Report: Russia Won’t Meet 2018 Launch Date From Vostochny

OKA-T spacecraft (Credit: RSC Energia)
OKA-T spacecraft (Credit: RSC Energia)

A Russian plan to launch cosmonauts into orbit from the new Vostochny spaceport in 2018 appears to have been abandoned, but officials have come up with a way to sort of meet that deadline.

‘RussianSpaceWeb.com reports the current plan is to launch a human-tended microgravity laboratory called Oka-T into space in 2018. The free-flying laboratory will conduct material sciences experiments and would be periodically serviced by cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station.

Technically, it is a “manned” spacecraft, because it is designed to dock at the space station and cosmonauts can enter its pressurized compartment in orbit. At the same time, it is launched unmanned and, with its eight-ton mass, the lab fits into the Soyuz-2-1b rocket!

To camouflage their “little trick,” Russian space officials began characterizing the 2018 milestone as the “first launch within the manned space program,” instead of the first “manned launch,” without specifying what exactly would fly from Vostochny in 2018. As a result, the official Russian media continued its cheerleading of the upcoming manned launch from Vostochny.

Located in the Amur region in Russia’s Far East, Vostochny is designed to break Russian reliance on the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is leased from Kazakhstan. Russia would move much of its space operations to Vostochny while continuing to use Baikonur for certain commercial launches.

Vladimir Putin reviews a map showing the plan for the Vostochny spaceport. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office)
Vladimir Putin reviews a map showing the plan for the Vostochny spaceport. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office)

However, RussianSpaceWeb.com reports it’s not going to be quite as easy as it sounds to move operations over to the new spaceport. Officials are also straining to meet a deadline to launch the first satellite from Vostochny in 2015.

Unable to introduce any new vehicles within this timeframe, Roskosmos made a decision to build a launch pad for the old Soyuz rocket at the site with little justification but to meet the 2015 deadline. However, it created a new political problem in 2018, because the Soyuz rocket could not carry its namesake manned spacecraft from Vostochny due to technical and safety problems. Nor was it powerful enough to launch a heavier next-generation transport vehicle. Roskosmos promised to build another pad in Vostochny for the Angara rocket, which could do the job, but the facility could not be completed before the end of this decade.

In reality, no cosmonaut would be able to blast off from Vostochny until 2020s, when the new-generation spacecraft and the Angara-5 rocket are finally certified to carry the crew.

Prospective Piloted Transportation System
Prospective Piloted Transportation System

The next-generation spacecraft will carry six cosmonauts instead of the three occupants carried by the Soyuz spacecraft. The new vehicle will be capable of deep-space exploration to the moon and other destinations.

Vostochny is turning into a lengthy and expensive project for the Russian government. Work began back in 2007, with the government estimating that it will spend approximately $4 billion on the project through 2015.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the construction site, where he urged officials to get back on schedule. Putin said construction is an estimated 30 to 55 days behind schedule, and the project only has about half the 12,000 workers required.

Putin also took the project away from the Russian space agency Roscosmos and gave direct control to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the space and defense sectors.