the four control nozzles and to the heat exchange element via a fifth pipe. Kerosene and liquid oxygen may stop being fed to the gas generator for many different reasons: the pipe might be broken, the valve might be broken, false commands might be given by the valve shutter control systems, the valves might have broken, etc. What exactly happened?”
Our experts claim that the Progress disaster was just an accident. “It is an accident that does not indicate any deterioration in the quality of the rockets. It is just an accident. Of course one has to bear in mind that rockets are very complicated technically. Cases of malfunction for unforeseen reasons, due to hidden defects or defects that develop during operation are rare, but possible. No rocket in the world is 100% reliable.”
Policy on a cosmic scale
If one is to believe Samara, the fall of Progress is an accident. But there is a symbolism to it. Perhaps progress (especially in our aerospace industry) has come home to roost?
The crisis in the industry is the main reason for all the major mishaps, as many professionals have been writing. But nobody is listening to them.
Yuri Loktionov, who tests space technology, and was previously an advisor to the former General Director of Roskosmos, Koptev, and one of the founders of Roskosmos, has worked as defensc advisor and was being groomed for a space flight: “I would analyse space problems starting with the management of Roskosmos. Take the accident rate. Accidents happened under all the chiefs. But it is disingenuous to say that the accident rate has been the same under any of them. That is not so. For example, on Koptev’s watch, the industry received only 50% of the necessary funding and it was a struggle to keep the space industry going on a shoestring, but Koptev coped and, in addition, he helped aviation. Today’s bosses have far more funds and the accident rate should be lower, but actually it is just as high. Where does the money go? Speaking about the industry, it has exhausted its resources. First, the equipment is no good and second, the human resources have been depleted and there is no replacement for them.”
Prime Minister Putin recently urged tighter controls in the space industry, proposing to organise panels of experts to assess every detail and every operation.
There is no constant line of behaviour at the very top and at the level of industry management, according to Samara rocket builders. “What do we do? First we cancel some standards for the enterprises’ products, and stop state control over their quality. Time passes and planes begin to fall out of the sky, although they fell before as well, ships sink, rockets fall and everybody starts talking about the need to tighten acceptance procedures. Obviously, any production, be it of sausages or rockets, must be controlled by corresponding laws, GOST standards, specifications and regular verification of compliance with these requirements.
Reform is necessary: this can take a variety of directions, yet no-one is proposing anything and there is no one to propose to. One variant is to create a space council under the President. It is not the only one; you can propose another one, but why doesn’t Roskosmos come up with any ideas?
Today Roskosmos assures us that creation of panels of experts will solve all the problems. But who will sit on these panels? The same managers of enterprises whose main concern is to keep their jobs.
The people in Samara believe that “all that is needed is to empower the technical inspection department and the military customers to perform their functions with due responsibility. They should be less dependent on the producers and on the administration for their salaries, bonuses, etc. Several years ago, military acceptance procedures were minimised and now we say that controls have been loosened.
“The main thing that needs to be done is not to tighten supervision, but restore the role of Chief Designer, chief technologist, and chief military controller. One gets the impression that the management of modern industries is concerned not so much with the technical standard of the products as with cash flows”.
Yuri Loktionov agrees: “There must be a specialist on the management who thinks about the future. The space industry needs to be reorganised; it is in the grip of a systemic crisis.”
Hardly anything needs to be added. As long as the leadership is silent and loses messages with questions, there will be more and more fragments of “progress”.
I. Suldin and A. Kozlov took part in providing the materials for this article.