The bumpy road to Vostochny, Russia’s new multibillion-dollar spaceport

To Russian President Vladimir Putin, the mammoth Vostochny cosmodrome in the far eastern Siberian taiga illustrates the nation’s ongoing role as a space pioneer.

The desolate area six time zones from Moscow provides ample space away from most communities to launch rockets carrying small cargo such as satellites and, eventually, larger rockets and manned missions.

The facility also is expected to help ease Russia’s dependence on the historic Baikonur cosmodrome, which is in formerly Soviet Kazakhstan and costs Moscow $115 million a year to lease. The Baikonur complex is where the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and the rocket that carried Yuri Gagarin, the first human in orbit, were launched during the Cold War.

But the road to Vostochny, which means Eastern, has not been smooth since Putin signed a 2007 decree to build the multibillion-dollar spaceport. The construction turned into a public relations nightmare and a symbol of Russia’s post-Soviet space failures caused in part by brain drain, erosion of scientific and technological standards and corruption.

Unpaid construction workers started hunger strikes, held rallies and painted gigantic cries for help on the roofs of their barracks before a Putin inspection visit last year. More than 80 audits identified 1,651 violations of the labor code and triggered 20 investigations into several subcontractors and hundreds of officials. Almost 180 of them were demoted and reprimanded, three were sentenced to jail and four more have been arrested.


“It symbolizes the degradation of the system of making and implementing decisions,” Pavel Luzin, an independent space industry analyst, said in an interview.

Although Russia plays a key role in the operation of the International Space Station, which has been continuously occupied since November 2000, Moscow has faced a string of humiliating failures.

Since 2010, it has lost dozens of domestically manufactured and foreign-made commercial satellites worth hundreds of millions of dollars and a cargo ship in a series of malfunctions and crashes. Kliper, a reusable spacecraft for up to six cosmonauts, has been grounded. Phobos-Grunt, an automatic research station designed to deliver samples from the Martian moon Phobos, failed to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011 and burned down a year later.

Last month, Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire who was named after Gagarin, teamed up with theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking to announce a plan to send ultralight spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. He did not say a word about using Russian space expertise although his announcement was made on the 55th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight.

As recently as last week, Russian officials were embarrassed by a glitch that caused a delay in the nation’s first rocket launch from Vostochny and generated reprimands from Putin, who had traveled to the site for the occasion.

A day later, Putin watched the successful launch of an unmanned Soyuz 2.1a rocket carrying three satellites that separated and headed to their orbits, the state-run Roscosmos space agency said.

“Really, like they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the cosmodrome’s readiness for operation is the first launch. And you did it,” Putin, who watched from about a mile away, told officials. “I want to congratulate you. We should be proud. It’s a serious and important contribution to the development of the Russian space industry.”

As part of his enthusiasm for the project, Putin previously renamed the town closest to Vostochny after Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a czarist-era schoolteacher who postulated the use of rockets for space travel and dreamed of spreading human life across the universe. Moscow wants Tsiolkovsky’s population to reach 40,000, but so far there are only three dozen apartment buildings and a wooden Orthodox church.

The existing launchpad was initially designed for a super-heavy rocket that has yet to be built, then was prepared for Soyuz, an old Soviet workhorse. More launchpads are expected to be constructed, with plans calling for several launches a year.

Russia also expects to continue using Baikonur, which is leased until 2050, even as it relies more on Vostochny, officials said. The Baikonur site remains the primary location for civilian and commercial launches for now, while other sites are used for military launches.

Even in the twilight years of the U.S.S.R., Moscow managed to launch a space shuttle — and for years after the 1991 Soviet collapse and economic crisis kept sending satellite and manned missions from Baikonur, running the world’s only cheap and reliable “space taxi” after the U.S. docked its space shuttles in 2011.

Some analysts said Russia’s space program remains driven by the obsolete priority of expensive manned flights over cheaper robotic probes. Instead of promoting competing research facilities, Moscow preferred to centralize the industry around state-run corporations.

“The point of it all is flying to space for the sake of flying. Research objectives that give real and long-term results remain secondary,” Luzin said. “That’s all because an emphasis on science, on progress will have to change the entire industry, will require rejection of the existing model, where the spending of the budget is a top priority.”

As for Vostochny, which occupies about 270 square miles near the border with northern China, the future remains unclear.

Construction is ongoing at the sprawling complex. Plans call for the first manned mission from the facility to the space station to happen after 2023.

Since retiring its space shuttle program, NASA has paid Russia to ferry its astronauts to the space station. But last year, the aerospace firm SpaceX and Boeing Co. won contracts from NASA to transport astronauts, with the first of such launches planned for 2017.

SpaceX already carries cargo to the space station via unmanned flights under a separate contract with NASA. Other nations also have space programs.

Nevertheless, former Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, who pioneered spacewalks in 1965, recently sounded optimistic in televised remarks after he visited Vostochny, saying he looked forward to Angara, the yet-to-be-built heavy booster rocket, and upcoming space exploration by Russia.

“It will all be done from here,” Leonov said.

Mirovalev is a special correspondent.