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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rocket Plant Needs a Boost

The maker of the Russian space shuttle, the Lightning rocket plant, is, like many Russian companies, now trying to get out of the defense business.

"We just have a problem with money at the moment", deputy director Alexander Tarasov told a tour group inspecting the factory's efforts to convert to civilian production Monday. "But our engineering is excellent".

After 16 years spent developing Buran, Russia's space shuttle, the company simply called Lightning - Molnya in Russian - is now looking for a new vocation for its tens of thousands of workers and string of aerospace factories around Moscow and Samara.

When it was established in 1976, Lightning had expected the Russian military to fill Buran's cargo holds with anti-ballistic and spy satellites.

But the military does not need big loads anymore nor does anyone else.

Buran may have performed well in an unmanned test flight last year, but today with a payload of 300 tons it is just too big.

Lightning's brilliant space engineers went back to the drawing board and now have detailed mock-ups of MACS, a reusable launch vehicle with a payload of only 80 tons.

MACS, however, may never be built. Lightning cannot afford to make anything more than a model.

Buying new equipment to build MACS is not an option.

Lightning's share of a 1. 3 trillion-ruble aid package announced last month by the Gaidar government for military factories converting to civilian production purposes was barely enough to feed the factory's 10, 000 engineers.

Reusable rockets similar to MACS are being designed in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, and Lightning would like to collaborate.

Last week a deal was signed with the European rocket maker, Hermes, for components and research.

But the contracts, bringing in only a few million dollars, will not answer Lightning's troubles.

Apart from MACS, Lightning has several other ventures on the drawing

board and at the workshop. But apart from a Bulgarian computer joint venture called Informatica, nothing is actually up and running.

The company has plans to get into the executive jet and leisure aircraft business with a new series of aircraft based on a twin fuselage design.

Tarasov says the planes will be 25 percent lighter and 30 percent more fuel efficient.

The Lightning 1, a five-seater, single-engine plane, is still a prototype and has not yet had a successful flight.

A model has been built of the Lightning 100, a twin-engine executive runabout.

The Lightning 1000, a revolutionary twin-hulled cargo plane that will fit a container snugly between the two fuselages, is still with the designers.

Tarasov said that foreign customers and investors had indicated they would back the project.

But none has actually offered to invest in the development stage, and in the meantime Lightning is still looking for more money from somewhere.

An international conference On conversion of Russia's aerospace complex this week called, "Swords into Plowshares", is trying to resolve what to do about companies like Lightning and their thousands of skilled but redundant workers.

One conference attender, Reuben Johnson of the U. S. Institute for -Defense Analysis, said euphoria had faded over the last two years, and slogans about converting factories from rockets to frying pans were now seen as simplistic.

"Basically, it takes a lot of money to convert from military to civil production. ", he said.

The Gaidar government this year appointed free marketers to key positions in the military industrial complex with a mandate to push ahead with conversion.

Russia's strength is its advanced technology in the fields of optics, metallurgy, alloy and component materials as well as structural engineering,

But the experience in the United States, where defense budgets have been slashed in recent years, is that even where conversion takes place civilian industries require far fewer highly trained personnel.

More importantly, they do not need the byzantine and ponderous bureaucracy customary in private companies serving the military.