Sen—Traditionally on the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering orbital flight on April 12, the Russian government releases updates on the country's space program. This year, the press service of the Russian President announced a "working meeting" in the Kremlin between Vladimir Putin and two top space officials: Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense and space industry, and the head or Roscosmos Igor Komarov.
For observers of the Russian space program, the main outcome of the event was confirmation of the continuous commitment of the Russian government to the development of the next-generation spacecraft, known as PTK NP, which is intended to replace the veteran Soyuz spacecraft.
The fate of the future manned ship, designed to fly to the Moon and deep space, has been in doubt for the past several months, after the Kremlin had to slash its space budget in the face of economic problems in the country. The first victim of the latest budget cuts was the super-heavy rocket, leaving the next generation four-seat spacecraft without its obvious deep space launcher. As a result, fears mounted that the PTK NP could be next on the chopping block.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (left) and Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov (center) demonstrate scale models of key hardware planned for the nation's future space program on April 13, 2015. Image credit: Press service of the Russian President
To the relief of space enthusiasts, the endangered spacecraft made an appearance in the Kremlin this week, in the form of a scale model mounted on top of the medium-class Angara-5V booster.
The development of this much smaller rocket was approved last month at a fraction of the cost of the super-heavy rocket.
However, even with all its latest upgrades, four Angara-5V rockets would be required to mount an expedition to the Moon: Two to launch the PTK NP with the crew and a separate lunar lander, while two other rockets would be needed to boost both ships away from Earth's orbit. Such a scenario would greatly reduce the chances of a successful lunar mission, because a single in-flight problem or even the grounding of one of the four rockets could abort the entire mission.
Russian engineers and observers had pondered whether a good old Soyuz could be adopted for the goal of reaching the Moon. With a mass of just seven tons (versus around 20 tons for PTK NP), the Soyuz-based expedition could be a flier with just two Angara-5V rockets. Yet, the Russian government appears to have rejected this plan, at least for the time being, by favouring development of the bigger and more expensive PTK NP.
"The new-generation manned transport ship will be exactly the vehicle providing flights to the Moon and into deep-space … it is included into the Federal Space Program and we plan the first launch in 2021 and hope that in 2024, it will dock at the space station with our cosmonauts onboard," Komarov said during the meeting with Putin on April 13, 2015.
On the same day, new details on the status and future of the Russian spaceflight program were provided by Yuri Koptev, head of the Scientific and Technical Council at Roscosmos, in an interview with the Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio. Koptev reconfirmed the Russian commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) program until at least 2024. He stressed that space agencies from different countries had invested a total of USD $98 billion since the inception of the project, with only USD $7.6 billion coming from Russia. At the same time, Moscow had gained access to around 30 percent of the station's resources, making it a very profitable proposition for the country.
According to Koptev, while the ISS project continues, the PTK NP spacecraft would be prepared to ride a standard Angara-5 booster into orbit from a new launch site in Vostochny in the Russian Far East in 2021. Introduced in December, the Angara-5 would be used not only for trips to the International Space Station, but also for launching a light-weight unmanned version of PTK NP on test missions around the Moon.
Liftoff of the Angara-5V rocket. Image credit: Anatoly Zak / RussianSpaceWeb.com
Then in 2023, with the arrival of a more powerful Angara-5V, preparations for the actual lunar expedition would commence.
"Given all test operations, the landing (of Russian cosmonauts) on the surface of the Moon is expected somewhere around 2027 or 2028," Koptev said.
According to a preliminary study at RKK Energia, Russia's prime human spaceflight contractor, two rockets would blast off within three days of each other carrying the lunar module and its space tug. After linking up in Earth's orbit, the space tug would send the lander toward the Moon. Within a month, another pair of rockets would have launched, carrying the spacecraft with a crew of four and their space tug. Cosmonauts would link up with their space tug in Earth's orbit and then make another rendezvous with the lunar lander in orbit around the Moon. Two crew members would then transfer into the lander and make a sortie onto the lunar surface.
Responding to potential critics, Koptev said that Russia's extensive experience in conducting rendezvous and docking operations would minimize the risk of this complex scenario.
According to Koptev, the manned spaceflight effort would require around 500 billion Rubles (about USD $10 billion) or around a quarter from the 2.4 trillion Rubles (USD $47 billion) earmarked for the Federal Space Program from 2016 to 2025. Additional funding would have to come after 2025, but before the possible Moon landing at the end of the 2020s. Koptev warned that all these deadlines would be achievable only under the currently forecasted budget and without any new major funding cuts down the road.