The last two years have been tough for Ukraine in general, and its space program in particular. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 meant Ukraine lost access to a major ground station located there. That annexation, and ongoing unrest in eastern Ukraine, has also cut off most business Ukraine’s space industry had with Russia. The conflict also put on hold plans to launch Lybid, a communications satellite for Ukraine built by Canada’s MDA Corp.
There have been other problems as well. Demand for the Ukraine’s Zenit launch vehicle has dried up as Sea Launch suspended operations, and its future remains uncertain. Brazil backed out — for now, at least — of an agreement to host a launch site for the Cyclone-4 rocket. The failure of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket in October 2014 also affected Ukraine, as the rocket’s first stage is designed and built by Ukrainian firms Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash.
Despite these problems, Lyubomyr Sabadosh, chairman of the State Space Agency of Ukraine, remains optimistic about the future. Sabadosh, who took charge of Ukraine’s space agency last August, hopes to restart some of those international ventures while establishing new relationships, particularly with American companies. In May, he visited the United States, representing Ukraine in the first meeting of a U.S.-Ukraine space cooperation working group in Washington.
Sabadosh, speaking through an interpreter, discussed those new cooperative efforts, and the overall state of the Ukrainian space program, in a May 26 interview with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust.
You’re here in Washington for bilateral meetings with the U.S. government. What was the outcome of those meetings?
This meeting is a continuation of meetings we have conducted with the representatives of the U.S. State Department. As we have lost Russian markets, we are looking into opportunities to expand cooperation. To this purpose, and with the support of the U.S. State Department, we have established a working group, and its task is to identify issues that could be implemented by contractual relations with new partners and help Ukraine compensate for the loss of Russian markets. We got quite a list of offers. We presented our own proposals and hope for positive outcomes.
Are there specific areas of cooperation with the U.S. you’re most interested in pursuing?
We would be most interested in expanding our cooperation with Boeing and Orbital ATK. At the moment, we have a contract with Orbital ATK, and we hope the launch of the Antares vehicle planned for this year will be successful. It gives an encouraging signal to U.S. companies that Ukraine has technologies and scientific capabilities in terms of launch vehicle production, as well as spacecraft that could be used for other purposes. We also expect Boeing to bring up some ideas of their own in terms of how we can come back to the Sea Launch project.
Are you meeting with other organizations, like NASA, or other companies while you’re here in the U.S.?
We met with NASA and discussed the opportunities for running joint projects at the International Space Station. As part of the working group meeting, we had representatives of American companies who had meetings with representatives of Ukrainian companies who were with us, in particular Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, and Kosmos, and another design bureau. We met also with Honeywell. They could be a partner who could provide services and components for our own needs.
What is the current overall state of the Ukrainian space program?
We are finishing the five-year space program started in 2013. Unfortunately, the program was underfinanced. However, this year, despite all the hardships that we’ve had, the government has made a decision to fund the program 100 percent. And, as a part of this program, we will make a decision to complete the construction of two satellites, and complete ground testing of the Cyclone-4 rocket. These are the key tasks for the program that we run during 2016 and 2017.
This year, we started working on a new program that will be run from 2018 through 2022. It will be based on new principles, while taking into account programs run by our strategic partners, NASA in particular and also the European Space Agency. Our program will be a reflection of the interests of our partners. Obviously we have to take into consideration the budget, and coordinate this with the parliament and the government. For this reason, we have a member of parliament with us during our meetings here.
One project that has been on hold for a while is the Lybid satellite. What is the status of efforts to get it launched?
We expect that the project will be brought to a logical ending, and the launch of Lybid will take place. All political and economical roadblocks will be removed. We hope the force majeure clause invoked by MDA will be revoked. That force majeure situation was caused by annexation of Crimea. We discussed whether there would be another opportunity to use the current window this year or if the launch will be rescheduled for next year.
Who will launch it?
It will be on a Zenit launch vehicle from Baikonur Cosmodrome.
What is the future of the Zenit launch vehicle, particularly given the uncertainty about the future of Sea Launch?
We are in discussions with Boeing about renewing the space launch project. The Zenit launch vehicle is very well developed and, from an economic perspective, it is also efficient.
Are looking at other places to launch Zenit from besides Baikonur or Sea Launch?
As of now, we do not consider launching Zenit from any other launch pads. However, considering the interest expressed by other companies in Zenit launch vehicles, such opportunities could be considered.
You had an agreement with Brazil to launch the Cyclone-4 there, and that appeared to fall through. It sounds like you’re trying to restore that agreement, but are you also looking elsewhere?
The Cyclone-4 project is in the negotiation stage between Ukraine and Brazil. We do expect Brazil to consider our proposal to resume the project within the framework of the signed contract. There will be a meeting on May 31, and the key purpose of the meeting will be to discuss the renewal of the project.
Nevertheless, we are considering cooperation with other countries, such as, for example, Canadian partners who are ready to undertake efforts towards providing a launch site there.
Ukraine provides a propulsion unit for the Vega launch vehicle. There’s been some discussion in Europe about developing a replacement unit. Are you confident you’ll still be able to participate in the Vega program?
Our intention for developing a relationship with the European Space Agency is actually for this reason. We would like to expand the cooperation and consider an opportunity for Ukraine to enter the agency. The engine for the Vega project is being produced. We have such orders. Yuzhmash is a contractor. We expect the cooperation with the European Space Agency to be developed along these lines. We have a meeting scheduled during the Berlin Air Show in June and, along with other issues, the Vega project will be also discussed. We do hope for a positive outcome.
Is it a long-term goal for Ukraine to become an ESA member state?
Ukraine has strived to become a member of ESA for the past five years. So far, we have accomplished all of the requirements set by ESA in terms of entering this organization. It is one of many steps Ukraine makes to enter the European community.
What effect has the crisis with Russia over the last two years had on the Ukrainian space program?
We had many projects with Russia. We continue our cooperation with Russia, but only with projects that are related to peaceful space exploration and international cooperation. For example, the Soyuz control system is produced in Ukraine. However, all projects that had some sort of relationship to non-peaceful exploration have been terminated. This is why we look for some replacement elsewhere. When talking about the losses to the Ukrainian space industry, it’s in the millions of dollars.
What about capabilities that you’ve lost, like the ground station in Crimea?
It’s very sensitive. It’s not that easy to replace it. Annexation of Crimea was one of the reasons why our Canadian partners on Lybid declared force majeure. We tried to compensate and use the facilities that already exist on the mainland. In fact, we have established a new center for satellite management and control not far away from Kiev. That enabled us to continue to Lybid project. To compensate the loss of Crimea in full, obviously we can’t.
Are you working on other satellite programs?
The Ukrainian space program includes the construction of two satellites. We plan to launch them in 2018. They are for remote sensing and scientific purposes. As a part of our new space program, we plan to start construction of cubesats. We are also considering the construction of a new telecommunications satellite.
Are you optimistic about the future of the Ukrainian space program?
By all means. Space is unlimited. Everyone will find their place there. Ukraine has a vast intellectual potential. We will be able to find partners that will be able to continue working with us into the future.