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The launch pad to nowhere
The strange case of Soyuz in Vostochny
In 2011, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, made the decision to build a launch pad for the Soyuz family of rockets at the future Vostochny space port in the nation's Far East. A single launch pad would become the fourth location worldwide intended for the Soyuz-2 rocket and its derivatives.
First Soyuz rocket lifts off from Vostochny on April 28, 2016.
Previous chapter: Vostochny launch siteAbove: General layout of the Soyuz-2 launch complex in Vostochny.
Origin of the plan
The idea of building a launch complex for Soyuz rockets in Vostochny was probably spurred by politics, rather than by any technical necessity. In 2011, the newly appointed head of the Russian space agency Vladimir Popovkin made the decision to cancel the development of the Rus-M launch vehicle, which was expected to be the first rocket to fly from Vostochny. As a result, the yet-to-be-built space center ended up without a rocket to launch, despite the huge political importance given to the project by the Russian government. Regardless of Vostochny's real role in the Russian space program, the Kremlin saw the future center as an "anchor" for continuous Russian presence in the remote and sparsely populated region of the country and as a replacement for the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Apparently in an effort to save the agency's limited funds and meet the political requirement of having the first launch in 2015, the new head of Roskosmos favored bringing the veteran Soyuz rockets to Vostochny, instead of the new-generation Angara rocket, which had similar capabilities to the cancelled Rus-M. However the current capabilities of Soyuz rockets are considerably below the mass required to carry the next-generation manned spacecraft, which was expected to ride Rus-M from Vostochny. Thus, this move undermined the highly advertised purpose of Vostochny as the space port for the manned space program. The existing Soyuz manned spacecraft could not fly from Vostochny either due to the lack of capability to conduct high-precision emergency landings into the few small designated areas in the midst of the heavily wooded and rugged terrain of the Far-Eastern taiga.
To make matters worse, the Soyuz launcher would carry even less payload from Vostochny than the same rocket already delivers from its brand-new launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, thus making the future facility useless for most commercial missions, which constitute the absolute majority of the rocket's unmanned passengers. Finally, the Russian military, another customer of Soyuz, stirred clear of any participation in funding or use of a "civilian" launch site in Vostochny, relying instead on its existing Soyuz and soon-to-be-completed Angara facilities in Plesetsk.
As a result, the Soyuz pad in Vostochny would give no new capability to the Russian space program, besides serving as an insurance policy against political quarrels between Russia and Kazakhstan over Baikonur. In addition, after years of empty promises, leaders in the Kremlin would finally see some real development activity taking place in Vostochny, never mind, without much real purpose.
In theory, the long-overdue decision to retire the Soyuz family of rockets could free its pad in Vostochny for the next-generation launcher, such as Soyuz-5, whose design emerged in 2013. However, this methane-burning rocket was not likely to appear on the stage until mid-2020s.
In October 2011, the Russian Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that the scale of the construction in Vostochny would be comparable to that of the GOELRO project from the 1920s. (595) The fact that GOELRO aimed to provide electric power to the entire Soviet Union, while his pet project would build an unnecessary launch pad was secondary to the goal of "achieving" great expense of taxpayers' rubles.
The impression of lack of rationale for the Soyuz pad in Vostochny is further reinforced by some really bizarre justifications for the project given by Russian officials. For example, deputy chief of Roskosmos Aleksandr Lopatin told the Kommersant newspaper that Vostochny would help to "relieve Baikonur from an overload of too many launches that leave few windows for the maintenance of facilities!" Lopatin did not explain whether that "relief" would be achieved by shuttling the same personnel across five time zones between Baikonur and Vostochny or by recruiting and training a backup army of workers and engineers to service Soyuz rockets in Vostochny! In either case, today's political problems around Baikonur would probably look like a child play and expenses for the rent of Baikonur -- like a pocket change compared to the price tag of Vostochny.
By the fall of 2012, Roskosmos concluded a "tender" for the construction of the Soyuz-2 launch pad in Vostochny. In reality, only one organization submitted a "bid" - the Center for Exploitation of Ground Infrastructure, TsENKI, which is comprised of traditional Russian developers of the ground space infrastructure.
According to official documents, nine billion rubles ($300 million) was allocated for the launch complex itself and 4.1 billion was earmarked for the fueling facility featuring an oxygen and nitrogen production plant. (For comparison, a similar launch complex for Soyuz in Kourou ended up costing $1.6 billion, even though it was managed primarily by European industry unburdened by the waste, corruption and inefficiency permeating the Russian economy.)
According to the plan, both parts of the launch complex had to be ready by November 25, 2015 -- a totally unrealistic deadline, dictated by the original promise made by the Russian government in 2007. (At the time, a newly developed rockets and spacecraft were promised to come to Vostochny by that date.) In August 2012, anticipating the inevitable collapse of such a schedule, the head of Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin wrote a letter to the Russian president warning that problems with funding would likely push the first launch from Vostochny to no earlier than 2018. In reality, even that deadline would not be easy to meet.
In the meantime, other government ministries tried their best to avoid their involvement in the project, labeling Vostochny a colossal "dolgostroi" (a Russian term for never ending and wasteful construction). In May 2012, the Federal aviation agency, Rosaviatsiya, refused to lead the development of an oversized runway in Vostochny designed to receive big transport planes and returning booster stages of future reusable rockets. The agency head Aleksandr Neradko wrote to the Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov that the 27.9-billion-ruble airfield infrastructure had been severely underpriced, which was a typical situation for the entire Vostochny project, which was driven by pure political will without either proper financial backing or technical justification. (594)
Launch complex design
The launch complex for the Soyuz-2 rocket in Vostochny, designated 371SK14, would feature a "classic" pad design, featuring four tulip-like support structures suspending the rocket over a 15-meter "firing" ring with a single flame trench below it.
Like all other Soyuz pads, the facility in Vostochny featured the Service Cabin, KO, below the surface of the pad. Other major components of the launch complex included:
However, the Soyuz pad in Vostochny differed from its predecessors in Baikonur and Plesetsk by a movable service tower like the one at the Soyuz facility in Kourou, French Guiana. The 1,600-ton tower would be moved along a 140-meter-long rail line built with an accuracy of no less than 5 millimeters. The 52-meter tower would provide personnel access to the Soyuz rocket towering as high as 37 meters above the floor surface of the pad. The tower would feature cranes and elevators. It would be also equipped with water drainage system, electric, communications, control and TV-monitoring systems.
Pad's fueling system included three main sections: a pressurized gases facility, oxygen and nitrogen facility and kerosene, T-1, and naftil, RG-1, station featuring 200-cubic-meter reservoirs. It was apparently the first Soyuz launch complex featuring a stationary storage for kerosene, which previously would be pumped into the rocket from mobile cisterns. (778)
The pad was protected from lightning by eight 50-meter, three 18-meter and two 150-meter lightning towers. With a total mass of almost 500 tons, the pair required 450 cubic meters of concrete to anchor them to the ground. The highest towers were said to be 14 meters higher than notorious "Stalin's skyskrapers" of Moscow.
Four 45-meter lighting towers with bases measuring six by six meters hold a total of 124 flood lights to allow day-and-night preparation of the rocket.
The nerve center of the pad is located inside a command post equipped with hardware for monitoring all phases of pre-launch preparations and liftoff.
A 5,600-square meter administrative building built of reiforced concrete is located right within the sequrity perimeter of the launch complex. A three-story building was designed to withstand a 7-point earthquake.
A separate depot for the Soyuz rocket transporter was also built on the periphery of the launch complex and connected to the rest of the facility with a railway siding. The depot has an area of 829 square meters and a volume of 10,040 cubic meters. The building is equipped with power supply, heating, ventilation, internal fire-suppression and sewer.
The launch pad was connected by a 4.4-kilometer railway with the main technical processing area in Vostochny. Due to heavy load on the line, rails were laid on top of an asphalt foundation. It takes from 1.5 to 2 hours to deliver the rocket from the processing area to the launch pad.
Up to 50 companies around Russia were to supply equipment for the launch pad, which would include 83 structures and 52 different systems, including temperature and humidity control stystems, fire-supression system, compressor station and lower level movable access bridge.
As of 2016, the total service personnel of the launch complex was estimated to be from 800 to 1,000 people.
Soyuz rockets in Vostochny
The complex was not intended for the man-rated Soyuz, at least initially, however it could accommodate all existing versions of the Soyuz-2 rocket, including Soyuz-2-1a and Soyuz-2-1b, as well as the soon-to-be operational Soyuz-2-1v with some minor upgrades. Fregat and Volga upper stages could also be handled at the complex.
Eventually, the same pad could be adapted to launch Soyuz-2-3, Soyuz-2-3v and a mysterious Soyuz-2-1d rocket (apparently, Soyuz-1 with the RD-193 engine), however according to industry sources, none of these proposed new versions of the rocket had any real prospects for funding as of 2012.
The official technical requirements for the launch complex also listed the capability of supporting up 20 launches a year at all seasons and at any time of the day.
Specifically for its use in Vostochny, the Soyuz-2 family was expected to get modest internal updates to enable the fueled rocket to remain on the launch pad for up to 100 hours and withstand the rigors of transportation up to 10,000 kilometers from its manufacturing plant in Samara to the Russian Far East. Soyuz rockets built for launches from Vostochny would also be equipped with special valves to drain excess propellant outside of the Mobile Service Tower, MBO, to prevent dangerous concentration of oxygen vapors in its interior.
The launch pad location
The launch pad for Soyuz-2 was situated further away from the main assembly and pre-launch processing area in Vostochny than the chosen location for a dual launch facility of the cancelled Rus-M rocket. The unused site for Rus-M could still be re-purposed for the launches of Angara rockets, had funding becomes available. In April 2013, the head of Roskosmos, Vladimir Popovkin said that the agency would request government funding for the construction of the Angara pad in Vostochny beginning in 2015 to avoid disbanding the workforce after the completion of the Soyuz pad.
At the beginning of 2012, preliminary geographical coordinates of the Soyuz-2 complex were determined to be 128 degrees 20 minutes East longitude and 51 degrees 53 minutes North latitude. This particular point had an elevation of 274 meters above the sea level.
Following a critical review of the preliminary design on August 31, 2012, TsSKB Progress in Samara (the Soyuz rocket developer) sent completed blueprints for the Soyuz-2 launch complex to its sub-contractors and to Roskosmos for review. At the time, a formal defense of the project was expected at the beginning of November 2012.
In the meantime, the pace and scale of construction in Vostochny did pick up significantly during 2012, compared to the virtual standstill of the previous five years. According to official statements, supported by satellite imagery and independent witnesses on the ground, construction workers started digging foundations for administrative offices, the vehicle processing and assembly complex at Site 2 and a foundation for the Soyuz-2 launch pad. A network of new railways and automobile roads was also under construction, particularly a road linking the complex to the future meteorological facility and a 13-kilometer railway spur from the main Transsib line to the Promyshlennya railway station in Uglegorsk.
According to the official documentation, the construction of the first phase of the Soyuz-2 processing complex at Site 2 officially started in May 2012 and was scheduled for completion in September 2015.
On Nov. 7, 2012, the head of Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin arrived to Vostochny to review the construction progress at the launch facility, the main power distribution center, the Promyshlennaya railway station in Uglegrosk, industrial facilities and administrative buildings.
Based on reports from the main contractor -- GUSS Dalspetsstroi -- Popovkin promised to complete the construction of main buildings and structures in 2013 and have the launch complex and the processing facilities ready for the final outfitting and testing in 2014. At the technical complex, the construction workers were preparing to start erecting metal structures of the vehicle assembly building by the beginning of December 2012. A total of 20 billion rubles was to be spent for the project in 2012 and 30 billion during 2013.
On Nov. 20, GUSS Dalspetsstroi announced that the company had laid 3,500 cubic meters of concrete covering 2,000 square meters. For the first time in the company's 33-year history, the work of such a scale had been conducted under winter conditions, requiring to build a special pavilion over the area and warm up the reinforcing structure, Dalspetsstroi said. Two Cobra plants with an output of 120 and 80 cubic meters of concrete were working around the clock to support the project. In the next step, the company was preparing to lay additional 3,450 cubic meters for the block B of the launch complex foundation, Dalspetsstroi said.
Still, Viktor Ishaev, the Minister for the Development of Far East, who visited Vostochny in November 2012, said that the construction had fallen far short of the projected pace for 2012, spending only seven billion rubles out of 18-20 billion allocated for the year. According to Ishaev, the directorate for the Vostochny project had still been not in place, permissions for the construction and its technical control had been lacking. The project also faced financial problems, since projected numbers were not matching the situation on the ground, Ishaev said. (603)
By the middle of the year, a number of workers at the site was expected to increase from current 2,500 to 5,000 people, the local media reported at the start of 2013, quoting the main contractor on the project -- Dalspetsstroi. According to the organization, around a half of workers came from local towns. In April 2013, the number of construction personnel in Vostochny was quoted at 4,000 and was promised to double during the summer.
However with the summer came massive rains causing a number of rivers in the Amur Region to overflow and flood vast areas. Although the launch site and its immediate surroundings had not been directly affected, the construction in Vostochny was likely to face new delays, as the local workforce and materials had to be diverted to recovery efforts in the flood zone.
On August 21, Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin arrived to the region to review the progress with the construction of the launch site. He overflew the flooded areas and the future launch center. Although admitting the large scale of the disaster, Rogozin was in no mood for giving a break to the construction team. "This is a strategically important facility for Russia and any deviation from the schedule would be considered as criminal negligence," official Russian media quoted Rogozin as saying. He also criticized Ministry of Regions and Spetsstroi military contractor for failing to develop methods for accurate accounting of the project in 2012 and 2013. Rogozin demanded to complete the construction of the Soyuz pad in July 2015 in order to guarantee the first launch in December of the same year.
In November, as the head of Spetsstroi Aleksandr Volosov visited the site, the agency's officials reported that the construction teams had reduced their lag behind schedule from three months in July to just 10 days on 24 out of 33 facilities of the launch complex. At the time, the launch pad was growing one floor a month. According to Spetsstroi 4,000 workers and 680 vehicles took part in daily construction activities at Vostochny and counting engineering and management personnel, a total of 5,246 people were involved in the project.
From November 26 to 28, 100 workers using 18 mobile concrete mixers and five pumps during 24-hour shifts put 2,200 cubic meters of concrete into a foundation of a walking gallery of the launch facility connecting internal rooms of the pad.
Next chapter: Angara in Vostochny
Milestones in the development of the Soyuz pad in Vostochny:
2011 Oct. 24: A survey commission signs official paperwork for the location of the Soyuz-2 launch complex in Vostochny.
2012, beginning of the year: Roskosmos completes the list of facilities for the first phase of construction of the Soyuz-2 launch complex.
2012 May: Construction of the processing complex at Site 2 officially starts.
2012 July 19: A Council of Chief Designers on the development of the Soyuz-2 launch complex in Vostochny meets at TsSKB Progress in Samara.
2012 Aug. 31: A meeting of Scientific and Technical Council on the development of the preliminary design for the Soyuz-2 launch pad in Vostochny takes place at TsSKB Progress in Samara.
The Soyuz-2 rocket capabilities from Vostochny (as of 2014):
*A poster with capabilities of the Soyuz rocket shown to Russian president Vladimir Putin during his visit to the Soyuz launch pad in Vostochny on Sept. 2, 2014, seemingly indicated an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees toward the Equator. However according to multiple sources, the lowest inclination reachable from Vostochny is 51.7 degrees. To insert a spacecraft into the 51.6-degree orbit, for example, to deliver the Oka-T module toward the International Space Station, ISS, the Soyuz-2 rocket would need to perform a sideway maneuver, known as "dog leg." It would require estimated 37.375 meters per second in velocity change, known as delta V.
Soyuz launch complex contractors:
The Soyuz-2 launch complex in Vostochny by the numbers:
*according to various estimates; **66 hectares as of 2012
Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: November 30, 2016
Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: November 4, 2012
All rights reserved
Key elements of the Soyuz-2 launch complex in Vostochny. Credit: TsSKB Progress
Artist rendering of the Soyuz-2 launch facility in Vostochny circa 2012. Credit: TsSKB Progress
Concrete structures of the Soyuz pad in Vostochny. Credit: Roskosmos
The initial phase of construction at the Soyuz-2 launch pad in Vostochny. Credit: TsSKB Progress
In 2012, satellite images showed initial construction activities at the site of the future launch pad for the Soyuz-2 rocket in Vostochny.
The construction of the new road in Vostochny in 2012. Credit: GUSS Dalspetsstroi
A photo published in November 2012 shows the concrete work at the Soyuz pad in Vostochny under a special covering to keep the area warm. Credit: GUSS Dalspetsstroi
Construction crews dig a flame trench for the Soyuz-2 launch pad in Vostochny in 2012. Credit: GUSS Dalspetsstroi
A satellite photo taken on Jan. 16, 2013, shows a distinctive diamond-shaped flame trench of the Soyuz launch complex being constructed in Vostochny in the Russian Far East.
The photo of the construction site at the future Soyuz pad released on April 29, 2013. Credit: Dalspetsstroi
Photo of the Soyuz pad released in May 2013. Credit: Spetsstroi
An aerial photo of the Soyuz launch facility as seen on Aug. 21, 2013. Credit: Dmitri Rogozin
A depot for the Soyuz rocket transporter was completed near the launch pad in October. Click to enlarge. Credit: Spetsstroi
Soyuz pad got its fresh paint at the end of October - beginning of November. Click to enlarge. Credit: Spetsstroi