Russia's position in space race above India but below US and China

Design engineer Alexander Khokhlov about the successes and failures of Roscosmos

Russia's position in space race above India but below US and China

Alexander Khokhlov, a design engineer of space instrument engineering and popularizer of cosmonautics, in the interview with Realnoe Vremya told about who took the title of space champion away from the USSR, why Russia cannot return to the top of the podium, what are the main failures of Roscosmos in recent years, and what it's best at.

“The saddest thing about the new Russian Orel spacecraft is the lack of understanding of its future fate”

What failures of Roscosmos in recent years can you highlight in particular?

The state corporation has three notable projects that are difficult to implement: Angara family of space-launch vehicles, the creation of the new manned ship, Orel PTK NP (formerly Federation), and interplanetary missions.

According to an agreement with the government of Kazakhstan, the operation of Russian Proton-M heavy-lift launch vehicle at Baikonur will be completed in 2025 (due to the use of highly toxic fuel in launch vehicles). They will be replaced by Angara A5 launch vehicle — and they are going to launch it from Russia, from Plesetsk and Vostochny cosmodromes. But the only test space launch of Angara A5 took place in 2014, and the next one has been postponed for several years in a row.

For example, the next launch from Plesetsk Cosmodrome was supposed to be in 2020 but was rescheduled for the end of 2021. There are enough difficulties with this launch vehicle. It is already clear that it cannot compete in the international launch market due to a high cost. The transfer of its production from the Moscow rocket plant of the Khrunichev Centre to Omsk has also been delayed.

Orel manned spacecraft has a long history — starting from 2009. While the United States created three new manned spacecrafts (Crew Dragon, Starliner, and Orion) in about the same period, and China built its own spacecraft that has not yet received a name, then RSC Energia (PAO S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia) has in production only simulators for testing. The saddest thing about the new Russian Orel spacecraft is the lack of understanding of its future fate. When Dmitry Rogozin says that Orel will fly to the moon, he shyly omits that the lunar programe in Russia has not yet been adopted.

And a few words about interplanetary missions. Since the late 1980s, Russia has not had a single independent scientific automatic interplanetary mission. Launched two stations to Mars ingloriously died in low-earth orbit (Mars-96 and Fobos-Grunt), the remaining missions were cancelled or permanently postponed for later.

Photo: wikipedia.org
Orel manned spacecraft has a long history — starting from 2009. While the United States created three new manned spacecrafts in about the same period, and China built its own spacecraft that has not yet received a name, then RSC Energia has in production only simulators for testing

Roscosmos is criticised for the fact that no new research programmes or manned projects have been opened over its five-year life, and that it does not look to the future. Is this really the case?

The thing is that the planning horizon for the space programme in Russia is 10 years. The federal space programme 2016-2025 is currently in effect. Therefore, Roscosmos is implementing the plans approved by the government and preparing programmes for the next decade. But now Dmitry Rogozin is going to introduce a new unified space programme to the government instead of the federal space programme and a number of other separate target programmes. This will shift the planning horizon right now and remove responsibility for the implementation of the federal state programme 2016-2025.

Based on the content of the Unified space programme, we will understand what new Roscosmos will offer for the next decade (and what the government will approve of it).

“New missile projects are outdated even before the start of serious development”

Roscosmos turned out to be such an infinitely increasing megaregulator that orders itself, makes both defence and private orders itself. It is a kind of state-owned enterprise with a planned economy, but at the same time, it is required to make a profit and state loan repayment. Do you think that this model is effective for the development of the space industry?

The idea of the state corporation for space activities arose during the period of demand for products and services in the West. But then, first, the era of sanctions came, and second, the United States created its own equipment instead of the one that had previously been ordered in Russia. This also applies to RD-180 engines and the delivery of astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX's Falcon-9 launch vehicles deprived the customers of the Khrunichev Centre to launch commercial satellites. So even if the model could have been effective once, it is no longer the case.

Are we much late compared to the rest of the world?

We're late even compared to ourselves. Angara A5 launch vehicle project and the new Soyuz-5 and Soyuz-6 projects were outdated even before a serious development began. The world's space rocket science technologies have gone far ahead, and Soyuz-5 and Soyuz-6 are being created on the basis of the best Soviet medium-class Zenit carrier rocket. But it was created as early as in the last century!

Photo: wikipedia.org
We're late even compared to ourselves. Angara A5 launch vehicle project and the new Soyuz-5 and Soyuz-6 projects were outdated even before a serious development began

As far as I know, the successful launch of Spektr-RG orbital telescope and its work in space is a great success for Roscosmos. Why is there such tepid reaction to this project?

The Russian project of Spektr-RG orbital telescope (with German participation) is really very important for science. It recently completed the first full x-ray survey of the sky, and the July issue of Russky Kosmos magazine (published by Roscosmos) features the results. I think we can't talk about a tepid reactio — the problem is rather in the legislative plane.

According to the existing law on the state сorporation Roscosmos, it has limited capacities, and it is not so easy for it to allocate money to promote the results of space activities. In the West, contracts for the creation and operation of space technology for civil programmes necessarily include an item about the development of visual materials, conducting educational activities. But this is not the case in Russia. Despite the fact that cosmonauts are one of the most common professions of deputies in the Russian parliament, there is clearly not enough attention to cosmonautics.

Does Roscosmos any progress? Is anything good happening to it?

In manned space exploration, Russia retains a leading role, even if it concerns the operation of long-developed equipment. However, Soyuz manned spacecraft and Progress cargo spacecraft manage to support the International Space Station. And Russia actually saved this international project when first the Columbia Shuttle disaster occurred and then the space shuttle programme was completed. From 2011 to 2020, only Roscosmos delivered international crews to the ISS.

“India has a Martian and lunar programme, in which it is already ahead of Russia”

Who, in your opinion, is the first in the space race today?

The United States is definitely the first in the space race. NASA and the Pentagon have very large space budgets, and this is an important indicator. On the other hand, NASA still does not have enough money to organise a manned expedition to Mars, so for now the priority is again with lunar programmes. The United States has approved the Artemis programme to return people to the Moon in 2024.

The second is China with its ambitious space programme. But despite all the ambition and hellish work capacity, the Chinese still have a lot to do to get closer to the capacities of the United States.

Photo: wikipedia.org
In manned space exploration, Russia retains a leading role, even if it concerns the operation of long-developed equipment. However, Soyuz manned spacecraft and Progress cargo ships manage to support the International space station

Even the UAE is actively developing its space programme. Soon the EU, Russia, China and the US will have to make room? Where else are advanced space programmes being developed?

First of all, I would like to mention India. They are preparing a manned programme, their own spacecraft. Their first cosmonauts are currently undergoing contract training at the Russian cosmonaut training centre named after Y.A. Gagarin. India has a Martian and lunar programme, in which it is already ahead of Russia. In 2019, India tried to gently land the module on the Moon — however, it crashed during a hard landing. But at least it got there. And now they are preparing the second lunar mission.

By Matvey Antropov