Vladimir Putin has given his preliminary approval for the development of a Russian-designed rocket capable of lifting a record 150 tons of cargo into orbit, to rival similar projects from NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
“Today we heard the first concrete words about commencing
work on the project. Previously, there was discussion and expert
roundtables, but today President Putin gave the preliminary
go-ahead for the new rocket,” declared Deputy Prime Minister
Dmitry Rogozin, who curates the country’s space industry, after
touring the Vostochny cosmodrome in the east of the country with
the Russian leader.
The news comes on the back of a successful test launch of the long-gestating Angara rocket earlier this summer. The rocket, which is capable of delivering up to 35 tons of cargo into the Low Earth Orbit in its most powerful modification, is the first launch vehicle developed entirely after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Rogozin said that work on the new super-heavy rocket would begin as soon as Angara is in regular use.
“After we are finished with this project, we will move onto something completely different – not a 7, 15 or 25-ton rocket, but one that is capable of delivering 120-150 tons,” said Rogozin, claiming that the construction stage of the project would be reached “around 2020.”
Earlier, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, Oleg Ostapenko, said the completion date of the new rocket could be brought forward by repurposing two of Angara’s four projected launchpads – one at Vostochny, and the other at the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia.
“The money saved by reducing the number of launchpads, could already contribute towards the construction of new ones,” agreed Rogozin.
The outline of Russia’s space program for the next two decades, published earlier this year, estimated the total cost of the new rocket, including the infrastructure, at about 500 billion rubles (US$13.3 billion).
The as-yet-unnamed Russian project will be entering an increasingly crowded field.
NASA’s $12 billion Space Launch System, which has similar parameters to the Russian project, is scheduled for its first launch in December 2017, though it has recently encountered technical issues and budget overruns, which may yet delay its launch.
China, which has been spending heavily to catch up with the established spacefaring powers, has already drawn up initial blueprints on its own super-heavy launch vehicle, Long March 9, though no specific target blast-off date has been definitively stated.
But the most intriguing rival is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has a project in development that is not only a fraction of the budget of its rivals – an estimated $2.5 billion – but also promises a cost of each launch that is several times lower than that mooted by the state-run space agencies.
The Falcon Heavy – only 53 tons, but already more powerful than other launch vehicles in operation – is set to count down to its first demo flight sometime next year.
It is notable that all of these rockets will only be scaling to reach the capacities of Saturn-V, which was capable of delivering payloads of up to 118 tons when it ferried key Apollo program spaceships into orbit between 1966 and 1973. One difference is the astronomical cost of the project, which made it unsustainable after the height of the Cold War passed.
The current generation of super-heavy rockets is essential for deep space and Mars missions, which will represent the first paradigm-changing breakthrough in space travel since the moon landing, and the first orbital space stations.
Russia, the US, and China have all tentatively scheduled manned missions to Mars after 2030, with Musk planning to launch a mission before that date.