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Star-Crossed Cosmodrome: Russia's Path To Space Paved With Missing Rubles

A general view shows the launchpad at the Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far Eastern Amur region in July 2015.
A general view shows the launchpad at the Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far Eastern Amur region in July 2015.

For the Russian government, when a Soyuz rocket lifts off from the Vostochny launch facility in the Far East sometime in April, it will mark the dawn of a new era in the country's storied space program.

For others, the new liftoff site’s long and twisting tale of delays, corruption, and management restructuring sounds a lot more like the past than a bright future.

Andrei Mazurin, the Roskosmos space agency's director of ground infrastructure, sounded like he was hedging his bets when discussing Vostochny's debut with journalists in Yakutsk on March 29.

"I hope we will open the cosmodrome with its maiden flight in April," Mazurin said. "In 2017, we will most likely conduct no launches. In 2018 and further on, a small number [of launches] will be conducted, depending on the program."

The next day, Roskosmos head Igor Komarov told journalists in Moscow that Vostochny should "be prepared" for a manned space launch "by the end of 2023."

The bottom line is that the project -- hailed as the jewel of Russia's space program since its conception in 2007 -- will remain officially "under construction" for the foreseeable future. Vostochny is intended to become the country's premier civilian space center, largely replacing the Soviet-era base at Baikonur in Kazakhstan -- an independent country since 1991.

The only existing space-launch facility within Russia, Plesetsk, is a military base and is too far north for certain types of missions.

As construction at Vostochny was getting into full swing in 2012, Yury Semyonov, one of Russia's leading rocket designers and a member of the Academy of Sciences, was asked his opinion of the Vostochny project. "Negative," he said. "It is obvious that it will be a feeding trough for bureaucrats. And much too heavy a burden for the economy."

Just how heavy that burden ends up being may never be known.

Vostochny is being built on the basis of an order that was issued by President Vladimir Putin in November 2007 -- but has never been published. The earliest budget projections in 2007 put the cost of the project at 170 billion rubles (about $4.8 billion at the time). In 2011, space agency Roskosmos asked the government for an additional 493 billion rubles ($17 billion). Just last year, former Roskosmos Director Yury Koptev, who is now chief science adviser to the sprawling state conglomerate Rostekh, projected Vostochny would need an additional 560 billion rubles ($9.6 billion).

Even as the predictions of an initial launch were being announced, however, Dalspetsstroi, the state company in charge of construction, was filing three lawsuits in Moscow against the facility, claiming it is owed 1.2 billion rubles ($17.9 million). On March 24, in turn, a Moscow court ordered Dalspetsstroi to repay a 3.5 billion ruble loan it took from the state-controlled VTB bank.

On March 22, a court in the Far East sentenced Sergei Terentyev, former director of one of the construction subcontractors, to 11 months in prison for misusing state funds and failing to pay employees. He was detained in April 2015 after 26 Vostochny construction workers launched a hunger strike over wage arrears.

Meanwhile, former Dalspetsstroi head Yury Krizman, his son Mikhail, and a former head of the Khabarovsk Krai legislature, Viktor Chudov, are all under investigation for allegedly embezzling about $1.6 million from the company. Yury Krizman was fired in 2013 for allegedly not informing the government fully about construction delays.

At the same time, in March, the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered Roskosmos to cut its 2016-25 budget by 30 percent, from 2 trillion rubles ($29.2 billion) to 1.4 trillion. Moscow's ambition of putting a human on the moon has been pushed back from 2035 to 2060 while plans to build a reusable spacecraft have been shelved completely.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (second from left) listens to Roskosmos chief Oleg Ostapenko during a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in September 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (second from left) listens to Roskosmos chief Oleg Ostapenko during a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in September 2014.

The space program is overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and his rhetoric has undergone some transformations in recent times as well. In a major article published in the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta in 2011, Rogozin defined "the Russian cosmos" as “a matter of the self-identity of our people and is a synonym for the Russian world," using the geopolitically loaded term "russky mir."

He associated the rebirth of Russia's space ambitions with the country's overall recovery from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2012, Rogozin gave his word that Vostochny -- which means "Eastern" -- would be completed by the end of 2015. Putin himself visited the site in September 2014 and declared Vostochny "a national-priority project." He also pledged the first launch would take place in 2015.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin: "An affordable cosmos."
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin: "An affordable cosmos."

But by August 2015, Rogozin sounded like a different man -- one with more modest aims. "If they ask us what is the main goal of the civilian space program," Rogozin said, "I answer it is not the moon or Mars. The main goal is an affordable cosmos."

Rogozin himself was the subject of a recent investigation by the international nongovernmental organization Transparency International that charges he and his family acquired a Moscow apartment in 2013 that is valued at 500 million rubles ($7.4 million).

In a post on Facebook, Rogozin attributed the report to "the Americans and their agents" and said "I have not purchased any apartments during the time I have worked for the Russian government."

On March 31, state-run news agency TASS reported that Vostochny construction had entered its final phase, emphasizing the installation of viewing stands for the first launch. Just five days earlier, the same news agency cited the acting first deputy director of construction as saying that "more than 200 changes and mistakes" in the project documentation had led to further delays, despite the launch facility’s being "technically finished."

"Because of [the changes and errors], it is impossible to complete many aspects of the work and, as a result, it is not possible to commission the facility," engineer Aleksandr Mordovets said.

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