Technical issues continue causing problems for the Russian space industry – which has recently suffered a number of public setbacks, including the failure of the Phobos-Grunt probe. On Friday, Roscosmos, the federal space agency, had to postpone the launch of a Proton booster from the Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan with a Dutch satellite on board. Yet as the global space industry continues to evolve, Russia remains committed to keeping its seat at the table.

On Thursday Skolkovo’s Space Cluster Club assembled to discuss the future of the troubled industry. Sergei Zhukov, head of the cluster and a former cosmonaut, said that Russia is developing a new national space strategy to spur innovations within the industry. Currently, the nature of this strategy is being discussed within different scientific institutions, independent think tanks and among government officials connected to the industry, according to Zhukov.

Ivan Moiseyev, head of the Space Policy Institute, which is an independent research center, said that the Russian space authorities are trying to consolidate the industry around Roscosmos. Mosieyev believes it could be a move into a wrong direction, as innovations should be driven by wider circle of interested organizations.

But some other club members at the event argued that the space industry is special and cannot be ruled by the kind of principles that govern other sectors. As one of the club members pointed out, among current problems special attention should be paid to how federal law 94 affects the industry. The law stipulates that every contract in the space industry is to go through a tender procedure, just like with any other government contract. But, as it was pointed out, the number of organizations that are actively involved in the space industry is actually quite small, therefore the tender mechanism looks like a formality and only slows down work. “If we always worked guided by the law number 94, mobile phones would never exist,” a club member argued.

In Russia, the dispute as to whether or not the space industry should be under the state control is as eternal as the universe. But as the American space industry has demonstrated, motivation as displayed by private individuals can act as a game-changer. For example, George Whitesides, CEO and president of Virgin Galactic, a U.S. based space travel venture of suborbital flights, explained how his company works to club members – offering a different perspective on what can drive the industry.

Before joining Virgin Galactic in May 2010, Whitesides was chief of staff of NASA. He left it for Virgin Galactic, a commercial venture founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, right when Barack Obama proclaimed his National Space Policy directive.

The directive committed the U.S. space authorities “to encourage and facilitate the growth of the commercial space sector” and “advance U.S. leadership in the generation of new markets and innovation-driven entrepreneurship,” as quoted by the U.S. Department of Commerce website.

Commercial organizations were welcomed to the table by the authorities, and Virgin Galactic used this opportunity. As Whitesides said, the company managed to sell 475 seats, $200,000 each, for its Space- ShipTwo project, which will really get going in 2013, when test flights of a new space ship are completed. As Whitesides said, Virgin Galactic so far has no big plans to get Russia involved, but several wealthy Russians have already booked themselves flights into Earth’s orbit.

And in New Mexico’s Mojave Desert, Virgin Galactic has built itself a new futuristic spaceport. Designed by the famous Foster and Partners architectural firm, it cost $200 million and was erected with the financial help of the local authorities, who hope that the port will raise New Mexico’s status and make the local scene more attractive for science-related businesses. It has proudly been dubbed Spaceport America.

As Sergei Zhukov noted at Skolkovo the technology involved in commercial suborbital flights has important implications that go beyond space tourism. For example, they can eventually be used to get passengers across the ocean. From Eurasia, suborbital planes would be able to deliver passengers to South America in a matter of one hour.

Whitesides said that risks for passengers are manageable, and that the company has come up with means of aborting flights safely: if something goes wrong at take-off, the engines stop and the vehicle glides back to the runway.

Whitesides went on to appeal to open space travel up for everybody – those who want to experience weightlessness, or see the planet we live on from its orbit and the Milky Way from outside the Earth’s atmosphere. He believes mankind is just in the very beginning of space exploration, and further developments will make suborbital flights more affordable for people across the globe, including Russians.

When space tourism started in 2001, Russian technology was involved. Denis Tito, a U.S. multimillionaire and head of the Wilshire Associates investment company, paid around $20 million for a week-long stay to the ISS. Tito made the trip in a Russian Soyuz rocket.


Author: Oleg Nikishenkov

Source: The Moscow News