Russia unveils manned spacecraft

By Anatoly Zak
Science reporter, Farnborough

  • Published
Artist's impression of the new Russian rocket built by RKK Energia (Anatoly Zak/
Image caption,
The new rocket is intended to carry a manned capsule to the Moon

The Russian space agency, Roskosmos, is putting the finishing touches to the design of a spacecraft, which could carry the nation's cosmonauts into space in the coming decades.

Russian officials revealed details about the craft at the Farnborough Air Show.

The work is a culmination of a multi-year effort to define the architecture of a replacement to Russia's 40-year-old Soyuz spacecraft.

With the upcoming retirement of the US space shuttle, Russian ships could, for several years at least, be the only means of taking humans into space.

This would include any American and European astronauts travelling to the International Space Station (ISS).

According to officials at RKK Energia, Russia's chief contractor in manned spaceflight, the agency plans to make the final decision on all critical elements of the new ship's architecture at the beginning of August.

Design pedigree

The company's engineers told BBC News that Roskosmos was expected to convene a special meeting of its key experts to finalise a detailed review of the preliminary design.

"We submitted the preliminary design to the agency and received feedback, which included some criticism," the first vice president of RKK Energia, Nikolai Zelenshikov, told BBC News. "We are ready to address all these issues."

Roskosmos awarded the research and development project for the future spacecraft to RKK Energia last year.

The company's roots can be traced back to the design bureau that launched the first Sputnik in 1957 and put the first man in space in 1961.

Image caption,
A scale model of the spacecraft was unveiled at the Farnborough Air Show

RKK Energia completed its research and development work on the future craft and submitted it to Roskosmos in April of this year.

Despite satisfying tough requirements set by the agency, the project caused controversy within the Russian space industry.

The company's decision to rely exclusively on solid-propellant engines for landing of a capsule with six cosmonauts onboard attracted particular criticism. Much of this came from TsNIIMash research institute, the agency's think tank, which traditionally evaluates and certifies the nation's rocket and space systems.

All previous Russian spacecraft, including Soyuz, used parachutes as the main system for soft landing.

To make its case, RKK Energia took the unusual step - at a preliminary design stage - of ordering the construction of an experimental propulsion system.

A non-flying prototype was intended to demonstrate that controlling unruly solid propellant would be possible during landing. According to sources within the Russian space industry, a test system was built by missile developers, who used similar technology in classified designs.

According to sources at RKK Energia, engineers retained the rocket-powered landing in the preliminary design of the ship. They left it to the agency to make the difficult decision about whether to certify the exotic system for flight, or to request a change.

Ultimately, the company added a parachute as an emergency landing system. Russian sources said that much more experimental work and funding would be required to prove that solid propellant could be safely used for a manned landing.

Rocket science

Roskosmos also faces an unexpected dilemma surrounding the launcher for the future spacecraft. RKK Energia did comply with the agency's requirement to fit the new ship into a Rus-M next-generation rocket, which the Russian government approved for development last year.

Although promised to fly in 2015, the new rocket would need the yet-to-be-built Vostochny launch centre in the Russian Far East, which could be decades away from completion.

On Monday, during his visit to RKK Energia's main facility in Korolev near Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised to provide long-awaited funding for the construction of Vostochny.

Image caption,
A centerpiece of the Farnborough exhibit was a rocket that would enable Russia to launch from Baikonur

Top managers at RKK Energia delayed their arrival to Farnborough until Tuesday, in order to meet Putin in Korolev. Ironically, at its Farnborough stand, RKK Energia exhibited a model of the rocket launcher for the new spacecraft, which would rely on existing facilities in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, rather than Vostochny.

The proposed launch vehicle closely resembles the existing Ukranian-built Zenit rocket. Since most critical parts of Zenit are built in Russia, it would be relatively easy to organise its production in the country.

And this would satisfy the Kremlin's requirement of developing the access to space, independently of former Soviet republics. RKK Energia carefully kept the overall mass of the future spacecraft within Zenit's capabilities.

"With this rocket, we could at least start flying [the new spacecraft] from Baikonur and then move to Vostochny when it becomes operational," Aleksander Derechin, Deputy Designer General at RKK Energia, told BBC News.

The company added the concept of the Zenit-based rocket to the preliminary design of the new spacecraft as an unsolicited proposal. "It was our free bonus to Roskosmos," one RKK Energia engineer said.

Obama factor

But another factor appears to have influenced the Russian space agency's decision to go ahead with the full-scale development of the new spacecraft - a recent decision by the Obama administration to stop the development of the next-generation Orion capsule. Russian sources told BBC News that this took the wind out of the sails of the parallel Russian project.

Like its American competitor, the future Russian vehicle has the Moon as its ultimate destination, and the uncertainty of US goals in manned spaceflight is an obstacle for Russian plans.

But RKK Energia officials said that they would continue to attempt to persuade the agency and the Russian government that the current US policies provide a robust future for the American manned spaceflight programme and that Russia should quickly respond with its own development of the next generation of manned transport systems.

Nikolai Zelenshikov told BBC News: "We still believe that Mars should be a primary goal of the manned space programme with the Moon as an intermediate destination and now we hear that Nasa has agreed with us."

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