By Douglas Messier
Back in 1992, the Russian government — newly shone of the republics that made up the old Soviet Union — had a problem. Or rather, lots and lots of problems. Some of them related to space.
Many of the components for the nation’s launch vehicles and space systems were made in the newly independent Ukraine. Its main spaceport was the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the new nation of Kazakhstan. Russia’s independence in space was at risk.
Russia’s leaders decided that was the nation needed was a brand new launch vehicle, one designed and built in country and launched from the domestic Plestsk military spaceport. With a new rocket, Russia would be completely free of dependence on foreigners for access to space.
And so, Angara was born.
Named after a river in Siberia, Angara would not be a single rocket. It would be a family of modular boosters based around a common core that would be capable of launching payloads ranging from 2 tonnes to 50 tonnes. Name virtually any Soviet rocket still in existence, and there would be an Angara variant that could replace it.
Angara was a dream come true for Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which won the bid to develop the new booster family in 1994. Or so it seemed.
A funny thing happened on the way to orbit. The collapse of the Soviet Union put the Russian budget into the toilet. It had no money to develop a brand new family of boosters. Soviet-era rockets, including the Khrunichev’s Proton, found a market launching Western satellites for desperately needed hard cash. The Russians found they could work just fine with newly-independent Ukraine. And Russia signed a long-term lease for use of the Bakionur Cosmodrome with Kazakhstan.
Thus, the development of Angara lagged…and lagged. Khrunichev actually developed and flight tested variants of Angara’s first stage as part of South Korea’s Naro-1 booster, which flew three times between 2009 and 2013. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) supplied the upper stages for the boosters.
It was not until July 9, 2014 — 22 years after the rocket was first conceived — that the first Angara booster launched from Plesetsk. The Angara 1.2PP flew a successful 22-minute suborbital flight test carrying a mass simulator weighing 1,430 kg (3,152 lb). Five months later, a larger Angara A5 placed a 2,000 kg (4,409 lb) mass simulator into orbit.
Despite two successful flights, the Angara launch manifest remains light. In 2016, officials announced plans for an orbital test flight of the Angara A1.2 booster for sometime later this year. However, Russian officials say the launch has been delayed until 2018 due to the payload.
Angara’s first commercial flight is not scheduled until 2020. Last year, South Korea’s KARI has signed a contract to launch its KOMPSAT-6 satellite aboard an Angara A1.2 booster that year. So far, it is the only announced commercial contract for the Angara launcher.
Part of the problem is the continuing popularity of the Proton booster, which the Angara booster is supposed to be replaced. Despite multiple failures in recent years caused by poor quality control, the Proton remains popular for satellite launches. Officials have indicated that Proton will continue to fly into the mid-2020’s.
Last September, Khrunichev and its U.S.-based marketing arm, International Launch Services (ILS), announced two new variants of the Proton Breeze M booster to better compete in the geosynchronous communications market. Last month, ILS announced that a larger 5-meter payload fairing to accommodate larger satellites would be available for Proton boosters beginning in early 2020.
Despite a lack of orders, Russian officials must be expecting an uptick in Angara flights. Last year, they announced plans to construct a second Angara launch complex at Plesetsk so more boosters could be flown from the cosmodrome. There are also plans to build an Angara launch complex at the new Vostochny spaceport in the Russian Far East.
The Angara A5V and Angara-A5P variants are heavy-lift boosters designed to carry Russia’s new Federatsiya (Federation) crew vehicle. Federatsiya will replace the venerable Soyuz spacecraft and fly missions to the moon and deep space. The first automated Federatsiya flight is currently scheduled for 2021, with a crew test set for two years later.