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Russia outlines its rocket-development strategy

In the spring of 2013, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, released another version of a public document outlining the nation's latest strategy in space. The 17-page paper, dated April 29, 2013, did not contain any surprises among proclaimed goals in space or means to achieve them, but clarified the agency's timeline in the development of launch vehicles.

Previous chapter: Russian space program during 2010s

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Above: A timeline of launch vehicle development in Russia as of 2013.

Since rockets always form a foundation of any independent space program, the agency's commitment or lack of thereof to the development of new launchers illustrated the pace and scope of the Russian space program. As in previous revisions of the document, all future goals were grouped into time periods before 2015, before 2020, before 2030 and after 2030:

Before 2015, Roskosmos pledged to fulfill following goals:

Before 2020:

  • To conduct the development of a launch facility for the heavy-lifting rocket in Vostochny (Editor's note: it implied the construction of the launch facility for Angara-5, but the vague language of the document indicated that the site would not be ready before 2020);
  • To develop infrastructure for manned space flight operations in Vostochny (Editor's note: the vague language of the document indicated that no manned missions would lift off from the site before 2020);
  • To develop a cryogenic upper stage for future launch vehicles;
  • To introduce a cryogenic upper stage based in Plesetsk.

Before 2030:

  • To retire the Proton launch vehicle;
  • To introduce a super-heavy launch vehicle based in Vostochny and capable of delivering a payload exceeding 50 tons to the low Earth orbit;
  • To conduct the development of a reusable, electrically propelled space tug for the re-supply of a lunar base.

After 2030:

  • To introduce a launch vehicle with a reusable first stage;
  • To conduct manned missions to the vicinity of the Moon, manned expeditions to the Moon and the construction of a lunar base;
  • To build a technological foundation for the development of a transport system enabling the manned expedition to Mars, including a super-heavy launch vehicle with a payload of 130-180 tons, and the electrically propelled space tug.

For the exception of launching Angara from Plesetsk before 2015, the document established no solid deadlines for any major goals in space and pushed most ambitious projects well into 2030s. Most notably, the prospects for the development of super-heavy launchers receded from 2020s to 2030s in just one year of strategic planning. As one veteran of the rocket industry put it, in the field of launch vehicle development, this program had given birth to a mouse instead of a mountain. (655)

A roadmap to super-heavy launchers

As the Angara rocket family was reaching the launch pad in mid-2010s, Roskosmos had to decide on the capabilities and the architecture of the next-generation space launcher. The payload of the largest approved version of the Angara rocket approaching 25 tons to the low Earth orbit was far not enough for any deep-space missions that were considered at the time as the next step in manned space flight.

By 2013, Roskosmos drafted a very preliminary roadmap toward the development of the heavy and super-heavy launch vehicles. Not surprisingly, it matched closely the strategy that NASA had followed since 2011 within the Space Launch System, SLS, project. Speaking at the meeting on the prospects of the Russian space program chaired by president Vladimir Putin in Blagoveshensk on April 12, the head of Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin said that the agency had been conducting a study (known as Magistral) into the launch vehicle with a payload of 75-80 tons and whose "open architecture" would enable to upgrade it later to carry up to 120-130 tons into the low Earth orbit.

Potential payloads

Acording to a requirement formulated by the TsNIIMash research institute, the initial heavy vehicle could deliver a 20-ton manned spacecraft into the orbit around the Moon, while the upgraded super-heavy rocket could carry into the vicinity of the Moon 30-ton payloads, such as lunar landing modules, manned transport ship, man-tended space station into the Lagrange point or an electrically propelled space tug.

Organizational steps

In June 2013, the Izvestiya newspaper quoted Nikolai Panichkin, the interim director at the TsNIIMash research institute, responsible for the development of strategic direction of the Russian space program, as saying that his organization had been preparing basic requirements for a super-heavy launcher. At the time, the pre-preliminary work on the vehicle was expected to start in 2014, leading to a formal "Technical Assignment" for the initial phase of development known in Russian as Avanproyekt. Only then, a federal tender would choose the prime developer tasked to prepare a preliminary design for the chosen architecture of the super-heavy rocket.

On Oct. 25, 2013, a newly appointed head of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, Oleg Ostapenko told the Izvestiya daily that the agency had planned to discuss the roadmap to a super heavy rocket, its potential payloads and exact architecture of the vehicle with the Russian Academy of Sciences, in order to prepare a proposal to the Russian government. Ostapenko also disclosed that a dedicated working group on the super-heavy launcher had just been formed. On November 13, Ostapenko chaired the first meeting of industry leaders, apparently comprising this working group. According to a former leading Soviet official Oleg Baklanov, who participated in the meeting, the working group was assigned to draft a foundation for the development of the super heavy launch vehicle in just few weeks, the official RIA Novosti news agency reported. Another meeting of the working group on the super-heavy launcher was scheduled for Dec. 21, 2013.

On July 21, 2014, the Russian president Vladimir Putin paid a visit to the city of Samara, south of Moscow, which included a stop at RKTs Progress, the manufacturer of the Soyuz family of rockets. The company was also vying for the leading role in the development of the future super-heavy rocket with its proposals for the STK series. Seven weeks later, on Sept. 2, 2014, during Putin's visit to Vostochny, his Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told journalists that the president had given his "preliminary approval to start the work on the super-heavy launcher." At the same time, the head of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, Oleg Ostapenko proposed to channel the money that had originally been allocated to build backup launch pads for the Angara rocket in Plesetsk and in Vostochny into the super-heavy launcher program. Ostapenko has been known for his sharply negative attitude toward the Angara rocket as too small for the future needs of the Russian space program. If approved, the plan would leave Angara with a single launch pad at each of two launch sites.

Choosing an architecture for a super-heavy launcher

As the American SLS project, Russian super-heavy launcher plans envisioned building a rocket with a payload of 80-85 tons in the first phase of the program. A pair of such rockets would be enough to mount a lunar expedition. In the second phase of development, the rocket would be upgraded to carry unprecedented 130-180 tons of payload in order to support, permanent lunar bases, missions to asteroids and expeditions to Mars.

During a meeting dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the first and only Energia-Buran mission, the head of RKK Energia Vitaly Lopota said that the super-heavy rocket would be built for a purpose of delivering 15-ton military payloads to the geostationary orbit, such as big communications platforms and spacecraft for electronics warfare.

As of 2013, at least four companies were expected to propose their designs for the super-heavy launcher:

  • GKNPTs Khrunichev could submit its Yenisei-5 project or Kaskad family of launchers or an Aldan concept;
  • RKK Energia was apparently banking on Zenit-based vehicles, such as Energia-K, Sodruzhestvo and Energia-5K;
  • TsSKB Progress was drafting a new family of vehicles based on yet-to-be-developed methane engines or even on solid-propellant boosters;
  • GRTs Makeev proposed a series of rockets based on a reusable first stage with vertical rocket-powered landing.

In January 2014, speaking at the Korolev readings in Moscow, the head of Roskosmos Oleg Ostapenko promised to submit a proposal for the super-heavy launch vehicle to the military industrial commission of the Russian government in February. He mentioned an initial version of the booster with a payload of 80 tons (developed in a shortest possible time period) and its further incarnation carrying 160 tons or even more.

Price tag and development timeline

The 2014 draft of the new Russian space program covering the period from 2016 to 2025 requested 214.6 billion rubles ($5.9 billion) for the super-heavy launcher, the Izvestiya daily reported. This money would cover the development of new engines burning carbon-based fuels, such as kerosene or liquid methane, for the first stage; hydrogen engines for the second stage and a powerful multi-engine upper stage, also relying on hydrogen fuel. The entire price tag for the project, including the monumental launch infrastructure in Vostochny and extending until 2030, was estimated at 500 billion rubles ($13.8 billion). Thus, more than half of the funding for the project would fall beyond the 2016-2025 space budget, while the active development would not start before 2016. According to the Director General of the TsNIIMash research institute Aleksandr Milkovsky, from 2016 to 2015, Russia will prepare design and manufacturing basis for the superheavy launcher, as well as initiate ground-based experimental testing of its components.

As of May 2014, the general architecture of the rocket was to be finalized before the end of the year, Milkovsky said. Under the technical assignment from Roskosmos within the Magistral R&D project, the industry was to complete draft designs (avantproyekts) of the super-heavy rockert complex by December 2014. Following the evaluation of these proposals at the TsNIIMash research institute, the final design will be chosen and the formal technical assignment would be prepared. The actual development would then start in 2016. (711)

Launch facilities and support infrastructure

No matter what the final architecture the super-heavy rocket would ultimately assume, its development would likely present a number of the same challenges for the Russian engineers. First of all, the use of liquid hydrogen would require new infrastructure handling cryogenic propellant at the future launch site in Vostochny, in addition to already funded facilities for liquid oxygen and kerosene. Hydrogen infrastructure could probably grow from initial facilities built to support upper stages of future rockets equipped with the RD-0146 engine. However a much more powerful hydrogen engine, like Energia's RD-0120 from the Soviet era, would have to be revived to propel larger booster stages of prospective launchers.

Last but not least, a special assembly factory would have to be built right at the launch site in the remote Far East of Russia, because ground transportation of such large components with a diameter of eight or even 12 meters from the European part of the country would be impossible, while air deliveries could prove unaffordable. In March 2014, a representative of the NPO Technomash Aleksei Baraev was quoted by the ITAR-TASS news agency as saying that the core stage of the future super-heavy launch vehicle would have a diameter of about 10 meters, making its transportation to Vostochny impossible. As a result, the rocket would need a production facility at the new launch site. According to Baraev, the development of an entirely new aircraft for the purpose was explored, however such an option was recognized as considerably more expensive.

At the beginning of December 2013, a commission from Roskosmos including officials from TsNIIMash and other organizations of the rocket industry surveyed potential launch sites in Vostochny for manned missions and for super-heavy launch vehicles, the official ITAR-TASS news agency reported.

Reusable launchers?

During the 2010s, Russia remained one of the few space powers that still officially pursued the development of a partially reusable launcher. Moreover, the official strategy of Roskosmos called for the eventual replacement of the nation's most powerful throwaway rockets with fly-back boosters. Unfortunately, the Russian attempts to forge a cooperative effort with the European industry in the field of reusable rockets under Barguzin and Ural projects apparently fizzled out after only very preliminary work. Still, many Russian forward-looking documents called for the eventual development of the Reusable Launch Vehicle, MRKN.

New rocket engines?

Although most designs of heavy and super-heavy rockets in Russia relied on tried and tested RD-170, RD-180 and RD-0124 engines, even more powerful propulsion systems appeared on the horizon in the country during 2010s. In April 2012, the Interfax AVN news agency reported that RKK Energia and Keldysh Center proposed the Scientific and Technical Council at Roskosmos to consider the use of the RD-175 engine, then under development at NPO Energomash in Moscow, whithin the project of a super-heavy rocket.

Few details on RD-175 were available, besides its whooping 1,000 tons of thrust. A designation indicated that it might be derived from RD-170/171 and, thus, would use liquid oxygen and kerosene. At the time, NPO Energomash completed the preliminary design of the engine and was assembling an experimental unit to test its key design features. (640) In 2013, NPO Energomash reitirated that the work on RD-175 was ongoing.



Overview of Russian launch vehicle development roadmap as of 2013:

Luncher type
Payload to LEO
Development period
Payloads, tasks and destinations
Heavy (Angara-5/5P)
20 tons
PTK NP spacecraft to low Earth orbit
Super heavy (Phase I) (Sodruzhestvo, STK, Energia-5K, Kaskad Phase I)
50-70 tons; 80-85 tons
Separate delivery of the a PTK NP spacecraft and a lunar lander to the vicinity of the Moon to support for manned lunar landing
Super heavy (Phase II) (Yenisei-5, Kaskad Phase II, STK Phase II)
130-190 tons
The 450-500-ton Mars expeditionary complex assembled out of 90-112-ton components launched by 4 or 5 rockets; Deployment and support of permanent lunar bases with long-duration crews; missions to asteroids; construction of space-based power stations and industrial production in space;



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Page author: Anatoly Zak

Last update: September 2, 2014

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More than a decade behind schedule, the Angara project promised to give Russia a new-generation of space boosters. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak


By 2013, rockets with payloads of 55 tons and above were promised to enter service during 2020s. Copyright © 2012 Anatoly Zak


A launch vehicle capable of sending a new-generation manned spacecraft to the vicnity of the Moon could reach the launch pad in the second half of 2020s. Shown architecture was considered at TsSKB Progress in the first half of 2013. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak


From 2012 to 2013, prospects for the development of super-heavy launcher, such as Yenisei-5, receded from 2020s to 2030s. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak


A family of reusable launchers proposed by GKNPTs Khrunichev within the MRKN project. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak


Around the time Roskosmos was considering its decision on the super heavy launcher development, Ukrainian KB Yuzhnoe design bureau proposed a Mayak launch vehicle with similar capabilities. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak


The RD-170 engine powered the first stage of the Energia rocket. Click to enlarge: 300 by 400 pixels / 56K Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak


Rendering of the RD-175 engine. Credit: Keldysh center






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