Valery Ryumin has had a long career as an engineer and cosmonaut: he was twice named a Hero of the Soviet Union, a veteran of two long stints on the Salyut-6 space station (remarkably, he spent 175 days there in 1979 and returned again in 1980 for another 180 days), and eventually a crew member of space shuttle Discovery's mission to the Mir space station in 1998.
Now 79 years old but still a respected figure in Russian space circles, Ryumin has given a highly critical interview about the present and future of Roscosmos and the Russian space program. The interview was published on Pravda.ru, a pro-government news website with a nationalistic bent that is not related to the long-time newspaper of the Russian Communist Party, Pravda. It seems significant that this publication would feature such a negative view of Russia's activities in space.
As part of the interview, Ryumin is asked about Russia's stated plans to send humans to the Moon in the 2020s. "On what money?" he replies. "In recent years, the leaders are blowing more smoke than doing anything substantive." (A translation of the interview was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell.)
Ryumin says that the current leader of the Russian space corporation Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, "may be talented and a pretty good organizer, but in order to survive in this business, you need to know the history and have real experience. It takes a lot of time."
And Rogozin doesn't have that experience, Ryumin said. "He's not a space specialist but a journalist," the former cosmonaut said. (Mostly a politician during his career, Rogozin graduated from Moscow State University in 1986 with a degree in journalism).
The former cosmonaut—who also had a long career at one of Russia's primary aerospace contractors, RSC Energia—also criticized a rotating door of leadership at his old firm. The financially troubled company seems to have no plans for revitalization and no public accountability.
Speaking of RSC Energia's management, Ryumin said, "Some oversight committee has to make the most important decisions. What kind of committee it is, where it came from, what authority it has, what its responsibilities are—no one knows. Nothing is written down about it in any case."
The interviewer, the Russian author and journalist Vladimir Gubarev, also asked about Russia's plans to develop the "Federation" spacecraft, which Russian officials have billed as a response to NASA's Orion spacecraft. The Federation capsule, too, will have the capability to go into deep space.
Gubarev does not believe that will happen, however, saying, "Even if we build Federation, it won't be a quality ship, much less up to date technologically. What the Americans and Europeans are doing, in my view, is a fundamental qualitative breakthrough."
Ryumin agrees, noting that the Russian space program has been working on Federation for a decade and it is unlikely to fly humans until the mid-2020s.
"Even if we build Federation, we don't have any way to launch it into space," Ryumin said. "There's no booster for it, and no money to build it. There are only decisions that we need to build a ship and a new booster. But there's nothing else besides words. We've been given a task but no means to fulfill it."
There is, notionally at least, a booster for Federation. Originally, it was supposed to launch on the Rus-M rocket, which was canceled in 2011. Then it was to launch on the Angara A5 rocket, but last year Russian officials said instead it would launch on the Soyuz-5 rocket, because this booster will cost less. This conceptual rocket may make its debut sometime in the mid-2020s. Even if the Soyuz-5 is developed, it will not be powerful enough to launch Federation beyond low Earth orbit.
"The Americans are actively exploring the Moon," Ryumin said. "We also talk about it, but how are we going to explore? No one knows. Because we don't have ships; we don't have boosters that can do it."