Igor Komarov, director-general of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said SpaceX presents a challenge to all launch-vehicle manufacturers but that Russia can compete with expendable vehicles — for now. Credit: NASA photo

PARIS — The head of Russia’s space agency on July 4 said Russia will remain commercially competitive in launch services by cutting prices of a newly designed rocket by 20% — the same reduction he expects to see from SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9.

In statements published on the Roscosmos website from an interview with Business FM, Roscosmos Director-General Igor Komarov said Russia’s Soyuz 5 rocket will be competitive without being reusable for a few years:

http://bit.ly/2uGvyyP

Longer-term, Komarov said, reusable rockets likely will become the norm as advances in materials make the reuse of rocket stages more feasible.

Komarov said the volume and value of SpaceX’s launch contracts present “a serious challenge, not only for us, but for all traditional producers of rocket and space technology…. I think in the future this technology will be used. The only question is when. There are serious doubts that we can do it with the present level of materials and rocket engines.”

Komarov listed the tradeoffs involved in rocket reuse, including the need to carry substantial extra fuel, reducing payload-carrying capability, to power the stage back to Earth. The stresses on materials during atmospheric reentry will mean high maintenance and repair costs, he suggested.

Komarov said he assumes that SpaceX and others planning to reuse their rocket stages will be able to cut their prices by 15-20% and that the reductions will not go much beyond this in the next five years.

The medium-lift Soyuz 5, he said, will match this price cut.

It was unclear where Komarov got the 15-20% figure. SpaceX has not given a consistent estimate of what the use of previously flown Falcon 9 first stages will do to commercial launch prices, especially given the company’s billion-dollar investment in the technology.

OneWeb: Roscosmos is a fan. And the Russian government?

Komarov pointed to the 21-launch contract to launch most of the OneWeb constellation of low-orbiting satellites as an example of Russia’s ability to compete and win in the commercial market. OneWeb will be using Soyuz rockets operated from Russian spaceports.

Komarov listed several OneWeb investors and spoke highly of the OneWeb goal of connecting the world’s schools to the internet — he called it “a commercial project with a noble task.”

He did not address — it’s not in his agency’s mandate — whether Russian authorities would permit OneWeb to operate in Russia.

Komarov said the unusually high failure rate of heavy-lift Proton rockets in the past five years reflected a general decline in production processes and quality control in Russia’s space industry.

He described a painful process of examining the space sector’s defects and replacing managers as part of a corrective process. Proton recently returned to flight after being grounded for a year in what was described as a broad quality-assurance drive.

“We had to recall more than 70 engines,” Komarov said. “It was painful. People were concerned. I want to say: We were obliged to do this.”

He said the quality-assurance and production-oversight review that the Proton industrial base underwent in the past year or two would continue indefinitely to be certain that the lessons have been learned. He said salaries at rocket-hardware companies had been raised as well.

Komarov noted that the private sector in the United States, including several wealthy individuals, has elected to invest in space technology. That has not happened in Russia, but he said recent developments, including a private company’s purchase of the Sea Launch commercial launch venture, may be the beginning of a similar trend in Russia.

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding
Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for SpaceIntelReport.com. He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeimenent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes