Thursday, December 18, 2014

Roscosmos is Assessing its Future Programs

          by Brian Orlotti

Oleg Ostapenk. Photo c/o NASA.
A series of recent, and often contradictory news reports, originating from Russian media outlets and picked up by western media, are only the latest signs that the Russian space industry is jockeying for position in anticipation of updates to its long-term space exploration plan.

This new plan is expected to be formally released in time for the 2015 International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS2015), which will be held in Moscow from August 25th - 30th, 2015.

The most recent articles, as outlined in the December 15th, 2014 Sputnik Today post "Plans to Create Russian National Orbital Station Confirmed," and the December 16th, 2014 Russia Beyond the Headlines post "Roscosmos: Russia to prioritize studies of Moon, Mars, response to asteroid threat in 2016-2025," focused on a series of public comments from Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) head Oleg Ostapenk, who was quoted as "keeping all doors open" for new programs within the context of three major options:
  • Designing and building a brand new, Russian led, space station in a low Earth orbit at an orbital inclination of 64.8 degrees, using surplus modules originally designed for the ISS, but never attached. The slightly higher orbital inclination, when compared to the ISS (which has an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees) will allow the proposed station to image more northerly Russian territory. 
  • Designing and building a brand new, Russian led, space station in low Earth orbit with an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees, the same as the ISS, in order to simplify transfers between the two stations. 
Of course, a number of other options are also on the table. These include a potential high altitude space station, which could serve as a base of operations for a revived Russian manned lunar program and a new, super heavy Russian rocket.

Ostapenk also said that the “Roscosmos budget will not be cut, despite all financial difficulties. But I’m not going to make the sum public until it gets approval.” As outlined in the October 4th, 2014 Economist article, "On the edge of recession," the Russian economy has been contracting for some time. The 2014 budget for Roscosmos was 165.8Bln rubles ($3.5Bln CDN) which already compares poorly with NASA's 2014 budget of $17.6Bln US ($20.4Bln CDN).

Of course, it's unlikely that Russia and Roscosmos will embark in a completely new direction. For example, the December 16th, 2014 Russia Today article, "US Orion, Russia’s future spacecraft ‘to be compatible for safety," discussed the recent agreement between Russian spacecraft producer RSC Energia and US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, to develop a compatible docking so that "Russian and American space explorers can help each other in an emergency."

As outlined on the Russian Space web article, "Russia details its grand space strategy in 2010s; New deep-space ships, big rockets and nuclear space tugs are promised at the Moscow air show," the last official Russian space plan, released to the public as part of the 2013 International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS2013), set out a 30-year road-map in which human space exploration expanded outwards from the ISS to a crewed outpost at one of the Lagrangian points near the Moon.

The plan would have then forked into two paths: one leading to a crewed Lunar base followed by visits to asteroids by the 2030s---the other reaching the same goals, but in reverse order. Both paths would have culminated with a human landing on Mars by around 2040.

Roscosmos, envisioned the LaGrange and Lunar outposts as joint projects with other space-faring nations, including the US, Canada, and the EU. Unfortunately, soured relations between Russia and the West over issues like the Syrian Civil War, Iran, and Russia's annexation of the Crimea have led to increasing calls (in both Russia and the US) for a return to fully independent national space programs.

Whether Russian and Western governments are willing to provide funding increases to their respective space programs for independent missions to the Moon and Mars remains an open question. Although Russia has capitalized on an oil-fueled economic boom to boost funding of its space program over the last few years, the recent drop in global oil prices may put the brakes on this revival.

We now see in both the US and Russian space programs a common pattern. Governments lay down ambitious space goals, companies then vie with each other for lucrative contracts to achieve these goals, only to have governments cancel programs and shift goals years later. This pattern becomes a self-perpetuating cycle whose result is always the same: humanity remaining an Earth-bound species.

Brian Orlotti.
Perhaps the Russian and US space programs are now more alike than either would care to admit.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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