The decision taken by Roscosmos to terminate the design of a super-heavy launch vehicle (LV STK) was, on the one hand, unexpected news, and on the other, quite logical. The first to report about it was Dmitry Baranov, General Director of the Progress RCC, who immediately made a reservation that the work could be resumed.
The next day, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, somewhat clarified the situation: the launch vehicle will still be created, but in a slightly different guise and using more advanced technologies. At the same time, the funds that were previously planned to be spent on superheavy will go to the development of methane engines, since they allow the first stage of the STK LV to be used repeatedly. “We will do better a little later, but we will make it so that it will be an incentive for the development of composite materials in Roskosmos, and new alloy systems, and new production systems, and new engines, which are not yet available, but we hope to get them. by 2024–2025, ”he said.
The goal is reusability
Earlier, the Space Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences also recommended postponing the creation of a super-heavy rocket. We can say that Roskosmos has listened and heeded the good advice, although such decisions are very difficult to come up with. The news about the suspension of the project caused a wide wave of discussions among specialists. At the same time, opinions were radically divided. Some shouted almost a betrayal of Russia’s national interests, while others, on the contrary, called this decision wise and far-sighted. And although everyone had their own serious arguments, from the point of view of logic, the second position seems to be more thoughtful and rational.
From a purely technical point of view, the creation of an STK launch vehicle on the basis of the existing groundwork can be started even now, but there is no need for it. Today, creating disposable super-heavy media for our by no means the richest country is simply an unaffordable luxury. At current prices, each launch of such a launch vehicle will cost about a billion dollars. And if it is possible to reduce this amount several times due to the reusable use of the first stage, then it is a sin not to use it. American entrepreneur Elon Musk proved this in practice, capturing the lion’s share of both commercial launches and launches under government contracts. In particular, with the US Department of Defense.
Now in the Voronezh KBKhA work is underway to create a new methane rocket engine RD-0169 for the reusable launch vehicle “Soyuz-7” (“Amur-LNG”). This enterprise is the only one in Russia that has experience in creating such equipment. Back in the 1980s, RD-0120 rocket engines of fantastic reliability, running on hydrogen, were created here within the framework of the Energia-Buran program. Accordingly, Voronezh residents have experience in this regard, and therefore they were instructed to deal with the methane theme. The goal is to bring the engine power up to the required 200 tons of thrust.
It should be noted that methane itself, with similar characteristics, is much cheaper and more technologically advanced than hydrogen. It is much easier to obtain and store, which simplifies and reduces the cost of the infrastructure of the launch complex. Take, for example, the boiling point of these gases: minus 252 degrees for hydrogen and minus 161 degrees for methane, and everything becomes clear. It is also important that near the Vostochny cosmodrome, literally 25 kilometers away, there is the Amur gas processing plant under construction, where the first stage of production was launched this summer: a guarantee that there are no problems with gas delivery to the launch site.
When all the latest technologies have been tested on the Amur-LNG medium-lift launch vehicle and the corresponding launch facility, it is possible with a clear conscience to start creating the STK launch vehicle itself.
In addition, there is no longer an urgent need to rush to conquer the Moon by landing astronauts on its surface. In the last century, the Americans were the first to do this. If we are to make the landing, then in an adult way: to build a base for permanent work. Well, such a lunar base implies regular flights to the moon. And here, without a reusable launch vehicle, there is simply no way.
But there is no cargo
Another important argument for the postponement of the creation of the STK LV is the banal absence of appropriate payloads. Simply put, at the moment and in the near future, it is not possible to use the STK LV. The practical need for it will arise with the beginning of the implementation of the domestic manned flight program to the moon, but here, as they say, the horse was not lying around.
The creation of “lunar” technology in Russia has not yet begun. Even the preliminary design did not begin, not to mention the embodiment of it in metal. The only exception is the new manned spacecraft “Eagle”, which is due to go on its first test flight in 2023.
You definitely need a lunar takeoff and landing module, but they don’t stutter about it at all. Meanwhile, American NASA paid an order for the preliminary design of such a module in September to as many as four different companies. In our country, when it feels like it, work in the “come on, come on” style will start in an urgent manner. Everyone understands perfectly well that fast is not good. However, the approach to business has not changed over the years.
Nothing prevents from announcing a similar competition in Russia even tomorrow. Moreover, in addition to the traditional participant in the person of RSC Energia, the Center im. Khrunichev, and NPO them. Lavochkin, the only enterprise that has practical experience in landing spacecraft on the Moon, Mars and Venus, and is not even part of the Roscosmos system, but has a rich space experience at the Reutov Scientific and Production Association of Mechanical Engineering. After summing up the results, the winner of the competition could take some successful technical solutions from other participants and even create a module in cooperation with them.
And we also need comprehensively modified modules of the lunar habitable base, of which today few people have any idea at all. We need innovative greenhouses, taking into account the specifics of the lunar settlement, life support systems and energy supply. And also all sorts of lunar rovers, lunar cars, moon tractors … And at the same time, for some unknown reason, no one wants to start creating them, although it is high time.
Chronicle of real cases
In general, the logic of the current events suggests that, despite all the existing difficulties, the strategic goal of Roscosmos (the exploration of the Moon) remains the same, but the lunar program for the coming decades will definitely be amended. The approach to the choice of the concept of the STK LV being created remains the only correct one of all possible ones, since it has a strict engineering line. The bottom line is that a super-heavy launch vehicle is created as a designer from a number of typical elements of lighter launch vehicles, which have confirmed their effectiveness and reliability in control space flights. The only change for today is that instead of Soyuz-5, the carrier will now be based on the methane Soyuz-7.
But life in the space industry is not limited to STK LV alone. Roscosmos has to solve a lot of other issues, and for the sake of objectivity, positive dynamics should be noted in a number of areas. First of all, this is the continuation of the construction of the second stage of the Vostochny cosmodrome. Today, the main object here is the construction of a launch complex under the “Angara” launch vehicle, which is proceeding even somewhat ahead of the approved schedule – this has not happened for a long time. Recall: the first start from here is scheduled for 2023.
Finally, an agreement has been signed for the creation of a launch complex for the Soyuz-5 and Soyuz-6 launch vehicles at the Baikonur cosmodrome (the Baiterek project). According to the agreement, Kazakhstan is financing the modernization of ground infrastructure, and Russia is financing the development of new launch vehicles. The first start is planned for the end of 2023. The new complex was named “Nazarbayevsky Start”. It is also expected that an international agreement (Russia – Kazakhstan – UAE) will be signed on the modernization of launch pad No. 1, better known as “Gagarinsky Launch”, for launches of the Soyuz-2 LV.
In addition to infrastructure changes, a decent line of launch vehicles for the near future is emerging. At the Omsk APO Polet, serial production of universal modules for the Angara launch vehicle has been launched, and at the end of 2021 its new test flights from the Plesetsk cosmodrome should be expected. And in the Samara RCC “Progress” work on the assembly of the “Soyuz-5” LV is in full swing. There are difficulties, but everything is still within the approved schedule.
Despite the imminent appearance of new launch vehicles, no one is in a hurry to write off the legendary Soyuz-2 launch vehicle, tested by more than two thousand launches. This RN has been flying for more than a dozen years, until its newborn colleagues gain the necessary positive statistics. By the way, this is the only carrier in the world capable of launching from four cosmodromes located in different parts of the world.
Work continues on a nuclear tug – a transport module with a megawatt-class nuclear installation, which has received the formidable name “Zeus”. The Center is responsible for the creation of the module. Keldysh. If all goes according to plan, sometime in the early 2030s, Russia will receive a unique vehicle that will make flights between Earth and lunar orbits and vice versa cost-effective.
As we can see, there are positive changes in the space industry, and this is a fact that cannot be argued with. I would like to believe that negative tendencies are gradually coming to naught. But this is just the beginning of changes and there is still a lot to be done to achieve sustainable and progressive development of Russian cosmonautics.
Cover photo: roscosmos.ru