Making sense of the latest shakeup at Roscosmos.
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, typically celebrates the new year in a traditional Russian fashion: With a two-week bash lasting through Orthodox Christmas and up to January 14. But this year, things were a little more subdued. Workers building the new Vostochny spaceport in the country’s remote far-eastern taiga were given just two days to mark the coming of 2016.
Now, that’s partly because of the lagging construction at Vostochny. But Roskosmos had another reason to be in a less-then-festive mood. The Kremlin crossed off the biggest item on the agency’s Christmas list: a flight to the Moon.
The annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the resulting economic sanctions from the West—combined with falling oil prices—have squeezed the Russian economy and forced Moscow to tighten the belt across the board. Not surprisingly, all but most essential projects in the Russian space program were slashed.
But don’t write off Russia just yet. Kremlin officials were quick to reassure everyone that all the ambitious plans were only postponed, not canceled. Without much fanfare, Russia space experts have been planning a new way to send the first cosmonauts to the moon.
DON’T WRITE OFF RUSSIA JUST YET
Back From the Brink
Russian space strategists eyed the Moon as the ultimate destination a decade ago, as soon as the booming oil prices pulled the country’s economy out of the post-Soviet rubble. (Then, as now, many had left the Russian space program for dead.) But big plans had to wait while Roscosmos struggled to rebuild its battered Soviet legacy and to reshape itself for the new millennium. One small step in this process happened last week, when Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a decree (eerily numbered 666) that formally transformed the government agency of Roscosmos into a so-called state corporation, modeled after existing Russian industry giants such as the highly successful nuclear conglomerate Rosatom.
In the meantime, Russian engineers have been hard at work devising plans to revive the unrealized Soviet dream of sending cosmonauts to the moon. Visions of a next-generation manned spacecraft that would replace the venerable but small Soyuz capsule appeared on the drawing board, and some of its components are now undergoing testing. Soon to be christened with a new name based on the results of the online poll, the new four-seat vehicle is designed to travel 99 percent of the distance between the Earth and the moon.
When the huge rocket needed to launch the new lunar ship in a single shot was deemed too expensive in 2015, Russian engineers rejiggered their lunar expeditions to be blasted by four smaller, cheaper Angara boosters, which could pay for themselves by delivering commercial and military satellites in addition to flying cosmonauts. As a result, the planned Russian lunar expeditions promise to be much cheaper than those that NASA would launch with the behemoth SLS rocket the United States is currently developing, which is too big for most commercial purposes.
The Lunar Strategy, Detailed
Over the course of 2015, Russian engineers quietly devised a moon-going strategy including 41 launches of Angara rockets to support the nation’s lunar program during the next two decades. According to this grand plan, beginning in 2023 seven Russian crews would fly the new spacecraft, and five of them land on the moon, concluding with the establishment of a modular habitable moon base.
Here is how the Russian moon-exploration program would proceed, according to the latest schedule:
Unmanned flight testing of the new spacecraft in Earth orbit would start in 2021, followed by an automated docking at the International Space Station in 2023. In the same year, the first crew would fly the new ship to the ISS.
In 2025, the new Russian spacecraft would be ready to make its first flight beyond the Earth’s orbit without crew. The year later, the lunar module designed to take cosmonauts from the lunar orbit to the lunar surface would also make an unmanned test flight. By that time, a pair of Russian robotic landers, currently under development, is expected to pave the way for human explorers.
By 2027, the first Russian crew is scheduled to venture into deep space and reach the lunar orbit, matching the feat of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1969. Finally, in 2029, the first Russian cosmonauts would land on the Moon. Four more expeditions would follow through 2035. From the outset, each manned landing would be preceded by the delivery of a habitable module to the lunar orbit and then to the lunar surface.
Still Aiming for the Moon
Last October, during the International Astronautics Congress in Jerusalem, a Russian industry team offered this lunar strategy publicly to seek cooperation with international partners. NASA is reportedly evaluating the proposal.
With more than a decade of efforts invested into the lunar program, Russia is unlikely to drop its ambitions despite the current budget slump. The main thrust of the Russian space program will remain aimed at the Moon. Even after the latest financial woes, the development of the new-generation spacecraft remains on the books as does the development of robotic pathfinder missions to the Moon.
If history is any guide, the price of oil will not stay very low forever and the economic downturn should eventually give way to growth in Russia—hopefully, helped by normalizing relations with its neighbors and Western allies. After that, it’s on to the moon.