Completion of Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome has been pushed back to at least April 2016 following a visit by President Vladimir Putin to the site in the country’s eastern Amur region yesterday.
The government had set a deadline of December this year for the facility to be finished and the first rocket launched.
The project has come under repeated attacks by the government for delays, alleged contractor embezzlement and staff payment problems.
Work steadily and calmly to meet the deadline that will be set soon, but just let me know what that deadline will be. Is this agreed– Russian President Vladimir Putin
The delay, suggested by Putin, comes after reports earlier this month that a facility housing the country’s Soyuz rockets had been built to the wrong dimensions, meaning the rockets wouldn’t fit.
At yesterday’s meeting Putin is recorded as criticising project officials for not adequately supervising more than 130 subcontractors, which he claimed had been siphoning off project cash "to patch up their own holes elsewhere".
"This is completely unacceptable," Putin said, according to a transcript of the meeting prepared for public view and published on the Kremlin’s website.
But Putin is also portrayed as taking a soothing and conciliatory tone.
"Let’s set our sights on a first launch in 2016, some time in spring," the transcript has him saying. "It would be good to time this for Cosmonautics Day, but there should be no mad rush if this is not possible.
"Work steadily and calmly to meet the deadline that will be set soon, but just let me know what that deadline will be. Is this agreed?"
Cosmonautics Day is Russia’s annual celebration, on 12 April, of Yury Gagarin’s first flight into outer space in 1961.
Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who took personal charge of the troubled project from Russia’s space agency Roscosmos in September last year, is depicted as responding: "Yes. We will be ready by mid-April."
In March Rogozin threatened to "rip heads off" if sabotage was discovered on the project.
"It does not absolutely have to be so," Putin is recorded as saying. "I said this is not an imperative. Just do the calculations and tell me what would be the optimum deadline – the optimum time."
Work on the cosmodrome began in January 2011. The first launch for lighter rockets was to take place in December 2015, with the first launch of a piloted spacecraft scheduled for 2018.
Russia wants its own base for launching rockets to send satellites into orbit, because now it leases the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for $115m a year.
Photograph: Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, during yesterday’s visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome. On the far right is Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister (Kremlin)