Russia Reprioritizes Space Program

Last week, Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin laid out his plan to shift the focus of Russia’s space program away from human spaceflight toward a more balanced effort that also emphasized Earth observation, communications and planetary exploration. The moves also included tightening state control over a key Russian rocket builder.

The most dramatic move is the cancellation of Russia’s large Rus-M rocket, which Energia was building to replace the venerable Soyuz booster. Rus-M was intended to carry the nation’s new six-person crew vehicle from the Vostochny spaceport. However, the effort was widely rumored to be running badly behind schedule and unlikely  to meet deadlines of an initial test flight in 2015 and human flights in 2018.

Rather than develop a brand new vehicle built from scratch, Roscosmos has instead elected to replace the Soyuz with…well, itself. Or at least a souped version with new first engines and larger strap on boosters.  Under the upgrade effort, known as Yamal, the first stage would use RD-191 or NK-33 engines. A modified version of the NK-33, which was originally developed for the Soviet lunar program, is being used on Orbital Sciences Corporation’s new Taurus II rocket.

One benefits of this approach is that the Yamal boosters can use existing launch facilities. A key problem with the long-delayed Angara rocket has been delays in constructing launch complexes at Plesetsk and Baikonur. The Plesetsk launch pad is currently set to be operational in the second half of 2013.  The Baikonur complex is currently scheduled for completion in 2014, although it might never be completed.

The end of Rus-M will allow Popovkin, who has said that human spaceflight was taking up too much of Roscosmos’ budget, to shift the space agency’s focus to other areas.  On Friday, he laid out a series of ambitious goals to lawmakers in the Russian Duma:

“By 2015, we are planning to increase the number of Earth observation satellites [in orbit] from five to 20, operational Glonass navigation satellites from 24 to 30, communications and Cospas-Sarsat satellites from 26 to 48,” Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin told Russian lawmakers on Friday.

Popovkin said Russia occupied only 3 percent of the commercial services segment of the global space market while conducting 40 percent of global space launches annually.

“Therefore, we have reviewed priorities of the federal space program. One of our new priorities is Earth monitoring, weather and communication satellites. Another priority is space science,” he said.

Russia is in the midst of a revival of its space science and planetary exploration programs, which all but collapsed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Earlier this year, the nation launched an astrophysics observatory. In November, the nation will launch its first mission to Mars in 15 years. The ambitious Phobos-Grunt mission is designed to explore the Martian moon and to return soil samples to Earth.

Popovkin also announced plans on Friday to create of a new rocket building holding organization at the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center and to replace the organization’s management. The report doesn’t say why the move is being made, but it appears to be an attempt by the Russian space agency to tighten control over the industry.

Khrunichev produces the Proton and Rockot launch vehicles as well as the Briz (Breeze) upper stage. The Proton is a leading satellite launcher on the international market, having brought in billions in revenues over the years. Khrunichev is also developing the Angara rocket.