Russia Plays Follow the Leader on Heavy-Lift Vehicles

Buran shuttle and Energia rocket.
Buran shuttle and Energia rocket.

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

With America (or, at least its esteemed Congress, gentlemen engineers all) determined to build the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) regardless of the cost to the national treasury or the damage done to far more pressing priorities (like getting our astronauts back into orbit on U.S. vehicles), the Russians have begun dusting off old proposals for super boosters of their own.

In this case, the Russian need to emulate the Americans is somewhat less blatant than the follow-the-leader cloning process that resulted Soviet Union’s ill-fated, single flight Buran space shuttle of the 1980’s. However, it does involves much of the same launch vehicle hardware, which should set off plenty of alarm bells right there.

Yes, the Soviet Empire may have died and, with it, the mighty space program that had once sent shudders of fear through the West. But, the individual initiatives of that era continue to live on, although in somewhat altered states and, unfortunately, possessing many of the same problems.

The two launch vehicle concepts under consideration, being promoted by Khrunichev and rival RSC Energia, are called Yenisei-5 and Sodruzhestvo, respectively. The vehicles are designed to send Russia’s six-person Soyuz spacecraft, the awkwardly named Prospective Piloted Transport System (PPTS), and other payloads on missions to the moon, Mars and deep space. PPTS is, in fact, a response to America’s Orion spacecraft and deep-space exploration plans.

Anatoly Zak over at has excellent summaries of both proposals. The information below is drawn from his accounts.

Khrunichev’s Yenisei-5 (named after the Siberian river) is the largest and most powerful of the two boosters. It would be capable of launching 125 metric tons of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO) and 49 metric tons to the moon with a single launch.

Yenisei-5 is basically a resuscitated Energia rocket that was used to launch Buran with a couple of major changes. The payload is on the top instead of the side, which streamlines things quite a bit. While the original Energia core used four RD-120 engines powered by kerosene, Yenisei-5 would have three RD-120s that would use much more powerful liquid hydrogen. Four liquid strap-on boosters derived from the Zenit rocket and powered by RD-170 engines would be attached to the first-stage core.

Yenisei-5 would give Russia a booster roughly equal to the American SLS, which will put 130 metric tons into LEO in its final configuration. Yenisei-5 also would cost many tons of rubles and take quite a long time to complete, according to Zak.

The implementation of such a program would require huge investments. According to many Russian rocket propulsion experts, the RD-0120 engine would have to be developed essentially from scratch, as most of its critical infrastructure is no longer existing. The rocket would also need a monumental new launch facility. Serious logistical challenges to transporting large-diameter core stage or its components from the factory to the launch site [at Vostochny in the Far East] would have to be addressed. Since traditional Russian method of transporting rockets by rail would not be an option, a large transport aircraft and associated facilities would have to be developed. Still, proponents of hydrogen propulsion argue that Russia, as any other space-faring nation, would have no alternative to the ultimate rocket fuel.

Energia’s Sodruzhestvo (Alliance) rocket is a bit less ambitious than Khrunichev’s launch vehicle and could be ready a lot sooner. The rocket would be capable of placing 64 metric tons of cargo into LEO in 2020 and operate from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The payload is just below the 70 metric ton capability of NASA’s initial version of SLS.

The Sodruzhestvo rocket would consist of a central core derived from the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket surrounded by a cluster of four first-stage boosters also derived from the Zenit. The Zenit’s second stage would serve as the third stage of the new Sodruzhestvo launch vehicle.

From rather vague reports in the Russian media, it could be concluded that the launch vehicle was to use refurbished launch pads at Site 250 and Site 110 in Baikonur, which were originally intended for the Energia-Buran reusable system. Ironically, for almost a decade, Site 250 had already been “booked” for the Russian-Kazakh venture aiming to bring the Angara launch vehicle to Baikonur, however the project stalled by delays in the development of the rocket and by disagreements between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Apparently, in case of Kazakhstan’s non-participation, the Russian version of the Sodruzhestvo rocket would require the construction of a new launch complex in Vostochny cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. However in this case, the implementation of the project would take considerably longer.

The combination of existing Zenit boosters, the revived launch pads, and the smaller nature of the Sodruzhestvo rocket means the vehicle would cost far less to develop and could fly in 2020, about eight years before Yenisei-5. An intermediate version of the rocket — using two Zenit strap-on first-stage boosters and a less powerful upper stage — could deliver 36 metric tons of cargo into LEO.

The politics of the project are complicated, however. The meaning of the Russian name of the rocket (alliance) is meant to symbolize the cooperation between Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan — three nations united under the same government until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The irony is that Russia has spent much of the past two decades trying to free itself on reliance on Baikonur in Kazakhstan and the rockets and space components manufactured in Ukraine. The debut of the home-grown Angara rocket later this year and the opening of Vostochny in the Russian Far East around 2015 are the last two major steps to completing this goal.

Perhaps because of this fact, Sodruzhestvo appears to have little support from the Russian government. The Kazakh and Ukrainian governments have also expressed little interest in the project, according to Zak.

Relations between Russia and Kazakhstan are strained over space cooperation. As Zak mentioned, the two sides fell out over the construction of the Baiketel launch complex at Baikonur, which was to have hosted flights of Russia’s new Angara rocket. That joint project was recently canceled.

With Russian most (but not all) of its launches to Vostochny later in the decade, Kazakhstan is eager to renegotiate Russia’s long-term lease of Baikonur, which totals $113 million per year and runs to 2050. The outcome of those discussions is difficult to predict.

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia have been in negotiations over the continued operations of Dnepr rockets, which are Soviet-era ICBMs that the two sides convert into small satellite launchers. Russia has said that continuing the launches is too costly. In a recent interview, Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin indicated the joint program could continue with greater investment from Ukraine. It’s not clear what impact such a move would have on Ukraine’s small space budget.

While the Sodruzhestvo project has garnered little enthusiasm, Yenisei-5 appears to have more support within Russia, with the booster being included in the nation’s long-range space strategy for possible launch from Vostochny by 2028.

From a political standpoint, Yenisei-5 is an attractive program in that it would be produced and launched domestically and keep thousands of grateful aerospace workers employed for the next 15 years just designing, building and testing it even before any hardware flew. A Russian government that wants to maintain high employment and high government spending would naturally embrace such a program.

Whether Russia has sufficient funding and trained aerospace workers to support the program over such a long period of time is an interesting question. And the end result — a massive rocket that won’t fly for 15 years based on technologies first conceived nearly a half century earlier — could end up being hopelessly out of date and hideously expensive to operate by the time it flies, years after its American counterpart.

Of course, those concerns haven’t stopped the U.S. Congress from ordering NASA to build a heavy-lift vehicle derived from even older technology. And that just goes to show that a follow-the-leader policy only makes sense if the leader has a sound plan. Or at least you can significantly improve upon said plan. The history of Energia and Buran don’t provide very much hope in that regard.