Vostochny's airport of the future
The world's largest aircraft, carrying Mars-bound ships, and winged shuttles, returning from lunar missions, may one day come together at the planned airport in the Russian Far East. However before these dreams can become reality, the Vostochny airport has its most difficult mission -- to get born.
An architectural visualization of the planned airport in Vostochny Cosmodrome.
Crucial piece of infrastructure
The importance of the airport for Vostochny Cosmodrome is hard to underestimate. With the extremely remote location of Russia's future space center (six time zones away from Moscow), air travel is crucial for the access to the site for personnel and cargo from the European part of Russia, where most space hardware is made. But at the time of Vostochny's construction, the closest major airport to the site was in Blagoveshensk, more than 150 kilometers away from Uglegorsk, the main residential area of the space center. Most cargo delivered there had to be sent to the space port by rail or by truck.
The only alternatives were the Ukrainka strategic bomber base, some 70 kilometers away and a small air strip near Svobodny, 30 kilometers away, which could only receive small fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters not capable of reaching major industrial centers in Russia. Not surprisingly, with the launch of the Vostochny project in 2007, the Russian government promised to build the 21st-century airport within the center.
An-124 Ruslan cargo aircraft play important role in logistical support of the Russian space program.
Futuristic roles to play
The airport in Vostochny was to begin its career in a traditional way, receiving passengers and cargo heading to Vostochny. It could also double as a local commercial hub. However, the facility was also expected to assume additional roles, such as a base for the cosmonaut search-and-rescue team and for groups specialized in recovery of various rocket components falling downrange from the center during launches. One of the most frequent visitors to the airport in the early phase of its operation was to be the Ilyushin-76, the most common Russian transport cargo plane.
In the following decade, if the Kremlin ever commited to the development of a super-heavy launcher and decided to build it at the traditional industrial centers of the nation's rocket industry, such as Moscow, Samara or Omsk, the airport would be not just indispensable, but most likely the only feasible way of getting oversized components of giant rockets to the site. The traditional modes of transportation, such as railways can accommodate stages not exceeding four meters in diameter, while the main booster of a future big rocket could reach as much as seven meters across. They would have to be carried onboard custom-built aircraft, such as Antonov-125 Ruslan or the even bigger An-225 Mriya.
Even more futuristically, the airport could also be a landing site for the fly-back boosters of reusable rocket systems, if such vehicles were ever built. According to one Russian reusable space system concept, known as MRKS-1, following vertical liftoff from a nearby launch pad and separation from the core stage, first-stage boosters would unfold their wings, fire their air-breathing jet engines and land horizontally on the runway automatically. With two winged boosters on the heaviest versions of the reusable rocket, a pair would have to line up on the approach to the airport and touch down in short sequence one after another.
Like all other facilities in Vostochny, the airport for the space center was conceived on a grand scale. The entire complex was to include a total of 11 facilities staffed with 500 people and include the newly-built A-class runway located at Site 5, around 12 kilometers north of Uglegorsk, the main residential area of the space center. A 20-kilometer road with wide-radius turns was designed to connect the airfield with the main processing area for rockets and spacecraft, allowing the delivery of large containers with spacecraft or even whole rocket stages.
The airport would be designed to receive the world-largest aircraft such as An-225 Mriya. Initially, its runway was to have a length of 3,300 meters, with a later extension to 4,400 or even 4,500 meters. The runway would be 60 meters wide. (Original plans called for a width of 75 meters).
A dedicated tarmac for the cosmonaut search and rescue aircraft was planned on the opposite side of the main runway.
The passenger area was to feature a terminal built in the shape of bat and capable of processing 300 passengers per hour, including 50 passengers per hour at its international counter and 30 passengers per hour at a separate counter for official delegations.
The Design and Research Institute of Air Transport, OAO Lenaeroproyekt based in St. Petersburg developed the architecture of the airport.
Planned facilities at the airport:
Service and technical area includes:
Passenger are includes:
A photo from the Resurs P1 satellite shows initial construction activities at the airport in Vostochny on October 20, 2015.
According to early plans, the airport was to be a built in Vostochny during the "preparatory phase" of the center's development, even ahead of the first launch pad. However problems started long before workers had a chance to break ground at the facility.
In May 2012, the Federal Aviation Agency, Rosaviatsiya, refused to lead the construction of the airport. The agency's head Aleksandr Neradko wrote to the Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov that the 27.9-billion-ruble airfield infrastructure had been severely underpriced (apparently by the main military contractor, Spetsstroi). It was apparently a typical situation for the entire Vostochny project, since the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, has been locked in a similar battle with Spetsstroi for years over other infrastructure at the center. (594)
As of beginning of 2013, the construction at the site of the future airport was promised to start instantly and the first plane was scheduled to land there in 2015. However by that year, the facility still did not exist. Later promises to start the project in 2014, also did not materialize.
By the end of 2013, satellite imagery showed what looked like tree clearing for the access road leading to the site, with some extension of the road appearing on photos from space by the end of 2014.
More than seven years after the approval of the Vostochny project, this expensive piece of infrastructure was apparently overshadowed by many other priorities within the massive project, such as the launch pad, the processing facility and the residential area. On June 5, 2015, the head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov told journalistis that the construction of the airport had been finally starting.
In November 2015, Komarov said that plans had been made to develop the airport in Vostochny jointly with the Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom and to "optimize" the expenses for the project.
Despite long delays with construction, the project officials were concerned about recruiting enough qualified personnel in the region to stuff such a super-modern facility. They considered a special training program at one of the aviation institutions in the country for students from the area to grow cadre for the Vostochny airport. (679)
In June 2016, the head of TsENKI, the launch infrastructure division at Roskosmos, Rano Dzhuraeva told the official TASS news agency that funding for the airport had been allocated within the (yet-to-be approved) launch infrastructure budget and the facility would be completed in 2018, or three years behind the original schedule.
In September 2020, Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin promised to complete the airport in 2023 and connect the facility to the rest of the launch site with an ultra-modern tram line which would be used to transport cargo and passengers. Rogozin did not say what kind of engine system would be used on the tram line or provided any other technical details on the vehicles but said that they would be built at the Ust-Katav Wagon Plant, UKVZ, which is a part of the Roskosmos State Corporation. However, within weeks, the Russkiy Kosmos, Roskosmos' official publication, carried an interview with Sergei Kostarev, Deputy Director at the State Corporation's TsENKI ground infrastructure division, where he disclosed that the construction of the airport in Vostochny would not be completed until 2024.
Airport in Vostochny as seen from the ISS in 2022.
On February 21, 2021, Rogozin announced that the tree removal for the airport construction had just started aiming at clearning the site before Spring flooding. On Nov. 10, 2021, he promised the first landing at the new runway "on the brink of 2022 and 2023." But at the end of March 2022, Rogozin said that the runway would be ready during that year.
A modern airfield capable of receiving heavy transport aircraft was one of the first facilities to be constructed in Vostochny. Credit: Roskosmos
The main passenger terminal at Vostochny airport was designed in the form of a bat. Once completed, it will become main gateway to Vostochny for numerous specialists and officials from European Russia. Credit: Roskosmos
...Even more important would be cargo terminal in Vostochny to receive hardware built primarily in European part of Russia. Credit: Roskosmos
With the opening of an airport in Vostochny, Russian contractors could rely on Il-76 transport planes to deliver most urgent cargo to the space center. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak
The airport in Vostochny would have to be expanded from its original design to receive the world's largest aircraft, such as this Ukrainian An-225 originally built for the Buran program and capable of bringing big rocket components or other cargo reaching 200 tons from European Russia. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Ultimately, the airport in Vostochny could also see returning stages of reusable rockets. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
Currently studied reusable rocket system, MRKS, based in Vostochny would be equipped with a pair of boosters featuring folding wing and designed to land horizontally on the runway in Vostochny in a short sequence. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak