Frustration grows over Russian rocket stalemate
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.
러시아 기술의 도움을 받아 아시아 우주경쟁에 뛰어든 한국은 사업 파트너인 러시아의 변덕스러운 태도에 점점 더 불안해 하고 있다.
나로호(KSLV-1) 두 번의 발사를 모두 실패한 한국은 계약상 3차 시도는 러시아가 부담할 것이라고 주장하고 있다. 그러나 현재 개발중인 자신들의 차세대 발사체 앙가라 로켓을 시험을 위해 한국 로켓 프로잭트에 참가한 것이 명백한 러시아 측은 더 이상의 나로호를 만드는 것을 꺼려하고 있다. 이로 인해 한국과 러시아 측은 나로호 3차 발사 시도를 두고 치열한 논쟁을 버리고 있다.
지난 6월에 있었던 2차 시도에서의 나로호 폭발에 대해 논의를 위해 열렸던 두 나라간의 3차 조사위원회의에서 과학부는 러시아 측에게 3차 시도에 대한 확답을 요구했으며 과학부 관계자는 러시아 흐루니체프 연방 우주과학 제작센터는 3차 나로호 제작과 운반비용을 자신들이 모두 감당하는데 합의했고 내년쯤 나로호가 우주센터에서 발사 될 것이라고 밝혔다.
한편 흐루니체프 제작센터는 과학부 관계자의 발언은 사실이 아니며 최근에 열린 조사위원회에서 자신들은 추가 발사 가능성에 대한 논의는 없었다고 주장하고 있다. 아직까지 나로호 2차 시도 폭발의 원인에 대해 합의를 보지 못한 상태이고 제작센터는 2차 시도 조사가 마무리가 된 후에야 3차 시도에 대한 결정을 내릴 수 있을 것이라고 주장했다.
양측의 주장이 엇갈린 가운데 국가 우주 기관인 한국 항공우주 연구원 책임자 조광래씨는 3차 시도에 대한 합의는 8월 12일 양국 고위 관계자들만 따로 만난 자리에서 결정된 것이며 조사위원회에선 2차 시도 실패에 대한 기술적 대화만 오갔다고 해명했다.
계약에선 러시아가 최소 2번의 발사시도에 도움을 주기로 되어있으며 앞선 2번의 시도가 나로호의 기술적 문제 때문이라는 것이 밝혀졌을 때에만 3번째 도움을 주기로 되어있다. 이에 관측자들은 한국에 비용을 부담한다는 아래에만 러시아 측이 3차 시도에 합의할 것이라는 생각을 내놓고 있다.
관계자들은 러시아에게서 새로운 로켓을 구입하려면 약 2조원이 들 것이라 말하며 이에 일부의 전문가들은 3차 시도를 생략하고 순수 국내 제작을 목표로 하고 있는 KSLV-II에 투자하는 것이 낫다고 보고 있다. KSLV-II는 앞선 것 보다 더 큰 규모의 인공위성을 쏘아 올릴 수 있게 될 것이며 처녀비행은 약 2020년으로 예상하고 있다.