Human space flight display at MAKS-2015. Image credit: Roscosmos

Sep 2, 2015 Making sense of MAKS-2015

Sen—Last week, the 12th Moscow Air and Space Show, MAKS-2015, was held in the town of Zhukovsky on the outskirts of the Russian capital. Although the biannual event focuses on aviation, for the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, the event is the largest showcase of its goods, services and ideas for the future. After a dress rehearsal during the Paris Air & Space Show in Le Bourget in June, Roscosmos saved its most bombastic displays and PR effort for MAKS.

This is not surprising, given that the agency, now in the midst of transformation into a giant State Corporation, subsists overwhelmingly on the federal budget rather than on commercial activities. Not coincidently, the current occupant of the Kremlin personally opened the show and the Roscosmos pavilion was one of the few stops during a highly orchestrated tour, which became a tradition in the past few years. The author of this blog personally bumped into Putin… or rather into his half-a-mile wide security perimeter during openings of the same show in previous years. This time it was no different—the work of hundreds of specialists and journalists was paralysed for hours to prevent not-prescreened human beings from getting into a field of view of the Russian President. Even kids from a government-approved aviation club were barred from satisfying their curiosity toward the nation's space program, while the head of state was paying a visit.

Fortunately, the head of Roscosmos Igor Komarov was on hand to show Vladimir Putin around, including the centerpiece of the space exhibit—the full-scale mockup of the next-generation spacecraft, PTK NP, designed to replace a nearly 50-year old Soyuz and eventually carry cosmonauts to the Moon.

"Though it looks like previous displays, it is an absolutely new spacecraft," Vladimir Solntsev, the head of RKK Energia, the nation's main contractor in human spaceflight," explained to the Russian President. "First, we resolve the problem for the independent access to space for Russia and the second, such a modern spacecraft allows us to land (as well) in the Russian Federation." (Soyuz missions originate and land in Kazakhstan because they require large open areas like Kazakh steppes for safe parachute touchdowns).

Yet, despite diving to the bottom of the Black Sea near Crimea in a small submersible and doing many other bold things in the recent past, the Russian President declined an invitation to get inside the Moon-bound capsule, even if in the mock-up form. Given a highly symbolic world of politics, this might be a bad omen for the ambitious but troubled program.

Ever since the Moon became the next big destination for Russian space strategy in the second half of the 2000s, Roscosmos has struggled to convince the Kremlin to back oral declarations with substantial funding. As a result, the new-generation spacecraft first promised to fly in 2015 still exists primarily as a demo, which had actually been unveiled at MAKS back in 2011. In the intervening years, engineers had a chance to add few details, such as cosmonaut seats, a toilet, computer displays and a flight control joy sticks. This year, RKK Energia expanded its exhibit with an actual structural skeleton of the crew capsule made largely out of carbon-based synthetic material, instead of traditional metals. Though according to some reports, the prototype was actually manufactured in Germany! The ship's newly-developed maneuvering engine also made an appearance.


A crew cabin structure (left) and a full-scale mockup of the next-generation spacecraft, PTK NP. Image credit: Roscosmos

Worst of all, the launch date for PTK NP continues "drifting to the left" as engineers like to say, referring to continuous delays. According to the latest schedule, the unmanned prototype of the spacecraft could fly by 2021, at the earliest. It is unlikely to carry cosmonauts until mid-2020s.

An in-depth look at the current status of the PTK NP program will be published in one of my next blog entries.

To pave the way for the possible human conquest of the Moon, Russia also scheduled a series of four progressively complex unmanned missions to our natural satellite. An impressive full-scale and very detailed prototype of a robotic lunar lander was presented at the show for the first time. However that project has also been falling chronically behind schedule during the course of this decade. According to information revealed at MAKS-2015, the first lander would now head to our natural satellite at the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019 and land not far from the South Pole of the Moon.


A full-scale prototype of the Luna-Glob probe mounted on the Fregat space tug. Image credit: Roscosmos

During the show, the head of Roscosmos Igor Komarov made another pitch to his newly appointed European counterpart Johann-Dietrich Woerner to join Russia's robotic lunar exploration program. During the past several years, ESA has expressed an interest in placing some of its instruments on the landers, but no new solid agreements were produced during the show. Still, given the political climate between Russia and Europe, the very fact that the conversation is ongoing can already be qualified as a success. In contrast, there was no trace of NASA officials, let alone US exhibits at MAKS-2015. (See our future blog entry on the Luna-Glob project).

Another gaping hole in this year's MAKS space exhibit was left by the Ukraine, for all the obvious reasons.

Closer to our home planet, the Russian space industry also struggles with its bulky Earth-orbiting satellites. Not surprisingly, Russia was one of the last among the space powers to jump on the band-wagon of satellite miniaturization. At MAKS-2015, the Russian company VNIIEM, which specializes in Earth-watching satellites, presented its first miniature "eye in the sky" called Kanopus-VM. Interestingly, the odd-shaped spacecraft looked remarkably similar to the Model 300 developed by the British company SSTL. Not coincidently, the two organizations have long business ties and practically all VNIEEM's satellites are full of high-end electronics supplied by SSTL. Now, even general architecture seemingly being imported from England.


A full-scale model of Kanopus-VM satellite (left) developed at VNIIEM and Model 300 satellite developed at SSTL of Great Britain. Image credit: VNIIEM/

This is another vivid illustration how hollow are the promises by the Kremlin to quickly end dependency of the nation's strategic industries on Western imports, which might become subject of sanctions, like those implemented in the wake of the Crimean crisis.

In one step to "diversify" its investments away from the West, VNIIEM struck a deal with Iran during the show to build an Earth-watching satellite. Iran itself made an appearance at MAKS-2015 with a large display of rockets and satellites. The most interesting artifact was a flight-worthy capsule, which carried a monkey on a suborbital mission into the stratosphere, in what Iran says is an early human space flight effort.

Some other points to note from MAKS-2015

TsSKB Progress, the developer of Soyuz rockets, continued pitching a next-generation launch vehicle, which would burn liquified natural gas. The same company also promised to complete its Earth-watching fleet of Resurs-P satellites with the launch of a third spacecraft in a series at the end of 2015 or beginning of 2016.

Defying the worsening relations between West and East, Europe's largest aerospace conglomerate Airbus Defense and Space and the Russian Space Systems company, RKS, announced a deal during the show to produce avionics for communications, remote-sensing and navigation satellites in Russia.

The RKS also demonstrated two pairs of cameras, which will be strapped to the exterior of the Soyuz rocket during its first launch from Russia's brand-new Vostochny spaceport to provide spectacular live videos from a unique vantage point of an ascending vehicle.

A Russian start-up Lin Industrial presented its proposals for a super-light rocket dubbed Taimyr, which could deliver tiny payloads from 10 to 180 kilograms into the Earth's orbit as early as 2018.

The historic NK-39 rocket engine, which was developed in the 1960s for the Soviet Moon Rocket along with its much more famous cousin NK-33, made a rare appearance at MAKS-2015.

Hoping to give SpaceX a run for its money, the Russian developer of submarine-based ballistic missiles promised to build a flying demonstrator of a reusable launcher system with a rocket-propelled landing system. Look for details and visualizations of the project in one of the future issues of this blog.

NPO Mash based in Reutov finally went public with a very detailed mockup of its highly secretive Kondor-E all-weather spy satellite. Ironically, what was to be a sales pitch to the Russian government and to potential foreign clients was largely soured by the premature demise of the actual radar-carrying Kondor-E launched into orbit last year.