Russians Doubt Reusable Boosters, Look to Phase Out Rockot Launches

Falcon 9 launch and landing. (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon 9 launch and landing. (Credit: SpaceX)

Russia doesn’t seem overly impressed by the recent progress by SpaceX and Blue Origin in developing reusable launch vehicles. At according to TsNIIMash, which is the company’s main research institute.

“The economic feasibility of reusable launch systems is not obvious. First and foremost it will depend on how often launches will be made. At the moment it is hard to forecast which way the market of launch services will go when reusable space rockets become available. The designers are still to demonstrate the real costs of production and of making reusable stages for re-launching,” a TsNIIMash spokesman said.

According to the research institute’s estimates, Falcon 9 with a reusable first stage may lay claim to part of the commercial launches currently being made with the medium-class vehicle Soyuz if the costs of making the first stage of the US rocket for another use will not exceed 5%-8% of the manufacturing costs.

Meanwhile, Russia has slashed the price of launches aboard its Proton-M rocket from $100 million to $70 million to better compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which costs about $61 million.

In related news, TASS reports the Russian government’s long-range space plan calls for phasing out the use of Rockot launchers. The government plans only two more satellite launches of the converted SS-19 ballistic missile from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in 2016 and 2018.

Russia plans to shift satellites to two new small-satellite boosters, Angara-1.2 and Soyuz-2.1v. The Angara-1.2 rocket is part of a modular family of boosters designed to replace the Rockot, Zenit and Proton launchers. Soyuz-2.1v is a stripped down version of the venerable Soyuz launch vehicle.

Rockot launches are managed by Eurockot Launch Services, which markets the booster on a commercial basis. It’s not clear from the TASS report what impact the government’s decision to stop using the Rockot will have on commercial operations.

A Rockot is set to launch Europe’s Sentinel 3A satellite later this month from Plesetsk. The spacecraft is part of the European Union’s Copernicus Earth observation program, whose space segment is being run by ESA. At least two more Sentinel launches are planned in the future.

Since 1990, Rockot has launched 27 times, with 24 successes, two failures and one partial failure.