An artist rendering depicts one concept of a low-cost Russian lunar mission, which would combine existing Soyuz spacecraft with a Fregat space tug.

Mar 11, 2015 Could Russia modify existing technology to reach the Moon?

Sen—Soon after the annexation of Crimea by Russia last spring, a giant piece of graffiti appeared on a crumbling facade of one of the Soviet-era apartment buildings in Moscow and then quickly went viral across social media. Along with now famous green soldiers without insignia, who unexpectedly overtook a big chunk of the Ukrainian territory, the five-stories-tall artwork featured a portrait of the world's first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin next to a slogan, which can be translated as "Yuri, we fixed it!"

The propagandistic poster reflected a wave of nationalism fueled by the successful Sochi Olympics and the anschluss of Crimea, but also put the space program at the heart of re-emerging Russia. For a brief moment, space advocates in Moscow hoped that an ambitious space project, such as the construction of a lunar base, would become the "next Sochi" for the Kremlin to further boost nationalism and stimulate high-tech development in the country. The Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees defense and space industry, promised just that in his article published last April by the official mouthpiece of the Russian parliament Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Behind the scenes, Russian space strategists drafted a long list of lunar base infrastructure requirements, complete with bulldozers and cranes.

However as Rogozin's space manifesto was rolling off the press, things started unraveling. The price of oil—the main engine of the Russian economy—fell to unexpected lows, the bloodless overtaking of Crimea quickly morphed into a costly war in Ukraine, while resulting Western economic sanctions crashed the ruble, pushed the Russian economy downward and deprived the Kremlin's coffers of billions.

Instead of becoming a flagship of the Russian national pride, the space program turned into one of the first victims of the economic crisis. By the beginning of 2015, the most expensive items on the wish list of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, such as a super-heavy rocket and the next-generation piloted spacecraft, became candidates for the chopping block. With the retirement of the International Space Station also on the horizon around mid-2020s, a new generation of Russian cosmonauts was now facing the prospect of finding itself with nowhere to go.

To complicate matters even further, in January, Roscosmos' politics zigzagged into the most significant restructuring and management reshuffle in years. Fortunately, the new leaders of the industry showed a quick reaction to the changing circumstances and a determination to do more with less.

In his first major interview with the Russian media, the newly appointed head of Roscosmos Igor Komarov said that despite serious financial problems, key projects of the Russian space program would be kept alive even if it meant delaying them. Komarov also appointed a former head of the agency Yuri Koptev to lead the Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, tasked to formulate the nation's space strategy. Koptev wasted little time in defining a new roadmap, which had remained murky for years. On Feb. 24, he chaired an NTS meeting, which decided to continue operating the ISS until 2024, then detach the three newest Russian modules and form an independent low-cost Russian space station. As a result, Russian cosmonauts, and possibly their Western colleagues, would be guaranteed a home in the low-Earth-orbit well into the 2030s.

As for deep space missions, Roscosmos already hinted that the current budget would not be able to afford the super-heavy rocket, which Russian engineers have mulled over for the past several years as the main vehicle for launching lunar exploration. Without it, the new-generation piloted spacecraft, currently in development, would be confined to the near-Earth space.

However new leaders at Roscosmos left the door open to lunar missions if they could be accomplished with off-the-shelf technology. Not surprisingly, professional strategists and space enthusiasts alike rushed to re-examine what alternatives were available. It turns out that Russian engineers do have a few aces up their sleeves.

On the space transportation side, today's Soyuz spacecraft originated in the Moon Race era and, theoretically, could be upgraded for missions to the vicinity of the Moon. In fact, during the 2000s, engineers at RKK Energia, the Soyuz's manufacturer based in Korolev near Moscow, conducted preliminary studies for a potential tourist trip around the Moon onboard a Soyuz at a cost of around $100 million per ticket. Despite considerable media hype at the time, private investors never came up with the cash to implement the idea and the project was shelved. However, with a political will in the Kremlin, the "Soyuz around the Moon" scenario could be revived again with relatively modest federal funding.

Moreover, today, Russian engineers are in considerably better position to launch the lunar Soyuz than they were a decade ago. In December, Russia's new-generation launcher, the Angara-5, completed a successful maiden flight, even though a decade behind schedule. With its payload reaching 25 tons in the Earth orbit, Angara-5 is a far cry from a super-heavy launcher wanted for the lunar expedition and capable of carrying as much as 80 tons. However, it is here, it is much cheaper than a super rocket, and it could be beefed up to almost double its payload, Anatoly Kuzin, a leading engineer at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow, which developed the Angara family, told journalists last month. According to Kuzin, a scaled-down lunar mission scenario studied by GKNPTs Khrunichev would involve docking a crewed spacecraft in low Earth orbit with a powerful space tug, which would be launched separately on a modified version of the Angara rocket known as Angara-7.

With a possible downgrade from the 20-ton next-generation spacecraft to an existing seven-ton Soyuz, the lunar orbiting missions could be launched by a single rocket. Later, a manned expedition to the lunar surface could be achieved with two rockets.

Most importantly, all regular or modified versions of Angara could continue flying commercial and military missions in parallel with their lunar exploits, unlike the super rocket, which would be too big and too costly for any other job but a deep space program. As a result, the overpriced booster would remain on the government payroll for the rest of its operational life. In contrast, the Angara could pay for itself or at least off-set some of its cost by launching commercial payloads.

The next test launch of the Angara-5 is now planned for 2016 and the construction of the new launch facility for the rocket, which could host manned missions, was also promised to commence as early as next year. As a result, the brand-new rocket could be ready to carry cosmonauts on deep space missions by the mid-2020s when Russia ends its participation in the ISS.

Last but not least, to maneuver in deep space and to enter orbit around the Moon, the Soyuz spacecraft could take advantage of the existing Fregat upper stage, which is designed to operate for a prolonged period of time and fire its engine multiple times. The Fregat flew many missions delivering commercial satellites and could be adopted for human expeditions.

With all the available technology, it is not all doom and gloom for the Russian space program, despite current economic problems. Obviously, the situation would be further helped if the war in Ukraine were to end soon and the resulting tensions between Russia and many of its neighbors subside. Conversely, the further exacerbation of the conflict could hurt the Russian economy even further and make even these scaled down plans unaffordable.