On June 28, the new head of the Roscosmos State Corporation Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia could begin human missions to the Moon before completing the development of its next-generation spacecraft Federatsiya (Federation). Instead, Russia will once again rely on its 50-year-old legend.
Rogozin says moonshots could be possible with the existing Soyuz spacecraft, which currently taxis crews to the International Space Station orbiting the Earth. "The Soyuz was originally developed for the (Soviet) lunar program and that means its upgrade (for lunar missions) is quite possible, until we get the new vehicle," Rogozin says.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because various schemes to send Soyuz on a long loop behind the Moon have been on the table for years, but never got the green light from the Russian government—until now.
Looking for a Plan B
The continuously delayed Federatsiya spacecraft, originally designed to replace Soyuz, likely prompted Roscosmos to take another look at old proposals to use the veteran spacecraft for lunar missions.
The very latest estimates made inside Roscosmos showed that Soyuz could be modified to actually enter the egg-shaped lunar orbit, as opposed to making a single swing behind the Moon as previously proposed, an industry source told Seniorhelpline.
The capability to orbit the Moon with the crew is very important for Roscosmos because it will make it possible for Soyuz to pay periodic visits to the international gateway planned by NASA and its partners in the lunar vicinity beginning in 2022.
Therefore, the hardy spacecraft could be a much cheaper way to fulfill the Russian deep space ambitions and save face for Roscosmos. Otherwise with Federatsiya stalled, Russian cosmonauts would depend on NASA to carry its crews to the near-lunar gateway and beyond.
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
To reach lunar orbit, the Soyuz would need an additional push with the help of a modified currently used for satellite missions in Earth’s orbit.
The space tug will be launched separately either on the Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan or on the new Angara-5 rocket from the yet-to-be-built pad in Vostochny. In either case, the Soyuz can then lift off from Baikonur and link up with the Block-DM stage in the low Earth orbit for the subsequent boost in the direction of the Moon.
Prime developers of the Soyuz spacecraft, RKK Energia, tabled plans for flying its historic but venerable three-seater as close as 90 kilometers from the Moon at the turn of the 21st century. Had these plans received the political “go ahead” and government funding, three lucky fliers could see the backside of the Moon with their own eyes as early as 2010—the first time since the end of the Apollo missions in the early 1970s.
Instead, Roscosmos banked on the development of the Federatsiya, which was designed to have at least four seats and be able to take off from Russia’s brand-new spaceport of Vostochny. But after spending a decade and up to 25 billion rubles ($338 million) on Federatsiya, Roscosmos has very little to show for it.
Finding the Funding
But the Russian space agency never fully shut down the idea of sending "Soyuz around the Moon," and instead RKK Energia went looking for private investors willing to pay for the necessary upgrades of the existing ship. These investments would earn these donors a seat on an actual lunar flyby mission.
The ticket price was set at $150 million per tourist and—not surprisingly—finding these super-wealthy thrill seekers wasn't easy. Last year the head of RKK Energia Vladimir Solntsev said that his company would be ready to fly the first pair of tourists around the Moon in 2021 or 2022, five or six years after striking a deal with potential clients.
But Russian space agency has faced two big problems. The first is serious space tourism competition with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which in early 2017 announced its own plans to send two wealthy tourists around the Moon, and the second is a steadily declining space budget.
Now the first launch of Federatsiya is now pushed back to 2022, and even that four-year deadline might be a bit ambitious. So instead of looking forward, Rogozin is once again calling upon an aging space legend to carry Russia’s dream of space exploration into the future.
Let’s see if it’s up to the task.