An artist rendering of one of many proposed designs for the Russian super-heavy rocket. Image credit: Sen

Jan 20, 2015 Russia to decide on its Moon rocket this month

Sen—Russian space officials are preparing for their final judgment on the nation's future super rocket. On January 30, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, plans to approve the development of the super-heavy launch vehicle, which could eventually carry Russian cosmonauts to the Moon, industry sources said.

The historic decision is expected to choose the architecture of the giant rocket and distribute responsibilities for its development among space firms. The January 30 expanded meeting of the agency's Scientific and Technical Council will be a culmination of several years of efforts by the industry to draft the most effective and economical design of a monstrous rocket, which would enable human trips to the Moon. With an expected payload ranging from 70 to 90 tons in low Earth orbit, the Russian rocket would match NASA's Space Launch System, SLS, currently in development. Like SLS, the Russian booster will feature the so-called open architecture allowing for future upgrades to carry as much as 190 tons and, possibly, to support the first human expedition to Mars.

In December, key Russian manufacturers of space technology submitted competing proposals for the design of the super-heavy rocket to Roscosmos. Among companies bidding for the project are known to be RKK Energia in Korolev, the developer of the Soyuz spacecraft; RKTs Progress in Samara, the manufacturer of the Soyuz rockets; and GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow, the manufacturer of the Proton and Angara rocket families. Not surprisingly, one of the favorite ideas was to build the 21st century version of the Soviet-era Energia super rocket using off-the-shelf technology that had survived until today, for example, mighty RD-171 engines. Alternatively, yet-to-be-tested propulsion systems relying on methane fuel were also proposed.

To choose the winning design, Roscosmos formed an interagency expert commission at the end of last year, which along with key industry figures also included officials from the Ministry of Defense and the Academy of Sciences, whose support would be crucial for the future funding of the costly project. The agency's key think tank, TsNIIMash, was expected to give its recommendations to the expert commission by January 20. The group would then have a week for the final consideration before a joint session of the Scientific and Technical Council on January 28 and the formal approval of the rocket design expected two days later.

Although preliminary studies for the design of the super rocket were initiated at the height of the economic boom in Russia, the decision to go ahead with the multi-billion dollar project has to be made now with a backdrop of Western sanctions and worsening prospects for the Russian economy. As a result, Roscosmos could face an uphill battle in the next few years to pay for the rocket itself and for its monumental launch pad at the future Vostochny space center in the Russian Far East. Previously, the Kremlin rejected industry proposals to cut the cost of the project by deploying the future rocket at the existing Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the former home of the Energia rocket. Some hopes to involve highly capable Ukrainian industry into the project also had to be abandoned, after relations between two former Soviet republics had descended into a deadly confrontation last year.

However, even most optimistic forecasts do not expect the super rocket to reach the launch pad for at least another decade. As a result, Roscosmos can initiate the project with available funds in the hope of weathering the economic storms in the next few years and seeing the improved funding further down the line. According to one of several proposed schedules, the initial version of the super rocket with a payload of 85 tons could debut in 2025, followed by a more powerful configuration capable of carrying 130 tons in the second half of 2030s.