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Russia's next-generation spacecraft faces new delays in 2014
During 2014, the development of the next-generation manned spacecraft, PTK NP, was to go from the drawing board to experimental prototypes but a virtual absence of accolades in the official Russian media about development progress could spell trouble for the project. This silence became really deafening as NASA brought a prototype of its Orion spacecraft to the launch pad in December for an unmanned test mission.
Previous chapter: PTK NP development during 2013
Above: By 2014, developers hoped to equip their new-generation spacecraft with a 70-ton, two-stage space tug propelled by hydrogen engines. The first stage would send the spacecraft from the Earth orbit toward the Moon, the second would be used to ease it into the lunar orbit. The spacecraft would rely on its own propulsion system to escape the lunar orbit and head back home. Copyright © 2014 Anatoly Zak
Beginning in 2014, RKK Energia, the prime contractor in the PTK NP project, promised to begin work on the documentation for all the components of the next-generation spacecraft. The company also planned to produce several mockups and experimental units in order to test individual components of the spacecraft and prepare the production line for the manufacturing of the spacecraft.
To develop various emergency escape modes, the ship's parachute systems, cosmonaut chairs, as well as parts of the rocket-propelled landing system and emergency escape rockets would all be tried in autonomous tests.
Additionally, RKK Energia hoped to build a full-scale development mockup of the whole vehicle, containing all onboard systems. It could be used to conduct ergonomics studies and to test the actions of the crew during all phases of the mission. An existing conceptual mockup of the capsule would be recycled for this purpose.
Finally, the company planned to build a "boilerplate" versions of the reentry capsule and of the propulsion module for static, dynamic and thermal tests.
Known practical steps
By the beginning of February, the new phase of work on PTK NP officially commenced at RKK Energia with a special order of the company's president. At the time, the working documentation for the PTK NP was expected to appear before the end of the year.
In March, NPO Tekhnomash announced beginning of manufacturing of a special stand that would be used for inspections of the foam-like thermal-protection layers covering the crew module of the PTK NP spacecraft and cryogenic stages of new-generation launch vehicles. By 2015, the first inspection station would have to be built at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow and, later, another such facility would be replicated at RKK Energia in Korolev. (715)
From Aug. 2 to Aug. 8, a search and rescue unit of the Central Military District and the Russian Pacific Fleet conducted a joint exercise simulating the water landing of a manned spacecraft into the Pacific Ocean. The test involved a descent module of the Soyuz spacecraft, however the next-generation spacecraft could also benefit from that experience. (716)
Flight schedule -- first test launch postponed again
An official schedule of flights to the International Space Station, ISS, that was published at the turn of 2014, showed the maiden (solo) launch of the PTK NP spacecraft in the first quarter of 2017. The first mission involving docking to the ISS was hinted in the second half of 2020. However in May 2014, the Director General of the TsNIIMash research institute Aleksandr Milkovsky disclosed that the new development schedule for the PTK NP project had postponed its first flight test from 2018 to 2021. (711)
According to that plan, a total of three unmanned missions in the low Earth orbit would be conducted annually from 2021 to 2023, culminating with the first manned mission to the International Space Station, ISS, in 2024, or a decade from now. All these missions designated LKI-1 (Flight and Design Tests of Phase 1) would be flown using the "light" version of the PTK NP spacecraft not exceeding 14.4 tons at liftoff. As a result, the spacecraft could be launched with the help of a man-rated version of the Angara-5 rocket. Alternatively, Zenit, Angara-3 or Soyuz-5 rockets could also be used. However, after the near breakdown of Russian-Ukrainian ties in the spring of 2014, developers had to abandon most hopes of relying on Zenit. RKK Energia apparently entertained the idea of rebuilding and upgrading the venerable rocket inside Russia, however this option was probably deemed too expensive.
In the meantime, the first launch of the 20-ton "lunar version" of the PTK spacecraft with the crew onboard was now postponed all the way to 2025. This mission would open a second phase of PTK NP flight testing known as LKI-2. However with the super-heavy launch vehicle not available until around 2030, this "lunar" ship would not be able to fly beyond the Earth orbit, unless some complex multi-launch scenario was devised.
Instead, flight tests were to be continued by launches into the low Earth orbit with the help of an Angara-5P launch vehicle. During 2014, the Angara-5P was conceptualized as a three-stage vehicle consisting of five URM-1 stages on the first and second stage and likely a single URM-2 booster as its third stage. (Some custom-built "kick motor" could probably be considered as an alternative to URM-2.) The four boosters of the first stage would separate 213 seconds into the flight, while the core stage would burn until T+327 seconds.
However by March, planners realized that under such a flight profile, the four fragments of the protective fairing from the PTK-L spacecraft would rain down to the busy waters of the Tatarsky Strait off the Russian Pacific Coast, instead of in remote areas of the Sea of Okhotsk east of the Sakhalin Islands as was required by a Technical Assignment, which had been originally formulated for the cancelled Rus-M rocket. In order to "push" the falling fragments that far, either the PTK-L spacecraft would have to be lightened, or a more powerful rocket to be used. The problem apparently remained unresolved until late 2014.
To make matters worse, some critics within Roskosmos also found Angara-5 not reliable enough for manned missions, due to its inability to fly safely with one of the booster engines failing. All these problems with the launch vehicle apparently left the PTK NP project in limbo.
Speaking at the meeting of the expert council of the Military Industrial Commission, VPK, on November 14, Sergei Krikalev, Deputy Director for Piloted Spaceflight at TsNIIMash, said that under the current system of space development, Russia would never manage to build a new-generation spacecraft, the Izvestiya daily reported. According to Krikalev, all milestones in the PTK NP project had been constantly postponed, the integrated development schedule for the project had never been approved and the status of its launch vehicle remained unclear!
Not surprisingly, Krikalev's comments stirred some controversy. "Don't understand, why make loud statements if you are out of the loop on the current work," Mark Serov, an engineer/cosmonaut at RKK Energia commented on Krikalev's statements. "The work is proceeding according to an approved schedule," Serov wrote to an editor of this web site in the online exchange which followed.
RKK Energia interim proposals
In the meantime, behind the scene, to address the problem of lacking rocket power, RKK Energia proposed a series of missions beyond the Earth orbit during the first half of 2020s, which could be accomplished with existing rockets.
The first such mission known as LI-3 envisioned the launch of a 20-ton unmanned PTK NP spacecraft on the Angara-5P rocket in 2022. A more powerful version of Angara-5 would deliver a space tug based on the Block DM-03 stage to push the spacecraft from Earth's orbit onto a loop around the Moon.
A year later, a crew of four would fly a test mission designated LI-4 onboard the lunar version of the PTK NP spacecraft to the ISS.
Also in 2023, the company proposed to introduce a reusable solar powered space tug with ion engines, which would be assembled in orbit from two segments launched by Soyuz and Angara-5 rockets. The space tug would apparently be used in some support role for multiple manned missions to the Moon (LI-5 and LI-6) in 2024 and in 2025, which would carry two and four cosmonauts respectively around the Moon. Each such mission would require one man-rated Angara-5P and one unmanned Angara-5 rocket with a Block DM-03 space tug.
It is unclear whether such a strategy got any traction at the agency level or in the Kremlin, however it is known that various groups within the agency proposed alternative plans (to be covered in future articles on this web site). Under all scenarios, active lunar exploration would not start until late in 2020s with the introduction of a super-heavy rocket.
Provisions in the 10-year space program, FKP-2025
During 2014, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, requested funding for the PTK NP project within its new 10-year space program, which would come into effect in 2016. The 2014 draft of the program requested 60.7 billion rubles for the PTK NP project spread over a decade, as shown below. However, the question remained whether this budget could be afforded given latest economic and political developments in Russia.
Next chapter: PTK development in 2015
Learn more about this and many other Russian space projects
Next chapter: STK super-heavy rocket
PTK NP flight schedule as of beginning of 2014:
Budget for the PTK NP project in the Federal Space Program, FKP-2025, as projected in the first half of 2014 (in millions of rubles):
Known specifications of the PTK NP spacecraft as of 2014:
Article, illustrations and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: October 5, 2015
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: November 25, 2014
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A circa 2012 two-launch lunar orbit mission scenario using an Angara-5P rocket. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev