Artist rendering of Russia's new-generation spacecraft, PTK NP, riding an Angara-5V rocket during a mission to the vicinity of the Moon. Image credit: Anatoly Zak / RussianSpaceWeb.com

Apr 30, 2015 Budget boost for Russia's new generation deep space crew vehicle

Sen—Russia's new-generation spacecraft, being designed to take cosmonauts into deep space, received a new impetus in April, after several months in limbo. The four seater capsule not only survived a budget cut but is given a roadmap in the new ten year budget for the Federal Space Program.

The 20-ton spacecraft, known so far only as PTK NP—the Russian abbreviation for New-Generation Piloted Transport Ship—was initially approved for development back in 2009, however the project lagged behind schedule. The first launch of the spacecraft had already been postponed from 2018 to 2021, while its ultimate fate still remained clouded. As the Russian space program faced new financial problems in 2014, the nation's strategists debated whether to continue a costly effort or to focus on the upgrades of the veteran Soyuz spacecraft instead, multiple sources within the industry said.

In the early months of this year, the Russian Space Agency's officials worked on the new draft of the Federal Space Program, which will commence in 2016 and run until 2025. Its budget had to be slashed by almost a third from 2,849 billion rubles to 2,004 billion rubles over the next decade to reflect falling oil prices and a weak ruble.

Surprisingly, the latest revision of the Program spared the PTK NP project and even accelerated its flight test program within a basic roadmap for future missions. The new strategy is based on the recent decision to radically upgrade a brand-new Angara-5 rocket, which is being positioned as the main carrier of the nation's human spaceflight effort, as well as the commercial workhorse for Russia.

According to the new schedule, the first test launch of the PTK NP spacecraft will now take place in the closing quarter of 2021. The unmanned prototype of the ship will liftoff on an Angara-5P rocket from the yet-to-be-completed Vostochny space center in the Russian Far East.

The second unmanned version of the ship is slated to dock at the International Space Station (ISS), in 2022 or early 2023. It will be followed a year later by the first mission carrying crew.

In the meantime, a "beefed up" version of the Angara-5 rocket upgraded with two new hydrogen-propelled stages is scheduled to fly its first test mission with a dummy payload in 2023 or 2024. The rocket capable of carrying up to 38 tons to low Earth orbit will be deployed at a dedicated launch pad in Vostochny.

If its flight test is successful, a pair of such rockets would be used to mount a human expedition to the lunar orbit as early as 2025, or a decade from now. One rocket would be used to launch the PTK NP spacecraft, whilst another rocket would launch a hydrogen-loaded space tug. After a link-up in low Earth orbit, the space tug would propel the spacecraft with the crew toward the Moon.

According to this plan, Russia's expedition to the vicinity of the Moon could take place earlier than might have been possible under a previous, much more costly strategy, which relied on the now canceled super-heavy rocket. Due to the time and money required to build a monstrous booster, a one-launch flight scenario for a circumlunar mission could not be played out before 2029 at the earliest. 

Obviously, like the rest of the Russian Federal Space Program, this latest schedule is yet to be approved by the Russian government, which faces increasing pressures to cut costs across the board. Fortunately for the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, the nation's currency started recovering in the past few weeks and the agency promised to have the program approved by the Kremlin in June.

However, even with the final green light to the plan, the lunar orbit would be the most ambitious goal achievable within the ten year Federal Space Program.

The revised program in April also cut in half the seed money for the lunar lander, which would be needed to bring cosmonauts from the lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon. As a result, the development of the lunar lander has been pushed back by at least two or three years, making a lunar landing expedition impossible before 2030s.

Under the most optimistic scenario, the lunar lander could now make its first test flight in Earth's orbit around 2029, according to the current draft of the Federal Space Program. Designed to carry up to three people onboard, the spacecraft would be preceded to the lunar surface by a pair of stationary robotic landers in 2019 and 2022. A more ambitious probe intended to return soil samples from the lunar surface in 2023 did not survive the latest budget cuts.