Above: Ancient towers of Prague castle rise behind a satellite display at the 61st International Astronautical Congress, which was held in the Czech capital from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, 2010.

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Hopes and fears of space program: view from Prague

Russian space officials outlined an ambitious vision for the future of the nation’s space program. Speaking at the International Astronautics Congress, IAC, held this week in Prague, representatives of the Russian space agency and the industry described a wide array of long-term projects for the manned spacecraft, including nuclear-powered spacecraft, a family of heavy-lifting launch vehicles, the new launch center and the next-generation manned spaceship. Speaking at the opening of the IAC on Monday, the director of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, Anatoly Perminov confirmed a previous commitment of the Russian government to develop a space tug powered by a large nuclear reactor. The vehicle’s primary goal would be to support expeditions to the Moon and human landings on Mars. “The current capabilities of traditional chemical rockets have reached their limits, while nuclear technology would enable us to advance our capabilities in space by orders of magnitude,” Perminov told delegates. The Russian government officially endorsed the project a year ago.

Speaking later to a group of reporters in Prague, Perminov said that the development of the nuclear powered space tug for operations in deep space would be conducted in parallel with the work on a new family of rockets, which could support such missions. According to Perminov, the development of these new launch vehicles would take place in three phases. The Rus-M rocket, capable of delivering up to 23 tons into the low-Earth orbit, should be ready by 2015, followed by a heavy-lifting vehicle with the payload of 50-60 tons after 2020. By 2030, a super-heavy rocket with the payload up to 150 tons would be developed, Perminov promised. All these rockets would be based at the yet-to-be built launch site in Vostochny, in the Russian Far East. The development of the center was officially approved in 2007. Roskosmos deputy director, Sergei Saveliev told the editor of this web site that military construction workers would break ground for the new center next year. “All the money and technical designs for Vostochny are ready,” Saveliev said, “We have two billions dollars allocated for the project and this is enough to conduct the construction.”

Russian officials confirmed in Prague, that despite all doubts and economic problems, which plagued the world’s and Russian economy in the past two years, the first manned mission from Vostochny remained to be scheduled for 2018. The next-generation manned spacecraft, designed to launch from Vostochny, has passed the preliminary design phase and was about to enter the technical development stage, Russian officials confirmed in Prague. According to Aleksandr Krasnov, the head of manned space flight directorate at Roskosmos, the agency’s key research center – TsNIIMash – in cooperation with the industry was clarifying technical details of the project, including the design of the ship’s controversial rocket-powered landing system. At the current state of the development, the ship’s nominal landing profile would use a combination of parachutes and rocket engines, Krasnov said. According to sources at RKK Energia, the prime developer of the next-generation spacecraft, the debate on the exact design of the landing system of the future spacecraft still continued.

RKK Energia engineers said that a government tender for the next phase of the project was expected to take place before the end of 2010. Even though the tender itself was considered a formality, with RKK Energia standing to win the government funding, it would mark a major milestone between preliminary design and a full-scale development and testing work. In the meantime, developers were already conducting work on validation of the aerodynamics for the new crew capsule. The nation’s leading space and aviation research centers, including TsNIIMash, TsAGI and Novosibirsk University were involved in computer-assisted and actual wind-tunnel testing of the crew capsule.

Hopes and skepticism

In Prague, Russian officials advertised projects that fell along the lines of a strategy developed during 2006-2009 and the statements they made at the forum confirmed one more time that all major components of this long-term vision have remained in place. However, despite its sheer scale and possibly because of it, the Russian manned space strategy faced plenty of critics behind the scene. Skeptics pointed out that oversized ambitions of the agency and extremely short deadlines would be difficult if not impossible to match by financial realities of the day. Most large-scale projects within the Russian manned space flight exist only on paper and it would take some time to prove whether these preliminary studies could be followed by real hardware. Recent advances of the Russian space program, although notable after a decade of stagnation, still remained modest and often years behind schedule. Russia’s major effort to develop the Angara launch vehicle, which started almost two decades ago, has been perpetually two or three years away from the first launch and it is still unclear, if it would fly in 2012, as presently promised.

Outside Russia

Russia’s bullish view on the future of its space program contrasted sharply with tempered if not outright gloomy outlook rendered in Prague by US and even more so, by European officials. In his opening statement to the Congress, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden expressed the need for the US space program to find new goals and destinations in space, however he did not endorse any particular strategy or technology for the long-term future, beyond continuous support of the International Space Station and the development of the new-generation manned spacecraft. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle next year, Russia would become the only country in the world capable of sending humans to the International Space Station, Despite China’s emerging manned space program and continuous speculations in the popular press about the possibility for this country to join the partnership, a highly militarized and restrictive nature of the Chinese space program currently prevents any hope for such venture, American, Russian and European space officials said.

However the most pessimistic future, the manned space flight was facing in Europe. At the opening of the Congress, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director of the European Space Agency, ESA, said that his organization was not convinced that any manned exploration program would require a parallel development of the heavy-lifting launch vehicle in Europe. The statement was a clear response to European advocates of manned space flight, who hoped for the development on the continent of the new-generation rocket that could support deep-space missions. This attitude was inevitably echoed in industry documents outlining the future work on European rockets, presented in Prague. Even the most remote plans proposed by Arianespace engineers, who operate Europe’s workhorse Ariane-5 rocket, envisioned only relatively modest upgrades to the vehicle. No future development of the heavy-lifting rocket was expected in a foreseeable future, Arianespace officials said.

A similar picture has emerged in Prague in regards of the future European manned spacecraft. Although ESA did recently order a Bremen division of the aerospace giant EADS Astrium to conduct low-level preliminary studies of manned vehicles and this work did attract some media attention in Prague, sources familiar with the matter dismissed the effort as a “background noise.” Without a radical boost in ESA budget and major shift in European space policy, the continent’s astronauts would never get a spacecraft of their own, sources said.

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Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak