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Features & Opinion

What's happening at the Russian Rocket Corporation?

16:58 27/06/2007
MOSCOW. (Nikolai Khorunzhy for RIA Novosti) - A tough unseen scramble is currently unfolding for the top post at the Energia Corporation, one of Russia's largest rocket and space centers.

In Russia, the company is a legend. It was here, in Podlipki, a town outside Moscow, that Sergei Korolyov directed the team that built, under strict secrecy more than 50 years ago, the first intercontinental ballistic missile, first man-made satellite and first manned spacecraft, aboard which Yury Gagarin made the triumphant first space flight around our planet. It was here that the road to space began.

Many industry watchers are tipping Vitaly Lapota for the post, who in 1978 graduated from the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute (now St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University). In 1984, he set up the Defense Ministry's laboratory for laser and electron beam technologies, and from 1985 to 1991 was director of research at various Defense Ministry enterprises. In 1986, he founded the laser technology department at Leningrad Polytechnical Institute and in 1987 set up the Center for Laser Technology, "which launched many programs in the interests of the defense sector." The attempt on May 15, 1987 to orbit a laser space station by means of a specially developed Energia rocket failed, however. Such a "laser-biased" biography makes some watchers conclude that Lapota's appointment as Energia's head might mean a boost for the anti-missile direction in Russia's defense industry sector as a response to the United States' latest moves.

It is more realistic to assume more prosaically that the real reason is the need to improve the management of the corporation, which has been run for the last two years by Nikolai Sevastyanov, an appointee of the Russian Space Agency. He is known for stunning projects, such as obtaining helium-3 on the Moon for the fusion power units of the future, as well as more down-to-earth plans to develop a space shuttle called Kliper.

Nikolai Moiseyev, Energia board chairman and director of Russia's Defense Industry and High Technologies Department, explained that the question of taking away all of Sevastyanov's powers had been put off before a general shareholders' meeting scheduled for July 31 because of lack of coordination between the Energia program and Russia's federal space program for the period until 2015. The board backed its chairman.

A similar situation took place two years ago, when the 44-year-old Sevastyanov took over from 70-year-old Semyonov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences who spent 13 years managing the corporation. Curiously enough, Sevastyanov was nominated by the same minority holder - the Kaskol company - which two years later initiated his resignation. The overly ambitious scientist-turned-businessman (he led the project to develop the Yamal satellite, which was launched for Gazprom and brought it sizeable revenues) has become too unmanageable. The need then was to make the corporation more profitable, and this was achieved, according to Sevastyanov.

On the other hand, many scientists predicted a sorry end for the young Energia president's half-baked projects. Energia chief research adviser Boris Chertok believed at the time that Russia's technological lag might interfere with those ambitious schemes. Yevgeny Velikhov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Kurchatov Nuclear Center, said last year that there were currently no technologies for using helium-3 as fuel. Also, the corporation's commercial successes call for a thorough examination.

The dismissal of Sevastyanov, however, will in no way affect Russian spacecraft launches, said Moiseyev. True, Alexander Medvedchikov, deputy head of the Russian Space Agency, used the same words two years ago when he backed Sevastyanov against the corporation's then president. At that time, the 70-year-old scientist lost. It looks as if in the tug-of-war with the government, which owns 40% of the corporation, the 46-year-old Sevastyanov is doomed to suffer the same fate, despite his combative frame of mind.

Two years ago, things were more or less the same at another Russian space giant, the Khrunichev State Research and Space Institute, which enjoyed unchecked control of state property and funds. This happened because the company's general directors were appointed and relieved using a special procedure established personally by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin on June 7, 1993 at the request of his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, who at that time was working in the Salyut Design Bureau, then part of the Khrunichev Center.

The company was bailed out with a "non-market" and "undemocratic" intervention by the state. Such is the reality not only in Russia but also in the world.

Nikolai Khorunzhy is a freelance military expert.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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