Just a week after announcing intentions to build their own space station and leave the International Space Station in 2024 – with plans to try Mars again and send cosmonauts to the moon – Russian Space Agency officials are calling for the postponement of a heavy lift launch vehicle that would rival NASA’s powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Recommendations announced Thursday – March 12, 2015 – call for reliance on the Angara family of launch vehicles, over 20 years in the making, with recently accomplished successful test flights. Russia’s new plans are yet another change among launch providers in the space industry, an industry with numerous aged launched vehicles facing increasing competition.
The announced intentions for Angara by the Russian space agency follow numerous stories of leadership changes, changes to Russia’s relationship with Ukrainian rocket suppliers, new mission plans and an austerity program to reduce costs under a limited government-sponsored budget.
Angara is a family of launch vehicles with design similar to American-made designs such as Atlas, Delta and Falcon. Like American vehicles, there is a core to the first stage of Angara, in this case burning RP-1 (kerosene) and liquid oxygen (LOX). Larger variants of the vehicle are built up by clustering additional first stage cores.
The latest test flight was of an Angara V in late 2014. The initial Angara V will be capable of launching 25 metric tons (55,000 lbs) of payload to low-Earth orbit. That’s in contrast to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (13 metric tons or 29,000 lbs) and future Falcon Heavy rocket (53 metric tons or 117,000 lbs).
The Russian announcement focuses on postponing a heavy lift vehicle and intent to design a variant rocket called Angara A5V. The V stands for the Russian word for hydrogen, which is “vodorod.” Engines based on hydrogen have a higher specific impulse than the commonly used RP-1 (kerosene), meaning they produce more thrust for the same weight of fuel. The hydrogen will fuel a more powerful upper stage for Angara V. According to the Russian officials, the A5V will be capable of launching payloads up to 35 metric tons (77,000 lbs), situating the Angara A5V between the Falcon 9 and Heavy. Such lift capability would have many possibilities such as sending cosmonauts to the moon, lifting modules to construct a future Russian space station or launching interplanetary probes.
The Russian super-rocket, meanwhile, never made it off the drawing board. It is now indefinitely postponed. Touted to be equal to the NASA SLS, the vehicle was considered too costly by the Russians for the limited funding of their program. A similar assertion continues to haunt NASA’s SLS and could still cause its eventual cancellation.
Russia began its plan to develop Angara in 1992, a year after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Intentions were to replace numerous old launch systems, some dependent on Ukrainian suppliers. The presence of the SpaceX Falcon rocket likely made the decision more crucial. Russia had positioned itself as a low-cost launch provider, but is one now undermined by the low-cost Falcon. With development stalled many times over the span of 20 years, successful test flights of the Angara have now buoyed Russian hopes to modernize and become more competitive in the space launch industry.
News agencies reported the following statement from the Federal Space Agency Roscosmos scientific and technical council on Thursday, March 12:
We recommend that the Khrunichev space center (Angara-5 manufacturer) and the Energia space corporation develop a draft design of the Angara-A5V carrier rocket for possible use with prospective space freighters and manned spacecraft in future flights to the moon.
The statement was released following a meeting with officials from space firms on development of future launch systems.
While not a reusable vehicle, the Angara family of rockets could be cost-competitive with SpaceX’s Falcon. Russian labor costs are half that of American-made manufacturers, and the Russian agency provided government support.
Launch vehicle upgrades underway across space industry
In the meantime, every major industry launch provider is actively planning upgrades to its launch systems, either complete replacements or substantial upgrades.
Last year, United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a corporation developed by Lockheed-Martin and Boeing to merge production and sales of their Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle – was rocked by Russian officials planning to end the supply of the famous Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. The engine defines the 1st stage of the Atlas V rocket which the United States Defense Department and NASA also depend upon for military payload and robotic space probes launches. ULA has now announced the planned retirement of both the Delta family and the Atlas V.
Orbital ATK – recently created from the merger of Orbital Sciences with Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) – saw its Antares rocket fail spectacularly seconds after lift-off on October 28, 2014 during a resupply mission to the International Space Station. It announced the replacement of Antares’ first stage engine AJ26 with another Russian made engine – the Energomash RD-193 – which it considers more reliable.
In addition to changes at ULA and Orbital ATK, upstarts are also planning new entrants into the industry. Past Microsoft vice president James Allen is supporting the development of the largest airplane ever flown – Stratolauncher – which will piggyback a launch vehicle to deliver payloads to orbit and beyond. Virgin Galactic has a similar plan using White Knight Two to support launch of small-sat payloads up to 150 kg (400 lbs). And Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins is developing a rocket engine which is in competition with Aerojet to supply ULA’s replacement of the Delta launch system.
Behind many of the on-going developments are the success of SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicle, designed for reuse, and the introduction of the Falcon Heavy, scheduled for a maiden launch from the historic and newly redesigned Cape Canaveral Pad 39A, which hosted launches of the Apollo Saturns to the moon and the Space Shuttle over a 30-year span.
Bottom line: On March 12, 2015, Russian Space Agency officials announced plans to postpone Russia’s heavy lift launch vehicle and called for reliance on the Angara family of rockets. Russia’s new plans are yet another change among launch providers in the space industry, an industry with numerous aged launched vehicles facing increasing competition.