Rockets R Us

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian and Ukrainian rocket industries defied the odds to become competitive commercial concerns

12 min read
Photo of Soyuz spacecraft getting readied for launch.
A crewed Soyuz spacecraft is readied for launch aboard a booster of the same name at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhastan.
Photo: Sergei Chirikov/Agence France Presse

In the four decades since Sputnik, one rocket after another has punched through the skies above Baikonur Cosmodrome. But in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, it looked as though Baikonur and the rest of the former Soviet space industry might pass into history, too.

Nevertheless, the industry has survived; nearly every launch vehicle inherited from the Soviet Union by Russia and Ukraine is still in operation.

By teaming up with marketing partners and investors abroad, Russian and Ukrainian rocket-building enterprises have even introduced new versions of their space boosters, mostly aimed at the commercial market, and have further upgrades in the pipeline. Soyuz spacecraftThe ex-Soviet fleet ranges from the mammoth Proton heavy-lift vehicle to the versatile Zenit, which can be launched from a converted oil rig out at sea. This range and variety makes the former Soviet Union a strong competitor to the U.S. and European launch industries.

Still, the transition from a military-based launch industry was difficult. After the demise of the USSR, the budget of the Ministry of Defense, the main client of the Soviet rocket industry, dwindled to a fraction of its former self. The new Russian government, which inherited most of the Soviet space-related infrastructure, also discovered that vital elements of its space industry were now dependent on newly foreign states.

While the Soviet Union had several launch sites in Russia, its main space port, Baikonur, was located in Kazakhstan, one of the now independent states of the former Soviet Union [see map]. Although still operated by Russia, Baikonur found itself stranded in a country beset by economic woes and bristling with a good deal of anti-Russian sentiment. In addition, many vendors of launcher components were now located on foreign soil. These vendors promptly started charging hard currency instead of rubles.

Baikonur: permanently temporary

The solution seemed obvious: move launch operations from Baikonur to inside the Russian Federation, while allowing only hardware marked “made in Russia” to be included in the future Russian rocket fleet.

When first mooted, in the early 1990s, this strategy was too expensive. To tide the industry over until a new all-Russian infrastructure could be built meant that the Baikonur launch facilities had to be preserved through new investments and political agreements with the Kazakh government.

The dividends of these efforts are apparent today. When I saw the town in 1993, it presented an apocalyptic picture: a chaotic exodus of military officers and enlisted men who formerly served the launch facilities, widespread vandalism of residential areas by local gangs, and a failing water supply. When I returned in 2000 and 2001, Baikonur was back on its feet. The streets looked inhabited again, stores had reopened, and the local post office offered Internet access.

At most launch facilities at Baikonur, civilians have taken over from the military. A ruthless approach was adopted toward the Soviet infrastructure: all operations were consolidated in the handful of newest and best-preserved facilities, while anything not serving immediate needs was abandoned.

Launch activities in Baikonur, although a shadow of Soviet times, are conducted regularly and in cooperation with Kazakh authorities. Replacing Baikonur with a launch facility inside Russia remains an option, but Baikonur is expected to be Russia’s main spaceport for years, if not decades.

Angara: long road to the pad

Although the Baikonur situation was stabilized, Russia still faced the problem of building rockets with no dependence upon foreign components. In 1992, the Russian government gave the go-ahead to a new rocket R&D program, named Angara. Not only would this rocket be all-Russian, it could be launched from sites within Russia. (In contrast, boosters such as the Proton have launch facilities only in Baikonur.)

In the effort to win government funds for the Angara program, two giants of the Russian space industry clashed in a fierce bidding war. The rivalry between them was nothing new—it went back to the dawn of the space age.

At the start of the 1950s, the sole developer of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was the OKB-1 center, near Moscow. (OKB-1 stands for the Russian initials for Experimental Design Bureau 1.) Sergei Korolev, the center’s chief designer, wanted to employ his military missiles for space research. He used his influence with the Soviet leadership to push the idea—hence the launch of Sputnik in 1957. OKB-1 would ultimately become today’s RKK Energia, developer of the Soyuz manned and Progress cargo spacecraft and the Mir space station [see “Rocket families,” below].

While supporting Korolev’s early space initiatives, Premier Nikita Khrushchev also pushed the decentralization of the Soviet rocket industry. With his blessing, several new rocket development organizations emerged in the USSR, competing with OKB-1 for funds and influence.

The head of one of these organizations was Vladimir Chelomei, chief designer at OKB-52, which originally specialized in cruise missiles. By the end of the 1950s, he was challenging OKB-1’s monopoly in space.

Also, in an astute strategic move, Chelomei hired Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, then a recent college graduate, as an engineer for his design bureau in the town of Reutov, near Moscow. With Khrushchev Senior’s blessing, OKB-52 absorbed one of the USSR’s oldest aviation plants, situated in the Fili district of Moscow. Chelomei turned this plant into a production facility for his most famous legacy: the Proton rocket. The Proton was first launched in 1965 and is still used for such jobs as orbiting International Space Station (ISS) modules. Its production plant became the backbone of an aerospace empire headed by Chelomei and composed of many centers and plants.

But in 1964, after Khrushchev’s ousting, Chelomei saw a reversal of his fortunes and his empire was dismantled. Chelomei died in 1984, but using the Proton plant as its core, the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center industrial conglomerate built itself out of such remnants of his empire as the KB Salyut design center in Moscow.

This center had a long history of challenging RKK Energia’s lead in the manned space program. In the 1980s, the government chose the center’s add-on modules for the Mir space station over RKK Energia’s own proposals. In 1993, the Yeltsin government officially approved the merger of KB Salyut and Khrunichev.

In fact, 1993 was a banner year for Khrunichev. The company signed its first contract for the launch of a Western satellite aboard its Proton rocket. It also successfully lobbied for the inclusion of its Zarya module in the ISS. Perhaps not coincidentally, Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, was at the time working for the company as an executive.

multiple combustion chambersA Choice of Chambers: Rocket engines developed in the former Soviet Union often have multiple combustion chambers. The most advanced Russian engine, the RD-170, has four chambers but is now available in one- and two-chamber configurations.Illustration: Anatoly Zak

At odds over the Angara contract

Against this backdrop Khrunichev and RKK Energia submitted rival proposals for the Angara rocket.

RKK Energia lobbied for a modular architecture. A family of launchers with a wide range of payload capabilities would be built by attaching different numbers of identical rocket boosters to a core stage. Each booster would be equipped with a smaller version of the state of the art in Russian rocket engine technology: the RD-170. The RD-170 burns kerosene and liquid oxygen and is more powerful than the F-1 engine used in the first stage of the U.S. Saturn V rocket. It has powered the first stage of the Ukrainian-built, two-stage Zenit rocket since 1985.

The RD-170 has four combustion chambers. Western rocket engines generally have only one combustion chamber per engine, but since the earliest days of the Space Age, Russian rocket engines have often used multiple chambers. The advantage is that pressures from propellants burned in multiple chambers are lower than when the same amount is burned in a single chamber. This means individual chambers can be made lighter, with thinner walls, and more cheaply than an equivalent single chamber. RKK Energia’s proposal, however, effectively required the RD-170 to be split in half by using two, rather than four, combustion chambers [see figure, above].

Khrunichev’s Angara proposal drew heavily on its experience with the Proton rocket. Its vehicle was to have multiple external propellant tanks surrounding a core first stage using a standard RD-170 engine.

In September 1994, Khrunichev was declared the Angara’s prime developer by the Ministry of Defense and the Russian Space Agency, Rosaviakosmos, located in Moscow. The official reason for the decision was that the design used already available and proven RD-170 engines, whereas RKK Energia’s proposal required additional development work to modify the RD-170.

Initially, RKK Energia took some consolation from being awarded the development contract for Angara’s second stage. But during a subsequent redesign of the Angara, Khrunichev squeezed its rival out of the program altogether. Khrunichev’s new configuration proved similar to what RKK Energia had originally proposed—a flexible modular configuration with booster rockets around a core stage. The new version of the Angara also required a modification of the four-chamber RD-170 engine, not into a two-chamber unit, but into a one-chamber configuration, dubbed the RD-191.

Today, the RD-191 is still in development and has yet to fly, though it completed a test firing in 2001. A two-chamber version of the RD-170 has in the meantime already been built for the U.S. Atlas rocket by the RD-170 and RD-191 engine developer and manufacturer, Moscow-based NPO Energomash. (NPO stands for Science and Production Association, a title given to many Russian high-tech organizations.) Thus if RKK Energia had been given the go-ahead, it would have had its needed engine for its proposal anyway, with the R&D having been paid for by the United States as part of the Atlas contract.

In Khrunichev’s final design, the Angara will deliver payloads of 2000-28 500 kg into low Earth orbit, replacing the Proton rocket as Russia’s heavy lifter. The rockets will be launched from a dual-pad complex in Plesetsk some 800 km north of Moscow.

Production of the Angara’s first elements has already started, according to chief designer Anatoly Nedaivoda of KB Salyut, Khrunichev’s design center in Moscow. He expects the first flight of the Angara, although in a lightweight version without boosters surrounding the core stage, to occur in 2003.

Development of the Angara rocket is not over. One radical reconfiguration on the drawing board envisions a reusable core stage equipped with a deployable wing for returning to Earth.

The Proton family

Meanwhile, with Angara still in the future, the Proton rocket remains Russia’s workhorse. It has undertaken 66 successful and six unsuccessful missions since its first commercial launch in 1993. Included are launches of Russian civilian and military spacecraft, as well as commercial payloads and modules for Mir and the ISS [see photo]. This launch record compares favorably with that of Europe’s own reliable workhorse, the Ariane 4 rocket.

A significant upgrade of the Proton was launched successfully on 7 April 2001. The Proton M, as it is called, has a new digital flight control system, more powerful engines in the first and second stages, and an advanced upper stage, the Breeze M. Its predecessor, the Block DM upper stage, has been part of the Proton rocket since 1967, but the Breeze M, being lighter and smaller, allows heavier and bulkier payloads to be launched.

The Proton M’s design also addresses a number of political issues. Now, for example, the vehicle’s avionics originate entirely in Russia, ending reliance on a Ukrainian subcontractor.

Currently only a single launch pad in Baikonur has been modified to accommodate the Proton M. Khrunichev expects a gradual introduction of the new version of the vehicle alongside continuing launches of the older model Proton.

Success of Soyuz launcher

Despite losing the Angara contract in 1994, the RKK Energia camp has not been idle. It joined up with the French aerospace industry to market Soyuz rockets for commercial launches through a spinoff of the original OKB-1 center.

In the 1960s, mass production of the R-7 (also known as the SS-6) ICBM was transferred from OKB-1 to a former aviation plant named after its location—the Russian city of Samara. The launcher of Sputnik in 1957, the R-7 was also the basis for the Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz spacecraft launchers. The Soyuz gave the booster family its name, and since Sputnik, Soyuz rockets have been successfully launched 1665 times with a success rate of over 97 percent.

In the early 1990s, Soyuz-type launchers were developed into commercial vehicles at Samara’s development center, called TsKB (Central Design Bureau) in cooperation with RKK Energia.

In 1996, TsKB formed a joint venture, known as Starsem, headquartered in Paris and owned by four diverse organizations. The four were Samara; the European Aeronautic, Defense and Space Company; Arianespace; and Rosaviakosmos. The Russo-French enterprise won a lucrative contract to conduct multiple launches of the Globalstar consortium’s communications satellites, beginning in February 1999.

A fourth Soyuz stage

The Starsem venture then went one step further, adding a brand new fourth stage to the three-stage Soyuz launcher. Known as Fregat, this stage serves as an orbital tug, capable of depositing multiple payloads into different orbits, including orbits inaccessible to the original Soyuz launcher. The Soyuz-Fregat can deliver 5500 kg to a 450-km circular orbit. Earlier Soyuz launchers delivered at best 4100 kg.

In the summer of 2000, the Soyuz-Fregat combination successfully delivered four Earth observation Cluster satellites for the European Space Agency (ESA) in two separate launches [see photo].

The Soyuz-Fregat’s capabilities encouraged Rosaviakosmos to offer the Soyuz-Fregat combination as a launcher for interplanetary probes. Previously that role had been reserved for the powerful but expensive Proton booster, which costs approximately US $100 million per commercial launch, as opposed to an estimated US $50-$60 million for the Soyuz-Fregat. ESA has chosen the Soyuz-Fregat as the launcher for its Mars Express mission to the red planet, scheduled for 2003.

In mid-2002, a Soyuz-Fregat is scheduled to blast off from Russia’s northern space port, Plesetsk, at least partially fulfilling the goal of moving launch operations from Kazakhstan.

Yamal/Aurora launchers and more

In addition to the Fregat modernization of the Soyuz rocket, RKK Energia still hopes to create a next-generation launch vehicle. In a twist of fate, looking to replace the Soyuz’ current propulsion units, it has chosen engines originally developed in the 1960s for the USSR’s giant moon rocket, the N-1.

The N-1 launcher, the equivalent of the U.S. Saturn V, was designed by Korolev in the early 1960s to send Soviet cosmonauts to the moon. Four disastrous launches later, between 1969 and 1972, the Soviet government canceled the lunar landing program. Thirty engines, called NK-43s, powered the first stage of each N-1 rocket, and by the time the moon race was over, several dozen propulsion units had been built. All were perfectly preserved in the hope of better days and recently some of the engines passed live tests with flying colors.

RKK Energia plans to replace the engine of the Soyuz core stage with one of the NK-43 engines and combine the result with a new Taymur upper stage, a version of the Proton’s Block DM stage. The result is to be known as either the Yamal or Aurora. Despite its greatly increased mass over the original Soyuz launcher, the Yamal/Aurora version requires only minimal modifications to existing launch pads in Baikonur and Plesetsk.

An even more significant upgrade is planned as a follow-on to the Yamal/Aurora, by equipping even the launcher’s strap-on boosters with the NK-43 engines. By clustering two, four, or six NK-43-equipped boosters around the rocket’s core stage, the developers would create a family of launchers capable of delivering respectively 13 000, 20 000, or 29 000 kg of payload into low Earth orbit. It is apparent that, if ever implemented, they would compete for funds and payloads with Khrunichev’s Angara.

The lure of mid-air launch

While Yamal/Aurora is still in development, RKK Energia has co-created the Air Launch venture. An air launch system is desirable because it can easily position itself for launching into practically any orbit, whereas ground-based rockets are excluded by overflight restrictions from many orbits.

In addition, its designers believe, Air Launch would solve export control problems with other countries by picking up payloads from manufacturers and launching above international waters without landing in third countries.

RKK Energia’s vision is of a two-stage rocket taking off in mid-air from an Antonov-124 transport aircraft. In its first stage, the Air Launch rocket would use the same NK-43 engine intended for Yamal/Aurora, while the second stage would use the Taymur upper stage. Company officials said that the first launch of the system could take place some time in 2003. Typical payloads would be communications or remote-sensing low-orbit satellites.

Along with modernization of space launchers and development of new launch vehicles, the Russian rocket industry has found a use for the numerous ICBMs produced at the height of the Cold War.

Recycled Cold War boosters

One of them is the R-36M (SS-18) ICBM, the biggest missile in the Soviet fleet. The arms control treaties signed at the Cold War’s end sent around 150 of these warhorses into retirement. The Russian government decided to market the rockets to commercial users and formed the Kosmotras International Space Co., headquartered in Moscow, to do so. Renamed Dnepr-1, after a river in Ukraine, the rocket made its debut in April 1999, successfully placing a British satellite into orbit.

Following the Dnepr’s path, another retired nuclear ICBM, UR-100NU (SS-11), entered the commercial launch market under the name Rockot (or rumble). Khrunichev, which originally manufactured the UR-100 ICBMs, formed a joint venture with DaimlerChrysler, Eurockot Launch Services, in Bremen, Germany, to market the booster internationally. While the Dnepr can carry heavier payloads, the Rockot’s launch site at Plesetsk is perfect for highly inclined and polar orbits.

The Ukrainian connection

Other former members of the Soviet Union are also commercializing their legacy space industries. One success story is KB Yuzhnoe, based in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. The company started as another production facility for ballistic missiles and launch vehicles designed at OKB-1/RKK Energia. However, during Khrushchev’s reign, it emerged as an independent developer of its own ballistic missiles. These missiles ultimately carried two-thirds of all nuclear warheads deployed by the USSR.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, KB Yuzhnoe’s personnel shrank from 70 000 to 25 000. The company struggled to organize the production of trolley buses and windmills, while also marketing its launch vehicles around the world.

KB Yuzhnoe did succeed in commercializing its jewel in the crown, the Zenit rocket. The vehicle’s pre-launch processing is fully automated and its environmental friendliness is enhanced by the fuel it uses—a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen, as opposed to the toxic propellants employed in the Proton rocket. These attributes helped make the Zenit a perfect candidate for a project known as Sea Launch, a consortium of KB Yuzhnoe, RKK Energia, Boeing, and a Norwegian aerospace company, Kvaerner. Using a converted giant oil rig in the Pacific Ocean, Sea Launch launches Zenits at the equator [see “Launcher without a country,” IEEE Spectrum, October 1996, pp. 18-25]. Launching there entails fewer fuel-hungry orbital maneuvers than at higher latitudes for most commercial satellite orbits. The first commercial launch—of a television broadcast satellite—occurred in October 1999.

It is clear that, although still recovering from the economic disaster at the end of the Cold War, the space industry of the former USSR is vibrant and growing. I recall all the expert opinions from the mid-1990s about the inevitable end of the Russian space program and with them an old saying: “Don’t try to predict history, it will always fool you.”

—Stephen A. Cass, Editor

About the Author

ANATOLY ZAK has been covering the Russian space program as a freelance journalist since the end of the 1980s and he runs a website on the space industry of the former Soviet Union. A native of Moscow, he worked as a space science reporter for the city’s daily newspaper. Nowadays he lives in Morris Township, N.J.

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