The assembly of Russia's future space station could start with the Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module, MLM, (right) originally intended for the International Space Station, ISS. Image credit: Anatoly Zak

Feb 10, 2015 Russia's space station strategy under review

Sen—Prompted by a toxic mix of political and financial problems between Russia and its partners in the International Space Station (ISS), Kremlin officials finally endorsed plans to build an all-Russian space station after the retirement of the multinational outpost in Earth's orbit.

Recapping the year's activities last December, the former head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, Oleg Ostapenko, told journalists that the agency had considered launching a new space station to the so-called high-latitude Earth orbit, which would enable it to observe most of the Russian territory. (Currently, only a sliver of Southern Russia can be monitored from the ISS). The outpost could also be used as a springboard for missions to Mars, Ostapenko said. Whilst Ostapenko had outlined some objectives for a new Russian space station, he lost his post at Roscosmos in January 2015, leaving doubt as to the agency’s current strategy.

The latest talk of superseding the ISS with a Russian station had come just months after Moscow had been hit by wide economic sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea and the situation in Ukraine. Ironically, sanctions were thought up in the same capitals where Russia's ISS partners were based and the resulting economic recession in Russia was bound to hurt Moscow's space program, on which its partners had grown to depend.

As the economic war was escalating, the outspoken Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recommended US astronauts use a trampoline instead of the Russian Soyuz to access the ISS. In the meantime, behind the scenes, captains of the Russian space program faced their own dilemma. Unlike the West, Russia was yet to complete its segment of the ISS and its next module to go in orbit—the 20-ton Multi-Purpose Laboratory, MLM—was just recently grounded by the same kind of quality-control problems which led to spectacular crashes of Russian rockets in the past few years.

The module's manufacturer, GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow demanded additional millions to fix the already overpriced behemoth. Not surprisingly, officials wondered whether it would make any sense to launch the new ship in 2017 and several of its successors in the following years to an aging international outpost in a midst of all the political tension between Russia and the world.

Perhaps, the MLM lab could be modified to become the core of a new smaller, cheaper and, most importantly, Russian-controlled space station. On the engineering side, a new manned outpost could finally fulfill the old idea of serving as a platform for observing the whole Russian territory with powerful telescopes and other remote-sensing hardware. As a result, the space station and manned space program as a whole, often criticized for its lack of purpose, could get another justification, or so the proponents of the idea believed.

Few remember today, that even the famous Mir space station was first intended to go into the high-latitude orbit with an inclination around 64 degrees, instead of the ultimate 51.6 degrees. By increasing the tilt of the orbital plane toward the Equator, more of the Earth's surface falls under the ground track of the spacecraft as it circles the Earth and the planet rotates below it. However, the higher the angle toward the Equator, more rocket power is required to orbit the spacecraft and less payload can be delivered. As a result, when the core module of the Mir space station turned out to be overweight, the last-minute decision was made to lower its orbital inclination to compensate for the extra mass during its launch in 1986. The second chance to get the manned station over the Russian territory did not come until 1990s with the planned Mir-2. However, the 1993 agreement between the US and Russia to join the Mir-2 with the American Space Station Freedom required to lower its inclination back to 51.6 degrees. Otherwise, the Space Shuttle would have had to rumble over the densely populated US East Coast on its way to orbit.

However, launching a future station to a high-inclination orbit would preclude the transfer of crews and hardware from the ISS to a new station (no matter what the movie Gravity had shown). As a result, ISS partners might have a sigh of relief knowing that the ISS retained the Russian propulsion capabilities which would be there for the eventual controlled deorbiting of the outpost. (Previously, Russian engineers entertained the idea of separating the Russian segment of the ISS, including the Zvezda service module, thus leaving the rest of the outpost without propulsion).

Surprisingly, strategists at the prime manufacturer of the Russian manned spacecraft, RKK Energia, were cool to the idea of launching a new Russian space station into a high-inclination orbit. Speaking at the Korolev Memorial Readings last month, Deputy Designer General at RKK Energia Nikolai Bryukhanov called for sending a future station into the same orbit with the ISS. He noted that all remote-sensing tasks proposed for a new station had long been fulfilled by unmanned satellites, while high-latitude orbit would prevent cooperation with other countries on the project.

Behind the scenes, a panel of experts assembled by the Kremlin's Military Industrial Commission also questioned the whole concept of following the ISS with an all-Russian space station. While admitting that such a project could keep the industry busy, it noted that "...scientific organizations are not interested in repeating already completed work on Salyut and Mir (space stations)." The internal report of the expert council obtained by Sen stated that "The question remains—why Russia should build the Mir again?" The document concluded that neither political nor scientific goals could justify the construction of another permanently inhabited space station. Instead, a small orbital facility periodically visited by the crew was proposed as a cost-effective alternative.

As of beginning of 2015, the Russian space agency was yet to secure funding for a successor to the ISS. In the January 12 interview with the official daily of the Russian government, deputy head of Roskosmos Sergei Saveliev said that no money for the project had been allocated so far and its implementation would depend on the lifespan of the ISS. Russia is reportedly still pondering whether it would join the US in a commitment to extend the life of the ISS from 2020 to 2024.

In the meantime, the Kremlin's Military Industrial Commission, VPK, promised to review the agency's proposals for a future Russian station in the first quarter of 2015, the official TASS news agency said. According to sources quoted by the Kommmersant newspaper, Russia could resort to renting its segment of the ISS to pay for its future station. Perhaps it was a coded signal to the ISS partners to be ready to pay for Russia's continuous commitment in the multinational venture after a certain date. Given tight budgets of all the space agencies involved it is hard to imagine them wanting to start paying rent.