May 12, 2008

Omens and Space

It seems that last month’s botched Soyuz re-entry could have been much worse.

According to the WashPost, "malfunctioning parts or faulty workmanship” was to blame for the dangerous ballistic trajectory which charred the capsule’s communications antenna and temporarily left astronauts stranded in the wastes of Central Asia. In fact, the growing list of Soyuz part failures is getting so bad that "NASA and space experts [are] concerned about the spacecraft’s reliability in ferrying astronauts to and from the international space station.”

Just don't mention faulty workmanship or part failures to Federal Space Agency Chief Anatoly Perminov. Eternal Remont fans remember how, last month Perminov blamed the near-disaster on the presence of women on the spacecraft. According to Perminov, women are a “bad omen” in Russian spaceflight. While he wholly avoided the issue of shoddy parts, Perminov did pledge that “in the future, we will work somehow to ensure that the number of women will not surpass [the number of men].”

There you have it. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, the Russian Federal Space Agency’s reliance on omens and misogyny does quite not measure up to NASA’s standards for flight safety. This is especially true since the US will be entirely dependent on the Soyuz craft once the shuttles are retired in 2010.

For its part, the company that builds the Soyuz (Ракетно-космическая корпорация "Энергия" им. С.П.Королева) is struggling to find the skilled workers it needs to meet safety and production standards; a fact which only the Russian Communist Party is willing to highlight these days.

In his last years as president, Putin embraced a drive to transform Russia into one of the world’s top aerospace manufacturers. But then Russia’s long-awaited GPS system fizzled and its manned mission to Mars (yes, Mars) has languished in bureaucratic obscurity.

Medvedev will likely follow Putin’s lead on aerospace. Howver, it is unlikely that projected increases in state subsidies will fully reverse the lasting damage to Russia's aerospace industry or staunch Russia's declining competitiveness in high-tech manufacturing.

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