RUSSIAN SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS

The former Soviet Union has launched more spacecraft into orbit than any other nation, and its space program has been ranked second only to that of the U.S. in the level of resources dedicated to space projects. The INTERSPUTNIK satellite system was a large operational international communications system serving not only the former U.S.S.R., but also Eastern Europe and Cuba. Soviet scientists, engineers and technicians were well trained, although lacking tools such as extensive computer software. Soviet spacecraft did not employ the most advanced instrumentation and electronic technologies compared to their Western counterparts, and the overall design life of the satellites was often less. Nevertheless, the Soviet space program had efficient assembly line production of spacecraft, combined with a large launch vehicle capability that resulted in an effective operational space industry.

The recent dissolution of the Soviet empire and government, the independence of Eastern European countries and the easing of military tensions have, however, thrown this largely military-dominated space industry into what can be described as near chaos. The funding and support of the military space program has eroded to a mere trickle, and the civil communications programs do not presently have the resources to organize their enormous space assets into projects and programs that can support domestic requirements, or can be prepared for outside markets.

Russia is trying to organize the space assets of the former Soviet Union into commercial ventures. The directors and employees of the space program are tasked with the new job of becoming entrepreneurs. Since the salaries of these employees have disintegrated to levels of subsistence, the new job is taken seriously. The Russian government is trying to help by organizing a space agency to coordinate marketing, but a number of new vendors and academic/research institutes are moving faster than the space agency to find buyers for the assets they control or think they can sell. The plight of the new sellers, combined with speculators and "carpetbaggers" who are swarming through Eastern Europe and Russia, is only adding to the chaos in the near term.

In the middle-term, however, it would seem to be possible to put in orbit Western-financed, Russian-built and launched, medium-technology, commercially useable communications satellites for about one half of the present cost in Europe or the United States. Thus, out of chaos may emerge a lower cost supply of spacecraft and launchers. This might well create a higher level of growth and competition in the commercial satellite industry that could have a significant effect on present and planned domestic, regional and international satellite systems. Naturally, in the long-term, new technologies and joint ventures will pull the global supply curve back into market equilibrium.

U.S. government policies may have some initial difficulty with the Russian supply of satellites and launch vehicles, but much of the financing will come from the Europe or the Pacific Rim, if the U.S. moves slowly. Stabilizing the Russian economy is also a high priority policy objective, and U.S. cooperation for joint commercial ventures is consistent with that objective. Opportunities for NASA-Russian space R&D cooperation may also be available.


Published: July 1993; WTEC Hyper-Librarian