After reading a recent article about some change in leadership in the Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA), Shannon noted the Russian space program seemed to be in shambles and asked me what the deal was. As I’m sure she expected, I was easily baited into a rant on this topic.
As far as I can tell, most of Russia’s public infrastructure is in shambles.
Nevertheless some parts of the Russian / Soviet space program sure are jaw dropping.
Human space flight in Russia is powered by intercontinental ballistic missiles that were so impressively over designed that they have been used since the late 50’s for everything from sputnik, to the first lunar probes, to first animals and humans in orbit, up to and including ongoing transport of people to the ISS. This is all on the R-7 launch platform designed in 1953 to deliver a 3 tonne nuclear warhead within 2.5 km of a target 8000 km away.
Bombs got lighter so the rockets got repurposed. More than 1700 R-7 rockets have been launched. The configuration currently in use, Soyuz-U, has been operational since the early 70’s and has been launched more than 700 times. The name and the payload have changed, but it is still an R-7 on the bottom.
Now THAT is a reliable workhorse. One of my first engineer crushes was definitely Sergei Korolev, the R-7 designer. It was also his idea to put a soviet woman in space in 1963, although I think he was rather motivated by the PR value of sending a female textile worker into space as a representative of the great socialist republic. I should rant about her sometime – a worthwhile female icon.
The recent NY Times piece suggests the former RKA director got the axe for failed Proton launches. Proton is a product of the 60’s and was developed by Korolev’s design competitor, Valentin Glushko. It is a bit of a weird, if ultimately effective, rocket. It was ostensibly also intended to be used as an ICBM but is even larger than an R-7. It was way too big to launch something as small as a nuke. It was built to use room temperature auto-igniting toxic propellants so that it could sit fuelled waiting for someone to push the big red button on the cold war. I liken this beast to towing your tent trailer with a dump truck and keeping it idling all the time in case you decide to move. It shits on everything in its path. It is used to lift heavy stuff into high orbits (eg. geostationary or extraplanetary). The US used the same propellants for the Titan-Gemini program and still has some rockets that use the same fuels but launches them over the ocean so people don’t complain about the acid rain that spills out their ass end. In Russia locals are not vocal about the issue more than once so it doesn’t make headlines in either country very often. It is a great propellant to use in space (like in the moon lander!) but not so great to use in your backyard. Anyhoo, I think the latest variant of the proton rockets have about a 10% failure rate since they started operating around ten years ago (about 70 launches maybe).
My unpolished opinion is that a good chunk of the trouble is coming from the blend of very old technology with very new technology and there having been a lack of good knowledge transfer, technological evolution, or well funded science in the required fields over the past decades in Russia. Folks are doing the best they can with what they’ve got and the administration is demanding more blood from stones than is realistic.
Bummer, dude. At least the Soyuz-U is more than reliable enough to keep the ISS operating in the short term.
Russia is as much a space superpower as Canada is a nation that stands for peace, human rights, and science. Both are true in the history books and this enables a handful of legacy projects to continue. Neither’s status has much hope unless something changes.