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Roscosmos head ousted after series of setbacks in space

Posted: October 10, 2013
Updated: October 10

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday named Oleg Ostapenko, Russia's deputy defense minister, as the new chief of the country's space agency, replacing Vladimir Popovkin, whose troubled tenure was marred by launch failures and the loss of an ambitious mission to Mars.

File photo of Oleg Ostapenko. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defence
The long-rumored change in leadership at the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, came after government officials promised reforms in the country's space industry following a series of embarrassing failures, most recently the explosive July crash of a Proton rocket and three Glonass navigation satellites at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Ostapenko, 56, was commander of the Russian Space Forces before his appointment as deputy defense minister in 2012.

"I wish you every success," Medvedev told Ostapenko, according to a transcript posted to a Russian government website. "I hope that a number of problems, which unfortunately have been recently observed in the activities of the Russian Federal Space Agency, will be overcome with your arrival."

Popovkin took over Roscosmos in April 2011 at another time of crisis. His arrival at Roscosmos came less than five months after a Proton launch failure attributed to the overfilling of the rocket's upper stage with propellant.

Phobos-Grunt, Russia's first Mars mission in 15 years, launched in November 2011 but was stranded in low Earth orbit, most likely due to a computer programming error, investigators said.

Russian launchers also ran into an unusual streak of failures under Popovkin's watch, with mishaps striking two Soyuz rockets in 2011, resulting in the loss of a military communications satellite and a Progress resupply craft heading for the International Space Station.

Malfunctions of the Proton rocket's Breeze M upper stage on three missions left communications satellites in wrong orbits, and a dramatic Proton failure in July destroyed three navigation satellites in a fiery accident recorded on video and posted on YouTube.

"I hope that everything, including future launches, will be carried out in accordance with plans," Medvedev told the new head of Roscosmos.

"For my part, I will make every effort to ensure that these issues have been resolved," Ostapenko said.