VIEW FROM VEDOMOSTI: Proton and Soviet Economy Mystically Allergic to Money




There is no better metaphor for the old Russian economy than the Proton K rocket that crashed near the Kazakh city of Karaganda last week. Proton's creators managed to come out on top of every bureaucratic battle, but almost as soon as the project became commercial, it ran out of luck. The Soviet economy and many of its greatest achievements were mystically allergic to money.


Proton was originally created to deliver the mother of Kuzma to the United States. In the early 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the desk at the United Nations and threatened Americans, "Ya vam pokazhu Kuzkinu mat!" Which, in English, translates simply as "I'll show you." In Russian, though, the expression is more specific, though also more cryptic: it involves the mother of a guy named Kuzma.


That mother was, in fast, an intercontinental ballistic missile designed in 1961 that could carry a 100-megaton nuclear warhead across the ocean. The missile was called UR-500, but later it acquired the name Proton, after a satellite it launched in the late 1960s. Khrushchev was understandably sure of himself.


His successors thought the mega-warhead was a bit excessive, like many things Khrushchev did or planned. But Academician Vladimir Chelomei, who had been working on the rocket's design and was fond of the project, quickly found a new use for Proton - it could send spaceships to fly around the moon.


Those were wonderful days when a scientist could ask for money to fly around the moon - and get it. But the plan did not work out as Chelomei planned - Americans landed on the moon and made it unnecessary to fly around it, if it was ever necessary in the first place.


Chelomei would not give up. He peddled Proton to send exploration ships to Mars and Venus, then to launch piloted spaceships. Proton was actually used to send the now semi-retired Mir space station to orbit.


Then, in the last decade, came the era of commercialism. Chelomei's Engineering Science and Production Unit gave up rights to Proton to the Khrunichev Center, which started using the rocket to launch heavy communications satellites. Proton was probably the most popular rocket in its class in the world, and Khrunichev earned no less than $600 million a year by selling launches to foreign companies. The rocket crashed once in a while - about once every two years. That was not a bad record.


Now that Russia has to fill its quota of geostationary satellites - or else it will be handed over to other countries - Proton has suffered its second disaster in three launches. When it crashed, having failed to deliver a Russian communications satellite to orbit, there was dead silence in the control room at Baikonur. Then someone cursed loudly and more profanely than Khrushchev had at the UN. The missile had come full circle.


Russian TV companies, which had booked transmitters on the undelivered Express 1 satellite, failed to expand their reach on the eve of the elections. Executives there, as well as some military officials who recall the previous Proton crash, say cash-hungry Khrunichev has been launching Protons too often and neglecting their quality. Commercialism does not seem to agree with the Proton.


For the second time this year, Kazakhstan has banned launches from Baikonur, which Russia rents from the Central Asian state. This time, the ban covers not just Protons but all launches. This means a serious loss of profit for Khrunichev and some joint ventures that sell commercial satellite launches. It also means that Russia may have to pay more rent for Baikonur when the Kazakh government eventually relents.


Russia, of course, is trying to develop its own launch ground at Plesetsk in Northern Russia, which was originally built as a missile base in 1959. Almost as many launches have been made from Plesetsk as from Baikonur in recent months, but these were ligher rockets than Proton. Khrunichev will have to speed up its plans to equip Plesetsk for heavy rockets like one of the versions of its new Angara missile. And the company may have to phase out Proton launches from Baikonur sooner than 2010, which is the year specified in Khrunichev's plans.


The Russian space industry is not going to die because of the Proton crash. But international confidence in it has been undermined by the disasters. Khrushchev with his threats was more impressive than Khrunichev with its snafus.


Leonid Bershidsky is the editor of Vedomosti.