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The Final Frontier: Roskosmos' Budget Is Adequate to Develop Russia's Space Program as Long as It Doesn't Overextend Itself, Note Experts

Following a shake-up in the leadership at Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, its new Head Vladimir Popovkin announced in a recent interview that the organization would be undergoing major restructuring to curb an unmanageable bureaucracy and would be focusing greater attention on unmanned flights for scientific purposes, rather than launching astronauts into orbit. While Roskosmos has seen the recent successful launch of its Specter-R radiotelescope as a reentry to the forefront of space development, controversy over other projects, like its "East" launch station, show that the organization itself is still under the microscope.

The "East" station, which Popovkin told Kommersant would cost 250 billion rubles ($8.2 billion) and would be the "launch station of tomorrow," has come under fire for its slow development and rising costs. A presidential inspection carried out this year found that workers were rushing to finish 13 of the 96 buildings at the site, and had yet to begin construction on another six. Viktor Ishaev, a presidential representative for the Far East, had called for the backing for the launching station to be transferred from Roskosmos to the Ministry of Regional Development this week, citing Roskosmos' organizational limitations. "[Roskosmos] is a respected organization, but it does not fulfill its management functions, it can't give commands to any organization or ministry. The Ministry of Regional Development should fulfill this work."

Questions have also emerged about the fact that the base would be redundant, especially as Russia has a lease on the Baikonur launch station in Kazakhstan until 2050. Despite assurances that the new station would be scientifically advanced, a major goal for the station is to hedge the political risks, noted space commentator Alexander Zheleznyakov. "Russia needs this launch station because it is located on our territory, and it gives political assurances against any major political cataclysm which could take place in Kazakhstan," he said.

Spyros Pagkratis, a resident fellow at the European Space Policy Institute, noted that the base had recently become one of the country's largest civilian space projects according to expenditures, behind the Angara rocket and the GLONASS satellite system. Despite Russia being hit hard by the financial crisis, Russian spending on its civilian space programs had not flagged, and Russia had shown "a resilience, or political will, to supporting its space related programs," said Pagkratis.

Yet that increase in spending doesn't necessarily translate into direct developments or scientific advancements, he added, as much of the spending has also gone to regaining lost infrastructure and capabilities from the 1990s, while there have not been "spectacular" increases in spending on scientific development.

Russian experts had chaffed at the country's space program being reduced to a "taxi-service" for delivering foreign astronauts to the International Space Station in recent months, and a series of disasters, including the mislaunch of a vehicle carrying three GLONASS satellites last December, had spoiled the mood of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first launch into space. Former Roskosmos Head Anatoly Perminov, who was fired shortly after the anniversary, had criticized the government for the lack of funding for the agency, and had called more ambitious plans for the space agency, like a possible Mars flight, "absurd."

Despite the calls for the project to be taken out of Roskosmos' hands, the Ministry for Regional Development has declined to comment on the suggestion. At today's MAKS air show, Popovkin said that the plans for the final construction of the launch site were to be sent for confirmation this week, while also reviving the possibility of a Mars flight, saying that Russia would be working together with European scientists on the project.  

Zheleznyakov noted that those plans would require an additional investment and support for the program. "If we speak about the current projects that the space program has undertaken, then yes, we can say that there is enough financing for now. But if we talk about some of the enormous plans that have been discussed, like the flight to Mars, for instance, then naturally, it is not enough. With space, there is never enough money."

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