The former head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, Vladimir Popovkin, has died at the age of 56 after succumbing to cancer. Popovkin had previously risen through the ranks of the Russian Space Forces and took over the role of head of Roscosmos in April 2011 after a series of dramatic launch and spacecraft failures. He was charged with making major reforms in the Russian Space Programme to improve flight reliability.
Popovkin had a rocky start. He was in charge when the Russian flagship Phobos-Grunt interplanetary mission was lost. There were subsequently more failures and in 2013 Popovkin was formally and publicly reprimanded for “improperly carrying out his professional duties” by the Russian Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev. The reprimand was after yet another Proton launch failure, this time embarrassingly caused after angular velocity sensors had been installed upside down – the sort of quality control failure that Popovkin had been appointed to stop.
In truth, Popovkin had relatively little time to make necessary amends to Russia’s space quality control system. However, in a reshuffle in October 2013, Popovkin lost his job and was replaced by Oleg Ostapenko, previously deputy defense minister and head of the Russian Space Forces. It is noted that despite this change, Russian reliability has yet to improve under Ostapenko exemplified by another Proton launch failure earlier this year.
Popovkin’s other achievements in office was Russia’s involvement in the European ExoMars programme. Russia stepped in as the saviour of the cash-strapped ESA mission after NASA partly withdrew its launch contribution as it attempted to cut its funding to balance its budget.
Popovkin was not averse to receiving from and giving advice to leaders of the West’s space industry including Elon Musk of SpaceX. Popovkin remained cautious about the potential of lunar round the moon tourism flights noting the difficulties that individuals would have in gaining funding. Nevertheless, on this he was apparently wrong as Space Adventures recently reported that they have two candidates with the necessary funding for a Soyuz trip around the Moon.
Other more colourful aspects of Popovkin’s tenure as head of Roscosmos were caused by headlines describing how Popovkin was hospitalised after allegedly either falling down stairs drunk or being hit with a bottle in an alleged drunken fight with another man over the affections of his beautiful press secretary Anna Vedischeva. While he did not deny his injuries, these reports, which were used against him by his enemies within the Russian space industry, Popovkin strongly denied. However, more difficult to justify was his selection of his press secretary given her experience: the alluring Vedischeva, who was a former glamour model, confessed to knowing nothing about space.
Addendum: We are sad to report some other notable individuals who have passed away. We say goodbye to our friend and former colleague, David Sherlock, who was, until his partial retirement, a mainstay of the aviation data team at Airclaims and Ascend. His expertise and amusing wit will be sadly missed. Also, while not directly related to aerospace, we note the passing of UK comic Rik Mayall and Spaghetti western actor Eli Wallach, both of whom Seradata’s Space Intelligence news (and its Hyperbola forerunner) have briefly referenced before.