Russia’s Big Plan To Finally Put Cosmonauts on the Moon

​Making sense of the latest shakeup at Roscosmos.​

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

Jason Torchinsky

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s


Decades and decades after they pretended never to be in a “moon race” with the U.S., Russia reportedly plans to land cosmonauts on the moon by the 2030s, according to the news agency TASS. The most recent plans call for up to six launches of the Angara A5V heavy-lift rocket to put enough hardware into orbit for their first mission, which appears to involve establishing a lunar base.

A lunar base, for real. Long the stuff of science fiction, it seems Russia is trying to do this for real, or at least wants to. The BBC reported in October that the Russian and European space agencies are preparing to go to the moon with an eventual settlement in mind.

The most obvious difference between the plans for Russia’s first manned lunar mission and the American one 46 years ago is in the number of launches. The U.S. did it with one massive Saturn V launch, so why are the Russians planning a mission that requires so many launches?

Part of the reason is that the Saturn V had about four times the lifting capacity of the Angara rockets, but that’s not the full story. Back when the Russians wore more red and called themselves the ‘Soviets.’ they also tried the single, massive launcher approach to a moon landing: the failed N1 rocket. It’s not that I don’t think the Russians couldn’t build a working, massive launch vehicle, I just think they realized for them it doesn’t make sense.

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

The Angara rocket will eventually replace the Russian workhorse heavy-lift rocket, Proton. It makes more sense to develop a launch vehicle that has commercial and other uses as well, as opposed to building a massive super-heavy lift vehicle. The US only used the Saturn V for the seven moon landing launches (only six made it; if you’ve seen Apollo 13, you know the story), the lunar-and-earth orbiting manned and unmaned Apollo test missions, and then once again to launch Skylab, America’s first space station.

The Saturn V was a tremendous achievement, but it wasn’t exactly a useful multi-purpose launch vehicle, and I think the Russians want the Angara to get them to the moon and make some money launching satellites.

The other reason is that, according to sources talking to TASS, the first Russian mission to the moon will be more than a “flags and footprints” deal—they want to establish an actual lunar base, of some sort. With that in mind, here’s the breakdown of the six launches:

According to the source, a manned flight to the moon is possible under a scheme envisaging two coupled launches. First, a lunar take-off and landing complex is placed on a low Earth orbit, and then the upper stage with effective cryogenic propellants is orbited. The third launch orbits a manned spacecraft, and the fourth – another upper stage. After docking of the lunar take-off and landing complex with the manned spacecraft on the lunar orbit, the crew descends to the Moon surface inside the lunar take-off and landing complex, carries out the research program and returns to orbit. After that the spaceship returns to Earth.

Also, another coupled Angara-A5V launch will be needed before the manned flight to deliver and deploy the first expeditionary unit of the lunar base on the Moon.

So, what we’re basically looking at are three pairs of launches, with each pair including a payload and an ‘upper stage’ — essentially a rocket designed to get that payload to the moon. Let’s call each pair of launches ‘modules’ because that sounds like the sort of language space-folks like to use. That would break down the launches (in groups of two, remember) like this:

• Module 1: Lunar lander and rocket to get it to the moon

• Module 2: Manned orbiter/command module/return vehicle and rocket to get it to the moon

• Module 3: Lunar base unit and rocket to get it to the moon

… and, from what I can gather from the brief description, here’s an infographic of how it seems this mission will likely go down:

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s2

A few things to note: manned orbiter/command/return spacecraft shown is not a Soyuz derivative, but rather Russia’s Advanced Crew Transportation System (ACTS), a two-module, truncated-cone capsule system that looks and awful lot like the US’s Orion. This is one of the many Soyuz-successors that’s been planned for a long time, sometimes with ESA involvement, sometimes not. I think it’s possible that this component could be replaced with a cheaper Soyuz-derived solution if this mission actually happens.

Also, there’s no information yet about just what the “lunar base” might turn out to be. It can’t be too large at this early stage, since it’s just one module that’s being launched the same way as everything else, meaning it’ll have to be similar in size and weight to the lander or ACTS.

My guess is we’ll see a single-cylinder module, something like a lander but replacing the launch engine with more robust life support systems. It’ll be a small base to start with, but I suspect it will be modular, and subsequent launches would add modules to it, just like how we build space stations, but sitting on the lunar surface.

Here’s what TASS speculates:

The continuation of the Luna program could be the beginning of Russian plans to establish a lunar base sometime in the 2030s. The proposed base would include a solar power station, telecommunication station, technological station, scientific station, long-range research rover, landing and launch area, and an orbiting satellite.

Even if it’s modest at first, a permanent lunar base is exactly what would be needed to make this mission relevant, so many decades after people first walked on the moon. New manufacturing methods, including 3D printing, have been developed that can make the use of lunar regolith as a building material possible, and the promise of eventual mining of Helium-3 as a fuel for hoped-for fusion reactors are finally giving lunar bases enough justification to exist.

Russia Reportedly Plans To Build A Lunar Base By The 2030s

It’s an ambitious idea, and I think it’s at least technically possible. Russia has had many advanced programs proposed in the past decade or so (like, say, the Kliper spaceplane) that eventually came to nothing due more to economic issues than anything else, so I’m not convinced yet any of this actually will happen.

Still, I hope it does, and maybe the threat that the Russians will steal the lunar rover and sell it on will be enough to get our American asses back in gear and get a lunar base of our own.

I’m very curious to see how this all plays out.




By Kelsey D. Atherton
Lunar Transformer Concept

Lunar Transformer Concept


Announced yesterday, NASA is moving ahead with funding to study several ambitious space research projects, including one that would transform an inhospitable lunar crater into a habitat for robots — and eventually, human explorers. Located on the moon’s South Pole, Shackleton Crater isn’t just prime real estate for terraforming experiments, it’s Optimus Prime real estate. NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole, the crater covers about 130 square miles, or roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. It is surrounded on all sides by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet above the surface of the crater. Inside this moon-bowl, scientists have already found water, which is essential for any future human habitation.

Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.

These reflectors would be carried around the crater rim by other rovers, unfolding and transforming into useful shapes when needed. A single reflector 130 feet in diameter could send light over six miles into the crater, powering a rover (or a fleet of several Curiousity-sized rovers) with up to one megawatt of energy and preventing them from freezing. Thanks to their height, there is always at least one point on the peaks on the crater rim that receives sunlight, so work could be done continuously in the crater.

Should this plan all work out, several transforming robots with reflectors would work on the edge of the crater, beaming sun in, while robots inside the crater built something close to an “oasis” on the moon. Or at least, an oasis for lunar robots.

The project was awarded in NASA’s Phase II funding, which provides up to $500,000 for two-year-long studies, so the next task is designing a workable reflector that fits into a cube slightly larger than three feet each side, weighing less than 220 pounds, and that unfolds to cover 10,700 square feet. If it all works out, the robots shall inherit the moon.


The Billionaire Headed For The Moon

“It’s clear that the baton has been passed from the government to the private sector” when it comes to space exploration, Jain said. “Now it’s going to take an entrepreneurial spirit to do it at a better cost and to build a business around it.”

Jain, 55, is co-founder of Moon Express, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company that’s aiming to send the first commercial robotic spacecraft to the moon next year. This serial entrepreneur-he founded Internet companies Infospace and Intelius-believes that the moon holds precious metals and rare minerals that can be brought back to help address Earth’s energy, health and resource challenges.

Among the moon’s vast riches: gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, tungsten and helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste.

It’s an exciting prospect, considering supply on Earth for such rare minerals as palladium-used for electronics and industrial purposes-is finite, pushing prices to $784 an ounce on April 2.

“We went to the moon 50 years ago, yet today we have more computing power with our iPhones than the computers that sent men into space,” he said. “That type of exponential technological growth is allowing things to happen that was never possible before.”

Jain’s Moon Express is not alone in its quest to harness the moon’s riches. Several other Silicon Valley start-ups, such as Planet Labs and Masten Space Systems, have been making headlines recently as they enter the space exploration market, an endeavor long associated with, and controlled by, the government. At the same time, the global race is heating up with the Chinese government’s recent success in landing a robotic rover on the moon in December.

To fast-track innovation and bring a deep well of space knowledge to the company, Moon Express made a strategic-and highly symbolic-hire in mid-March when it announced that Andrew Aldrin, 55, son of Apolloastronaut Buzz Aldrin, is joining the company as its president. He is an industry veteran who was the former director of business development for Boeing NASA Systems who has a track record of commercializing space technologies.

Helping to drive this newfound interest in privately-funded space exploration is the Google Lunar X Prize. It’s part of the X Prize Foundation, an educational nonprofit organization that looks to address the planet’s biggest challenges by creating and managing large-scale, high-profile competitions to stimulate investment in research and development.

Moon Express is one of a handful of teams from around the world competing for the $30 million Lunar X Prize, a competition organized by the X Prize Foundation and sponsored by Google. It will be awarded to the first team that lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 meters across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to Earth-all before the end of 2015.

Jain’s own belief in attempting outsized challenges began in the early 1980s when he immigrated to the United States. Soon after finishing his MBA in India, he was recruited by IT company Unisys (NYSE:UIS –News) and worked in Silicon Valley as a computer programmer for several years. In 1988 he married and moved with his wife to Seattle. “She thought the Pacific Northwest was a wonderful place to live, and I figured that if we were going to make that move, I might as well send my résumé to Microsoft,” Jain recalled with a laugh.

The résumé landed him an interview, a job offer, and resulted in a seven-year stint at the software giant. It also solidified for Jain what he really wanted: to start and run his own company. He left Microsoft in 1996 and founded InfoSpace, an online email and phone directory company that he took public. It was valued at $30 billion several years later. In 2003 Jain started Inome (formerly named Intelius), an online database and public records company that has grown into one of the largest information commerce companies, with more than 25 million customers.

“In a large company, you never know if people admire you because of what you’re accomplishing or what’s on your business card,” he said. “In life, everyone wants to be successful, but few people think about being significant. I believe that as an entrepreneur, I could have a much bigger impact on society.”

With Moon Express, Jain feels he has that opportunity. Along with partners Dr. Robert Richards, a physicist and founder of International Space University, a nonprofit organization that offers space training programs, and Dr. Barney Pell, Silicon Valley technology pioneer and a former NASA manager, Jain says Moon Express can offer more “democratic” access to the moon.

“Now that we’re shifting from U.S. government-sponsored space exploration to privately funded expeditions, it’s important to look at how the resources of the moon could benefit everyone,” he said.

For instance, Jain explains that helium-3 is a source of energy that is rare on Earth but abundant on the moon. It is a possible fuel for nuclear fusion that could solve energy demand on Earth for 10,000 years, at least. Platinum, another rare mineral here on Earth, is believed to exist in large quantities on the moon and could be used in various energy applications, he said. “Once you take a mind-set of scarcity and replace it with a mind-set of abundance, amazing things can happen here on Earth,” Jain said. “The ability to access the resources of the moon can change the equation dramatically.”

There are about 50 employees at Moon Express, Jain said, and the goal is to complete its moon launch during the second half of 2015 for under $50 million. “If our software knows how to land safely and send pictures back, we are proving the concept,” he explained. The fact that a company with just 50 employees can successfully land on the moon is something Jain excitedly calls a “singular event.”

“Once we can accomplish that, then the second or third mission can involve bringing things back from the moon,” he added.

By Susan Caminiti & Robert E.