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Russia restarts spacecraft after embarrassing failures
By Thibault MARCHAND
Moscow (AFP) May 18, 2015

Russia looks to space future after bruising failures
Moscow (AFP) May 18, 2015 - Russia's recent string of space failures -- including the embarrassing loss of a satellite after the rocket carrying it fell to Earth -- come as the country tries to restructure its ageing programme.

Once the pride of the Soviet Union, the space sector was hit hard by the collapse of Communism.

Spending has risen in the past decade with Russia seeking to move away from manned spaceflight to more commercially attractive ventures.

But the industry must overcome corruption, inertia and a shortage of trained staff to take it forward, analysts say.

"There is a deficit of qualified employees, both engineers and workers. This has to do with the 1990s, when all qualified people left the industry," said editor of Space News magazine Igor Afanasyev.

Officials hope an overhaul of the Roscosmos space agency, switching to a new Angara rocket, and the opening of a mammoth cosmodrome in the Russian Far East can reinvigorate the programme.

- Space corporation -

A bill set to be presented in parliament Tuesday aims at turning the federal space agency into a state corporation, similar to other enterprises like Rosatom, which oversees Russia's nuclear sphere.

In weekend remarks following the Proton-M crash and the loss of a Mexican satellite, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the reforms would establish "clear lines of responsibility" for future failures.

"Accidents are the effect of a systemic crisis in the industry," said Rogozin.

The shake-up is designed to streamline decision-making, including on painful issues like laying off employees.

Former Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin has estimated the sector needs to shed at least 70,000 people.

- Angara rocket -

Rogozin on Monday said Russia needs to speed up the retirement of its workhorse Proton rocket and switch to the next generation Angara model, which was sent on a successful test launch last year.

The Angara family of vehicles makes it possible to haul loads of up to 24.5 tonnes by using several rockets at once to bolster the launch power.

Developing the Angara has cost Russia at least $2 billion (1.7 billion euros) since the early 1990s, sparking criticism over the high cost.

The current authorities have embraced the new rocket, particularly after recent Proton failures.

Angara is a "unique module rocket, nobody else has anything like this", Sergei Gorbunov, who worked at the space agency in the 1990s and early 2000s, told AFP.

- Eastern launchpad -

Designed to eventually replace the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan, the Vostochny cosmodrome is still under construction in Russia's Far Eastern Amur region, but aims to launch its first rocket by the end of this year.

The new facility is meant to move strategic launches onto Russian territory and cut Moscow's dependence on the neighbouring Central Asian nation.

Vostochny -- about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with China -- is closer to the equator than Russia's only functioning Plesetsk cosmodrome, and will therefore help save money by bringing satellites to orbit faster.

But construction has been plagued with delays and corruption.

Some workers held a hunger strike over three-month wage arrears in April, and at least two ongoing probes are targeting misspending by the construction contractor, which allegedly spent money on yachts and villas.

Head of the contractor TMK, Viktor Grebnev, was put under house arrest Monday over the suspected theft of over $8 million (seven million euros) allocated for the cosmodrome.

"Even constant reprimands by the Kremlin and threats of criminal prosecution do not rescue the expensive project from massive corruption," said a Monday editorial in Vedomosti daily.

Russia on Monday managed on a second attempt to restart the engines of a Progress spacecraft attached to the International Space Station (ISS) and shift the station's orbit.

The success of the manoeuvre is a much-needed scrap of good news for Russia's beleaguered space programme after a spate of high-profile malfunctions that saw a spacecraft fail to dock with the ISS, astronauts stranded temporarily in space and the loss of a Mexican satellite.

"The engines of the Progress-M26M cargo transport craft were switched on at 0330 (0030 GMT) and worked for 1922 seconds," space agency Roscosmos said in a statement.

"As a result of the completion of the manoeuvre the altitude of the station's orbit was increased by 2.8 kilometres."

A first attempt to turn on the Progress engines early Saturday failed.

The ISS is now at the right altitude for three of its crew members to return to Earth. Their journey home had already been delayed by the failure of an earlier rocket launch.

Roscosmos has been plunged into crisis by a series of embarrassing failures, drawing fury from politicians and prompting Moscow to launch an inquiry into the space industry after firing its previous head last year.

On Saturday morning, hours after the failed first attempt to right the ISS, Russia also lost a Mexican telecommunications satellite in a failed launch of the Proton-M carrier rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

- New inquiry launched -

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev launched an inquiry after the satellite incident, demanding answers from the head of the space agency, Igor Komarov, and suggesting heads could roll.

"This accident is the consequence of a systematic crisis in the (space) industry," Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of the aerospace sector, said in a statement.

He said a new bill on shaking up Roscosmos would be put before Russia's parliament on Tuesday.

Speaking to Rogozin on Monday, Medvedev said that all responsible parties "must understand that they have to have not only personal but material responsibility" for launch failures.

"Besides financial losses there are reputational hazards," he added.

A source in Russia's space sector told the state-run TASS news agency that it would take at least two weeks to determine the cause of the failure.

Last week's setbacks came less than a month after an unmanned Progress spacecraft meant to supply the ISS lost contact with Earth, shortly after take-off on April 28, before disintegrating on re-entry less than two weeks later.

Russia is currently reforming its space industry, but experts say years of underfunding mean there is a shortage in new-generation specialists to replace those recruited in the Soviet era.

"For 20 years, the sector has not been funded and the staff not trained," MP Valery Gartung, who heads the commission for the space industry in Russia's parliament, was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Monday's successful operation by the Progress M-26M spacecraft means three people on the ISS -- Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, American astronaut Terry Virts and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti -- will be able to return to Earth within weeks.

Their return has already been delayed by a month after the failure of the April mission.

A commission is currently investigating the cause of the incident.

The new ISS team, which was initially scheduled to take off on May 26 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, is now due to join the station at the end of July.

The exact date for the next launch to the ISS will be announced after the commission comes out with its finding on May 22.

Since the mothballing of the US Space Shuttle programme in 2011, Moscow is the only country that still has the capability to send astronauts into space, launching them from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

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Russia loses Mexican satellite after rocket failure
Moscow (AFP) May 16, 2015
Russia on Saturday lost a Mexican satellite on launch just hours after a glitch with a manoeuvre involving the International Space Station, the latest in a string of embarrassing failures for its troubled space programme. Russia's Roscosmos space agency said the Proton-M rocket carrying a Mexican MexSat-1 satellite fell back to Earth and burnt up in the atmosphere after suffering an engine ... read more

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