Sen—Last week, the world largest aerospace show was held at Le Bourget near Paris. From the time of the Cold War, the Soviet and Russian space industry used the event to showcase its most impressive goods, more often than not for propaganda purposes than for marketing. Gagarin's Vostok rocket, the Soviet versions of the American Space Shuttle and the Anglo-French super-sonic transport all made their public debut at the event.
This year, however, the joint exhibit of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, landed in the outskirts of Paris, in the aftermath of the most serious political and engineering crisis facing the industry in the two post-Soviet decades. This perfect storm combines the pressure of Western sanctions stemming from the war in Ukraine with the reputation drain resulting from Russian rockets seemingly falling out of the sky.
Still, Roscosmos's leadership put on a brave face and tried hard to present optimistic prospects for the Russian space program.
"We had meetings with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and JAXA, (Japan's space organization) to discuss our plans for the use of the ISS and our future joint missions to the Moon and Mars," the head of Roscosmos Igor Komarov told the agency's official TV channel. However he provided no details on the long debated future of the manned space flight, beyond the looming retirement of the ISS around 2024. Komarov's meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in Le Bourget was at least an indication that the two sides are still talking, despite the overall strategy in manned spaceflight remaining in limbo.
Komarov's optimism was echoed at Le Bourget by Viktor Khartov, the head of Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin, whose unmanned planetary probes have been traditionally designed to pave the way for human missions. According to Khartov, the company was actively discussing with ESA European involvement into the development of the Russian unmanned lunar lander, Luna-Glob, which Roscosmos promises to land in the South Pole of the Moon in 2019. (The author will discuss the Luna-Glob and other Russian planetary projects in one of the upcoming blog entries.) Again, Khartov could not boast of any deals struck at Le Bourget on Luna-Glob or any other project, but, at least, it re-confirmed that the conversation between two sides was continuing despite the current political climate. However, given the typical time required for international teams of scientists to integrate their hardware and experiments in a complex planetary mission like Luna-Glob, it looks that either such a cooperation would be minimal or the 2019 launch date is overly optimistic. By most accounts, NPO Lavochkin is already bogged down into the development of the joint Russian-European ExoMars-2018 mission. A nearly impossible deadline for the launch of the ExoMars rover in 2018 makes a parallel development of the first post-Soviet lunar lander seem unrealistic.
A scale model of Luna-Glob spacecraft at Le Bourget. Image credit: Claude Mourier / RussianSpaceWeb.com
In the meantime, on the commercial front, Roscosmos showcased its traditional "big guns": the Soyuz and Angara family of rockets, even though no new major developments within either family was announced. Moreover, right before the opening of the show, it became clear that RKTs Progress, the developer of the Soyuz rocket, was so far unable to convince the Kremlin to put up the cash for a major makeover of the world's oldest flying space booster. The company wanted to simplify the overly complex conical shape of Soyuz boosters into a modern cylindrical architecture and switch the rocket's fuel from kerosene to liquified natural gas. However without state sponsorship, scale models of proposed Soyuz follow-ons re-appearing in Le Bourget look increasingly like a monument to an unrealized dream.
Scale models of the Soyuz family of rockets (background right) and its next-generation replacement (left) burning liquified natural gas. Image credit: Claude Mourier / RussianSpaceWeb.com
One unexplained surprise was delivered to Le Bourget by Russia's main launch infrastructure contractor, TSENKI. According to the new head of the company Ranokhon Dzhuraeva, multiple but unnamed foreign partners had been "very interested" in using the soon-to-be completed Vostochny Cosmodrome for commercial launches. Again without providing many details, Dzhuraeva said that Russian offers for commercial use of Vostochny would be competitively priced. This sounds really puzzling, because the Soyuz rocket has already got a commercial launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana, which thanks to its proximity to the Equator, has already prompted practically all Soyuz commercial customers to leave Baikonur in Kazakhstan for French Guiana. By the same law of physics, Vostochny should have absolutely no chance to stand against Kourou, if Soyuz starts competing against itself from these two launch sites. That is, of course, if the Russian government would not subsidize missions from Vostochny, which would not make them economically viable.
One potential explanation came from Komarov, right after he had returned to Russia from Le Bourget. While the air show was still in progress, Komarov told the Business FM radio that despite losing reputation in the wake of all the latest failures, the Russian launch industry was about to score one of the largest deals, which would be announced "during the week." Komarov provided no hints on the prospective mega-customer and the week came and went without any announcement. However one possible suitor could the European consortium Airbus Defense and Space, which made one of the most sensational announcements in Le Bourget. In collaboration with a British company OneWeb, Airbus promised to build a global satellite Internet network with staggering 900 micro-satellites. Obviously, the deployment of such a giant constellation would require a fleet of rockets, giving Russian Soyuz, (perhaps based at several launch sites), a good chance of taking a large chunk of the pie.
In the meantime, Russia's own communications satellite manufacturer—ISS Reshetnev based in a Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk—says that it did strike a deal in Le Bourget with its European partners for the supply of high-tech components, such as star trackers and batteries for the company's future spacecraft. Under conditions of sanctions, the very fact of the agreement is very significant for the beleaguered Russian satellite industry. The head of the company Nikolai Testoedov previously disclosed that Western sanctions had forced ISS Reshetnev to postpone the delivery of several future satellites, while the company had sought replacements for banned hardware, mostly military-grade electronics capable of operating under harsh conditions of space.
LM-10-MIRA engine intended for the upper stage of the Vega rocket. Image credit: Claude Mourier / RussianSpaceWeb.com
Ironically in Le Bourget, Russia managed to fire one potential "technological" salvo at its latest nemesis, Ukraine, with the hands of the European industry. At the show, the Italian aerospace firm Avio presented a combustion chamber for the LM-10-MIRA engine. Developed in cooperation with the KBKhA design bureau based in the Russian city of Voronezh, the project aims to replace a Ukrainian-built engine on the European Vega rocket. The ESA contract for the Vega engine is one of the few lifelines which keeps the Ukrainian rocket industry alive after the collapse of cooperation with Russia last year.
However, as the fate of Buran and the Soviet Concorde testifies, the jury is still out on where all these projects and hopes would go from Le Bourget.