Feature: Russia unveils an ambitious three-decade plan for a new manned space program.
Russia unveiled an ambitious three-decade plan for a manned space program this week at the International Aviation and Space Salon, MAKS-2009, which opened Tuesday in the town of Zhukovsky, near Moscow.
The Russian Federal Space Agency's hope is that its plan will become the basis for a broad international effort to send humans to Mars and build a permanent base on the surface of the moon.
In contrast to NASA efforts, which would use the moon as a stepping-stone on the way to Mars, the latest Russian space doctrine aims for Mars first.
To achieve a Mars landing, RKK Energia, Russia's premier developer of manned spacecraft, displayed a multitude of planned space vehicles, including a transport ship, a nuclear-powered space tug, and a planetary lander system. Together they would make up what the agency is calling the Interplanetary Expeditionary Complex.
"I believe that we should move to Mars ... as the moon cannot be a goal by itself," said Vitaly Lopota, the head of RKK Energia.
"Nevertheless, all the infrastructure that we are proposing for the Interplanetary Expeditionary Complex could be used for operations in Earth orbit, but also for the lunar exploration, if such goals emerge," Lopota told IEEE Spectrum.
Officials at the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, made no secret that these grand ambitions were not achievable within the current budget and capabilities of the Russian space program alone. Instead, they hoped to jump-start the idea of broader international cooperation, which could spread the cost of the manned space program.
"This proposal could serve as a basis for a large international venture, which could be even wider than the one we have had in the International Space Station because the resources required are enormous," said Alexei Krasnov, director of manned flight programs at Roskosmos.
"I hope, and this is my personal opinion, that in the context of the Augustine Commission work, and with the new NASA administration, we will ultimately come to the understanding that the development of international cooperation in space should move in this direction," Krasnov said.
However, Krasnov stressed that partners should learn all lessons from the cooperation on the ISS: "We should admit that both good and bad came out of this project, and we should keep this in mind."
The ISS suffered numerous technical delays and cost overruns, which partners often blamed on one another, especially in the initial phase of the project.
The core of Russia's latest space strategy rests on replacing its Soyuz transport ship with a larger next-generation vehicle and a brand-new rocket to launch it. Combined, they would be able to carry cosmonauts to the Earth-orbit space stations but also support missions to the moon and even expeditions to Mars.
Roskosmos approved both projects for development in spring 2009, while preliminary studies into the program have been in progress since around 2006.
If it's built, the new Russian manned transport will resemble NASA's Orion capsule, whose development was officially launched in 2004.
The American decision to replace the space shuttle with an expendable cone-shaped vehicle at least partially influenced the latest Russian concept. In 2006, Roskosmos rejected a proposal by RKK Energia to develop a mini-shuttle called Kliper.
Exhibit information at MAKS-2009 confirmed that the proposed Russian spacecraft would feature significant differences in design and capabilities from the Orion. Unlike the Orion, which is designed to land under a parachute, the ship envisioned by the Russian engineers would use a brand-new (and still controversial) Buck Rogers-style rocket landing.
Lopota said that after two years of study, RKK was still optimistic about rocket assistance as the primary method of landing. Also, a scale model presented at the show featured reusable thermal protection tiles, not unlike those used on NASA's shuttle, instead of the ablative shields selected for Orion.
Along with the new spacecraft, TsSKB-Progress, the Samara, Russia-based developer of the Soyuz series of rockets, presented a new launcher for the manned space program, known as Rus-M. The company officially won the government contract for the development of the Rus-M in March.
Aleksandr Kirilin, the head of TsSKB-Progress, confirmed at MAKS-2009 that his company was on schedule to deliver a preliminary design of the vehicle to Roskosmos by August 2010.
"On July 10, we conducted the first Scientific and Technical Council [dedicated to the project], determined the members of the chief designer council [which would oversee the development], and formed working groups on various aspects of the work," Kirilin said.
Kirilin reiterated that the new rocket was being built not only to carry the new spacecraft into orbit but also to create a basis for much more powerful versions of the launcher, which will have a maximum payload of 60 metric tons.
Such a rocket would be enough to carry an unmanned lunar lander and an "escape" stage, sending it from Earth orbit toward the moon. There, the lander would link up with a manned transport vehicle launched by a second 60-metric-ton-class rocket. After the crew transfers into the lunar lander, it could land on the surface.
"We are still looking at the possibility of developing a 100-ton vehicle within the size constraints of the current design," Kirilin says. Among the possible ways of upgrading the new rocket family, TsSKB-Progress studied integrating the powerful RD-120 engine, inherited from the Soviet-era Energia rocket.
Brand-new engines burning an exotic mix of three propellants, instead of the traditional two, are also on the table, Kirilin says.
The new Russian rocket would be much smaller than the Ares family of vehicles proposed by NASA for the new Constellation program. However, unlike the Ares, which is scheduled to fly from refurbished shuttle facilities at Cape Canaveral, the new Russian rocket fleet would need a whole new space center.
In 2007, the Russian government decided to build a new launch site for its manned space program in the nation's far east, not far from the Chinese border.
At the show, RKK Energia unveiled a proposed layout of the future launch facility, featuring a single launchpad and the support infrastructure for the manned space program, including cosmonaut housing and a training complex. If the new facility enters service as scheduled in 2018, it would end Russia's manned operations in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, after almost six decades.
Anatoly Zak is a freelance writer, illustrator, and space enthusiast. Formerly a reporter at Moscow's Nezazisimya Gazeta, Zak is now the proprietor of RussianSpaceWeb.com. In the June 2009 issue of IEEE Spectrum, he wrote about Russia's plans for a mission to Mars's moon Phobos.
Get the original story on IEEE Spectrum's website.