The first time I spoke to Volodymyr Usov was last June, just months after the 37-year-old had been plucked, seemingly from nowhere, to become the new director of Ukraine’s State Space Agency. Only five months into the job, he had little time to chat with foreign reporters, so he took my call in his car. As he zipped across Kyiv to the Space Agency’s headquarters, Usov described in enthusiastic detail his three-year plan to reverse the painful decline of Ukraine’s once-celebrated space sector. 

Usov was not an obvious choice for the country’s highest space job. He had no space-related bona fides, nor any connection to the cabal of kleptocrats and insiders who traditionally occupy the top roles in Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises. A graduate of Odessa’s National Maritime Academy, he worked in the city’s seaport before getting into tech in 2011, when he founded a company called Gutenbergz, a “digital publishing house” that produced interactive e-books. In 2014, he founded a 3D-printing startup called Kwambio. The company became a modest success in Ukraine and earned some buzz in the 3D-printing world for working with ceramics instead of plastics. (An offshoot called Project ADAM would later attempt to print replacement human bones.)

What he lacked in experience, however, Usov made up for — at least partly — with a boyish zeal for space. Growing up, he idolized both American space-race president John F. Kennedy and Sergei Korolev, the father of Ukrainian rocketry. “When you’re a kid in the Soviet Union,” Usov told me, there are a limited number of places to look for role models: “military, space, or some hero of the revolution who died 70 years ago. I chose space.”

During the half-hour car ride, Usov unspooled his plan to transform Ukraine’s State Space Agency, a Soviet-style bureaucracy with about 120 employees, into a Western-style startup hub. He planned to turn intellectual property from Ukraine’s rich spacefaring legacy into 21st-century technology, break into NASA’s new international lunar exploration program, and produce space companies that could eventually compete on the global stage.

The odds, Usov acknowledged, were long. Ukraine’s space sector had weathered decades of decline, its engineers were aging and badly underpaid, and very few people were looking at Ukraine — riddled with corruption, politically unstable, engaged in an active conflict with Russia — as a great destination for speculative investment.

But Usov’s own ascension to the top space job, following a nationwide open competition, seemed to indicate that change was in the air. Along with a few dozen other candidates, Usov sent in an application package online. After two interviews, one with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he landed the gig. “Five years ago, it would have been impossible to take part in an open competition, in a state enterprise, without all the dirty stuff,” Usov told me in June, referring to corruption. “I’m the best example that this change is real.”

The 2014 Ukrainian revolution, with its calls for greater integration with the global Western world, still felt fresh. President Zelensky, who had been elected in part on an aggressive anti-corruption platform and promises of reform, had been in office less than a year. The corporatization (privatization, more or less) of the country’s scandal-plagued state enterprises was a key element of those promised reforms. What better industry to embody the new Ukraine than space? It was a symbol of past glory that had become an equally potent one of post-Soviet decline. 

“It simply ends up the same thing as before, bureaucratic monsters from the past, no transparency, no liability … but that’s what we get in this godforsaken country.”

My second conversation with Usov was in December. He had more time to spare, taking my call at home, where he was recovering from a bout of Covid-19, as well as his sudden dismissal from the Space Agency. 

He wasn’t alone, at least. Several other officials had also left the country’s defense and aerospace sectors over the preceding months. All were liberal-minded reformers who had butted heads with an old guard that had failed to fade into the background nearly as much as it initially seemed it would.

Usov’s extremely brief tenure may well end up illustrating both the optimism found in modern-day Ukraine and how easy it is for an optimist to become frustrated. “It was just gruesome,” said Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter at The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper in Ukraine with a liberal bent, referring to Usov, whose dramatic story he had closely covered over the past 12 months. “It simply ends up the same thing as before, bureaucratic monsters from the past, no transparency, no liability … but that’s what we get in this godforsaken country.”

The industrial city of Dnipro, which straddles the banks of the Dnieper River as it flows to the Black Sea, was once among the world’s foremost hubs for space technology. During the Cold War, the state-owned Yuzhnoye Design Office and Yuzhmash rocket factory headquartered there employed tens of thousands of engineers and designers, who developed some of the most impressive spacefaring machinery ever created. Their accomplishments are still venerated by space wonks: Elon Musk has called the Zenit rocket they worked on his favorite (besides his own, of course).

The end of the Cold War, however, also brought an end to those glory days. The State Space Agency was created in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to oversee state enterprises like Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash. It didn’t take long before they began manufacturing tractors and trolleys to keep the lights on. Ukraine’s space sector struggled to find its place in a new world order and a global space market dominated not by two antagonistic superpowers but a growing array of private entities. 

That’s not to say the country didn’t try its best. In 2003, Ukraine inked a deal to supply an updated version of its venerable Cyclone rocket to a spacecraft-launch facility in Brazil. It fell apart in 2015, after more than a decade of finger pointing and allegations of corruption on both sides. In 2009, Ukraine’s State Space Agency signed a contract with a Canadian company to collaborate on a new satellite system. Things took a turn for the worse in 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, where the satellite control center was supposed to be located. In 2019, investigators with Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau revealed that officials from the country’s state-owned satellite operator had embezzled more than $8 million from the project, putting the kibosh on it for good.

The country’s space program suffered an especially embarrassing blow in 2017. That year, Michael Elleman, then the director of nonproliferation and nuclear policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based defense think tank, published research suggesting that North Korea, which had long been trying to develop a long-range missile program, might have acquired rockets from underpaid Yuzhmash engineers desperate for extra cash. The story made it to the front page of The New York Times, prompting furious denials from Yuzhmash officials. When I spoke to Elleman, he suggested that the technology might also have come from Russia. Either way, he said, Yuzhmash today was a “shell of itself.”

Maxim Dondyuk

By the time Usov showed up, Ukraine only retained only a toehold in the global space industry, with a few subcontracting jobs for larger international manufacturers. He aimed to move things onto a much firmer footing.

The first order of business was asking the Ukrainian government for emergency funding to get the Space Agency, whose annual operating budget was only $1 million, ready for corporate reform. The money would be used to hire new employees, propose legislation to formally restructure the agency, and perform an audit of all the agency’s assets. 

Next, Usov wanted to set up a startup accelerator to be called Yangel Big Bang (after Soviet missile designer Mikhail Yangel), which would produce five to ten new companies each year.

As Usov envisioned it, those companies would take advantage of Ukraine’s rich inheritance of space-related tech. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., the technology developed in-country during the Soviet era became Ukrainian intellectual property. Much of this “heritage hardware,” in industry parlance — renowned for its exceptional reliability — has remained relevant even today. It includes the liquid-propellant rocket stages that Yuzhmash still manufactures for Northrop Grumman’s Antares rockets, and the Kurs docking system, developed at the Kyiv Radio Plant in the 1980s, which has been used to dock Russian spacecraft at the International Space Station for more than 30 years. Ukraine also remains one of the few countries on earth with the facilities needed to manufacture launch vehicles from scratch.  

Finally, Usov needed to ensure that the Space Agency’s old state-run operations and the new private-sector elements were integrated and cooperative. Usov anticipated that might be challenging: Yuzhnoye and Yuhmash, in particular, are home to engineering dynasties, descendants of Soviet-era engineers who see themselves as part of a great Ukrainian tradition, in spite of their poor wages and uncertain futures. “That’s a really special group of people,” said Usov. “They believe they can do something really great — they can be proud of Ukraine.”

Initially, Usov thought he would run into difficulties trying to prevent folks on the factory floor from seeing a host of new startups as a threat. “But it came out the opposite,” he said. “They understood the need; they want [the Agency] to survive. It was the government that didn’t understand.”

One by one, Usov’s plans for reform went nowhere. He couldn’t get a 20-minute meeting with the president to make a case for more money. His proposed structure for the new space program, in which engineers would set up their own companies to supply national space initiatives, was never approved. Ditto his corporate reform plan. 

But Usov did manage to cross a few high-profile items off his to-do list. The biggest came in November, when Ukraine joined NASA’s Artemis program, whose goal is to land humans on the south pole of the moon by 2024. Ukraine’s moon-related intellectual property, which includes designs from the Soviet lunar program for an industrial moon base, helped clinch that deal.

The accomplishment was emblematic of Usov’s grander ambition: to find a new place for Ukraine on the global stage. Rather than compete against SpaceX and Blue Origin by building big launch vehicles, he wanted to use Ukraine’s unique technological and historical advantages to find the right market niche, likely orbital services — servicing, relocating, de-orbiting, and otherwise tinkering with objects already in space. The 2020s are expected to see a boom in satellite launches, making for a potentially huge market. “We can’t compete with the biggest players,” said Usov, “but we can complement them.”

But then, on November 16 — just four days after Ukraine became the ninth nation to join the Artemis program — Usov was fired. Not that anyone bothered to tell him. 

Brendan Hoffman for Rest of World at the Kyiv Planetarium

Late that night, Usov’s friends began forwarding him a since-deleted news item about his sudden dismissal on the website of Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers. It was the first he’d heard of it. “One of my friends sent it,” he said. “Then another. And then all of them, until I said, ‘Stop it! I don’t need any more!’” 

The item was brief, merely indicating that he had been fired by the cabinet, without offering an explanation as to why. The next morning, he tried calling the Ministry of Strategic Industries, a recently formed megaministry that had taken control of several defense enterprises over the summer, including the Space Agency. There was no answer. 

Usov’s firing came just weeks after a number of other reform-minded officials from Ukraine’s defense and aerospace enterprises had left their posts. On October 6, the general director of state-owned defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom resigned, citing, in part, a diminishing appetite for anti-corruption reform in Ukraine’s government, particularly in the defense sector. On November 4, the CEO of the aircraft manufacturer Antonov resigned as well after only four months on the job.

All three departures came as the Ministry of Strategic Industries was consolidating the country’s state-owned defense and aerospace enterprises under the umbrella of a new, larger ministry. Liberal observers fear that this may simply be a new iteration of the old Soviet-style kleptocracy, which had recently seemed on its way out. “From the beginning, a lot of experts do not trust this ministry,” said Taras Yemchura, a partner at the Ukrainian defense-consulting firm Black Trident and a former analyst at the anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International Ukraine. “The way it was formed was very strange. There was no conception behind it or strategy; it just appears, like from nowhere.”

The new ministry is headed by Oleh Urusky, a low-key longtime bureaucrat who previously held a series of mid-level posts, including a very brief stint as head of the Space Agency in 2015. Yemchura called him “an average gray man from Soviet times.”

Adding insult to injury, Urusky announced plans in January for a new $1 billion space program, which seems to borrow heavily from Usov’s template, envisioning private startups and many international collaborations, though few specifics have been made public. Two months later, Urusky appointed a new head of the Space Agency, Volodymyr Taftay, who had previously lost the title to Usov in 2019. (“It was a decent duel,” Usov said.) Taftay had previously spent much of his career as a government insider.

“A year ago, a lot of people thought, This is a chance to shape something new in Ukraine. And now a lot of those people are losing faith, and it’s hard to renew that faith.”

Usov, meanwhile, recently announced he was starting a new space project called Kurs Orbital, which builds on a Soviet-era orbital system. The agency chief is clearly still disappointed by how swiftly his tenure ended. “A year ago, a lot of people thought, This is a chance to shape something new in Ukraine. And now a lot of those people are losing faith, and it’s hard to renew that faith,” he said. But Usov continues to find inspiration in the story of his childhood hero, Sergei Korolev. In his own way, Korolev was also a victim of a capricious bureaucracy. “When I understand his life path,” said Usov, “and what he overcame, I’m not so upset about all this.”

A rising star in Soviet rocketry, Korolev was arrested in 1938 during Stalin’s purges after a colleague falsely accused him of intentionally obstructing rocket research to allow Nazi Germany to gain the upper hand. He was imprisoned in a series of Siberian gulags before being relocated to a sharashka, a prison where educated detainees worked on projects for the Soviet government. Freed in 1945, he eventually became one of the most significant figures in the history of rocketry, famous for his lead role in designing Sputnik, which in 1957 became the first human-made vehicle to enter space. “You know, what I experienced is much less than what he did,” said Usov. “I just got fired.”