With the U.S. manned space program grounded following the last mission of the space shuttle, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is the only avenue into space for NASA astronauts. And, in an unprecedented arrangement for NASA, U.S. taxpayers will now provide the Russian government with the extra cash it needs to build a new-generation manned vehicle to replace the 40-year-old Soyuz.
Just as in 1993, when the Russian space agency suddenly found itself in the driver’s seat of the stalled U.S.-led space station program by providing crucial elements of the outpost from their own stillborn Mir-2 project, Moscow space officials can again hardly believe their luck. The retirement of the U.S. space shuttle before its replacement is ready means a lucrative deal for Russia to transport all crews to the International Space Station in the next several years.
However, as the Russian space agency’s officials are celebrating this windfall, the leaders of the Russian space industry are far from resting on their laurels—they are pushing ahead with plans for a new spacecraft and launcher. However, behind the scenes, RKK Energia, the nation’s chief manned spaceflight contractor, has embarked on a collision course with its parent agency—Roskosmos—over the future strategy.
“We’ve got an unfortunate situation with our next-generation spacecraft,” says Aleksandr Derechin, deputy designer general at RKK Energia. “Roskosmos wants a large 23-ton spacecraft [to replace Soyuz], which would also need a new powerful rocket and the new launch site on the far-eastern fringes of the country.” But for more than four years, this ambitious plan has become a heavy burden for the Russian space program, Derechin argues.
While the official schedule calls for the first launch of the brand-new Rus-M rocket from the yet-to-be built Vostochny Cosmodrome in 2015, and the first manned mission from this site in 2018, many industry experts consider this timeline wildly unrealistic. In a run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, the country may have to choose between multibillion-dollar investments in Sochi Olympic facilities or in the new space center. These experts believe that the current Russian strategy could push back the birth date of the Soyuz replacement by years, if not a decade. Critics point to the ongoing development of the Angara family of rockets, which was initiated at the beginning of the 1990s and has perpetually remained several years away from its maiden mission.
In the meantime, RKK Energia has watched nervously as several modestly priced commercial ventures for carrying astronauts into space have been fostered by NASA. Seeing the emergence of these “private” spacecraft as competition, RKK Energia has come up with its own fast-track strategy, one that would bypass the Russian space agency’s grand space plan. The company has proposed to fly a streamlined 12-ton version of the new-generation manned spacecraft onboard an off-the-shelf Zenit rocket, from an existing launchpad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Roskosmos has so far rejected this cheaper, faster approach, preferring to stick to the original plan insisted upon by the government. Despite this setback, RKK Energia’s alternative launch vehicle based on the Zenit reappeared last month at the Paris Air and Space Show.
The Zenit, first introduced in 1985, is a two-stage rocket that uses liquid oxygen and kerosene and is capable of delivering up to 13 tons of payload into low-Earth orbit. The Zenit still remains a critical part of the Russian space fleet, and RKK Energia based many of its manned spacecraft designs on the capabilities of the Zenit-based rockets.
Anatoly Zak is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in space exploration. He is the publisher of RussianSpaceWeb.com, a resource on the history of and the latest developments in the former USSR space program.