Thursday, September 02, 2010

Frustration grows over Russian rocket stalemate

The part-Russian, part-Korean made Korea Space Launch Vehicle 1 (KSLV-1) rockets failed in their first two attempts to deliver payload satellites into orbit. Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, the provider of the core technologies for the Korean rocket project, is reluctant to commit to a third try. Korea Times file

By Kim Tong-hyung

South Korea looks to rely on Russian technology to jumpstart its efforts to involve in the Asian space race, but engineers and officials here seem increasingly frustrated over being at the mercy of a capricious business partner.

The country has bungled on its first two attempts to launch as satellite from the Naro spaceport in South Jeolla Province and claims that Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center bound by contract to provide a third attempt.

However, the Russians, who have clearly approached the Korean rocket project as an experiment on course of developing their next-generation Angara rockets, are reluctant to build any more Korea Space Launch Vehicles 1s (KSLV-1s).

Fighting words are flying left and right between Korea’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and the Khrunichev Center as the discontent over the Russian rocket holdout becomes uglier and uglier.

Following the third failure review board (FRB) meeting between the two countries earlier this month, which was to discuss the cause of KSLV-1’s midair explosion in its second launch in June, the Science Ministry announced of securing a commitment from the Khrunichev Center for another Korean launch.

The Khrunichev Center will fully burden the cost for building and transporting another KSLV-1, ministry officials said, and the new rocket will be launched at the Naro Space Center sometime during next year, ministry officials said.

But the Khrunichev Center is now saying this isn’t true, claiming that there were no discussions over the possibility of an additional launch in the recent FRB meeting. The countries have yet to agree on what caused KSLV-1 to exploded just two minutes into its June flight, and Khrunichev Center insisted that the decision over a third launch could only be possible after the investigation over the second launch is concluded.

Khrunichev Center’s statement had journalists here making frantic telephone calls and taking guesses over whether the country will have a rocket launch next year or not. Eventually, Cho Gwang-rae, the head of rocket development at the Korea Aerospace Research Center (KARI), the country’s space agency, had to be called into the ministry’s news room to explain what exactly has been going on.

Yes, there has been an agreement over a third KSLV-1 launch, Cho said, but the decision wasn’t made in the FRB meeting. The FRB meetings have been strictly focused on the technical debates involving June’s failed attempt, but senior representatives of both countries, held a separate meeting on Aug. 12 whether an agreement over another KSLV-1 launch was reached, Cho said.

Cho said he participated in the meeting along with Park Jeong-joo, who heads KSLV systems development at KARI, while the Khrunichev Center was represented by first deputy general designer Yuri Bakhvalov and space station program director Sergei Shaevich.

``Issues such as the decision over the third launch, the timing of the launch and related budgets weren’t to be handled by the engineers gathered for technical analysis at the FRB, so the separate meeting between the senior officials were held on the last day of the FRB schedule,’’ Cho said, although refusing to disclose the exact terms of the agreement citing confidentiality issues.

``We have made a telephone call to Shaevich to tell him that a misinformed news release has been posted on Khrunichev Center’s website. Khrunichev Center was probably trying to massage public egos following the reports by the Russian media that a third launch would be an open acknowledgement that Russian technologies were the fault of the rocket explosion.’’

The part-Russian, part Korean KSLV-1 is a result of a 502.5 billion won (about $420 million) investment. The Khrunichev Center, designed and developed the KSLV-I first-stage, which holds the rocket engine and liquid-fuel propulsion system. KARI developed the KSLV-I second-stage, which is designed to hold a payload satellite and release it into proper position.

In its second launch in June, the rocket, carrying a satellite aimed at observing the atmosphere and oceans, blasted off from the Naro Space Center, but exploded about two minutes later.

The spectacular letdown adds to the fears that the country's Herculean investment of money and effort into its first home-launched rocket may never produce the desired returns.

In its first launch in August last year, the rocket achieved its desired speed and height, but failed to deliver its payload satellite into orbit.

The Russians are under contract to provide at least two launches, and a possible third should their technology related to the KSLV-I first-stage be found responsible for the failure of any of the first two attempts. KARI took the blame for the bungled first launch, and tension has been evident in the FRB meetings over the failure of the second launch, as the Koreans attempt to rope in their Russian counterparts for a third try sometime next year.

Observers believe there is a possibility that the Khrunichev Center, which clearly holds the leverages in the talks, may only commit to a third launch should Korea agrees to pay for it.

Buying a new rocket from the Russians will cost about 200 billion won, according to ministry officials, and some experts wonder whether the money will be better spent if the country just skips on the third launch and goes directly for the KSLV-II, which is aimed to be an indigenous rocket. The KSLV-II, which will be capable of carrying a bigger satellite than its predecessor, is slated for its maiden flight around 2020.

Lee to visit Russia next week for summit

President Lee Myung-bak will visit Russia next week to hold a summit with President Dmitry Medvedev and attend an international conference, Lee's office announced Wednesday.

Lee "plans to visit Russia from Sept. 9-10 to attend the second World Political Forum in Yaroslavl at the invitation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and deliver a keynote speech," Cheong Wa Dae said in a press release.

Lee and Medvedev are scheduled to hold a summit next Friday on the sidelines of the conference to be held in Yaroslavl, 260 kilometers northeast of Moscow, it added.

The meeting will be their fourth summit.

The leaders plan to "discuss ways to deepen a strategic cooperative partnership between the two nations on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations," it said.

They will also have broad discussions on regional security issues and how to promote substantial cooperation on issues of mutual concern, including the upcoming G-20 Seoul Summit in November, Russia's economic modernization drive, energy and natural resources development, especially in the eastern-most Siberian regions, according to the presidential office.

In his speech at the Yaroslavl conference, meanwhile, Lee will introduce South Korea's experience in fast economic development and reaffirm South Korea's resolve to help Russia's ongoing efforts to modernize its economy as well as unveil a vision for the development of democracy based on economic growth and information technology.

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