The little-noticed launch of a Russian rocket just before last Christmas deserves a lot more attention. A new model of a space booster called the Angara-A5 blasted off from the Plesetsk space center in northwestern Russia, and its launch says a lot about the often unclear state of the Russian space industry.
Although it took years of agonizing delays and redesigns to get the medium class booster—on par with the most powerful rockets currently produced by the United States, Japan, and Europe—the Angara-A5 flew flawlessly on its maiden launch: It was the most powerful rocket ever launched from anywhere in Europe, and the first rocket launched from Europe to send a payload into 24-hour geosynchronous orbit.
Politically, it was a demonstration that Russia’s uncomfortable dependence on the Baikonur spaceport in independent Kazakhstan is being significantly reduced. In recent years that dependence has been more worrisome: fears in Kazakhstan of a Crimea-style Russian annexation of ethnic-Russian-inhabited northern provinces make it more likely that a less hospitable government will succeed that of aging strong-man President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
But the technological implication of the flight is the most profound, and it is this: however much the Russian space industry has been suffering under a string of military generals performing reorganizations or enhancing discipline for inadequate quality control, Russian aerospace engineers still have what it takes to expand their capabilities. They are rocket builders, and by the ultimate judgment of spaceflight, they can still build magnificent rockets.
The Angara-A5 uses the RD-191 rocket engine. The RD-191 burns kerosene and liquid oxygen and is an upgraded version of the RD-170 engines used on the short-lived Energia heavy-lift booster. At sea level, the RD-191 can produce a thrust of 196 tons. Its specific impulse—a general measure of engine performance—is a respectable 311 seconds (for comparison, the space shuttle main engines had a specific impulse of 363 seconds at sea level, using the more powerful, but trickier to use, liquid hydrogen as a fuel). Together, the five engines of the Angara-A5 produce a total thrust of 980,000 kilograms.
The Angara booster family was designed more than twenty years ago with the intent of replacing a hodge-podge of boosters developed from earlier military ballistic missile programs. The goal was to transition from self-igniting hypergolic propellants to less toxic propellants, such as kerosene and liquid oxygen. With a first stage consisting of from one to five (or possibly more) standardized core units—each long and narrow enough to be transported by rail—and a standardized selection of upper stages, the system was supposed to allow operation of different models of booster from the same standardized launch pad.
Built by the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, the Angara family currently has two booster components, designated URM (universal rocket module) #1 (for the first stage) and #2 (for use as a middle stage). The light Angara-A1 uses a single URM-1 (plus a small upper stage), and can put a 3.8 ton payload into low-Earth-orbit; the medium Angara-A3, currently in development, will use three URM-1s to send 14.6 tons aloft; and the heavy Angara-A5 (using five URM-1’s) is rated for 24 tons. There is already a plan for an Angara-A7, which would be capable of boosting 35 tons.
Vladimir Nesterov, the chief designer of the Angara booster family, boasted of the value of this standardization in an interview published in January in the Moscow newspaper Argumenty Nedeli: “Different classes of Angara are assembled in the same launch support facility and are checked and transported to a common launch complex for all three rockets,” he told a reporter. “This is a colossal savings from the standpoint of operating expenses. Not a single world space system currently has such advantages.”
The launch of the Angara-A5 on 22 December demonstrated the approach, using the same pad—and the same, mostly-military, launch crew—as an earlier Angara-A1 test launch six months earlier. Other one-vehicle-type-only pads have already been shut down, and their launch crews dispersed, in anticipation of a complete transition to the Angara family.
This transition is causing the Russians some concern however. The next test flight of the Angara-A5 is still a year away, and the reallocation of payloads to the booster has been slowed by major budget cuts forced by the drop in oil prices.
Nesterov made some imprudent boasts about his rocket system in the Argumenty Nedeli interview: “Angara provides the most important thing,” he explained, “gaining independent access to space. From Russian territory we will have the opportunity of launching all types of launch vehicles and ensuring insertion of all payloads into those orbits which are necessary.”
He waxed defiant: “Even if their own ‘Yatsenyuk’ [the Ukrainian Prime Minister] comes to power now in Kazakhstan, this no longer threatens us with anything. We now have the full capability of performing all space missions from Plesetsk Cosmodrome.”
In reality, that won’t be for the rest of this decade. Plans to build a second Angara pad at a new cosmodrome in eastern Siberia have been postponed, and there’s no near-term way to build enough Angara vehicles to restore the capabilities provided by Proton booster launch facilities at Baikonur should they get shut down for diplomatic reasons.
It may satisfy the current fever of defiant nationalism now gripping Russia to insult Kazakhstan. But it seems imprudent to telegraph to any potentially hostile post-Nazarbayev leadership that they will lose the important bargaining chip of access to Baikonur, especially when, for now, they still have that chip.
Nonetheless, these prospects don’t diminish the importance of the success of the Angara-A5 launch, and there are even more significant international angles to it. In January, Khrunichev reached agreement with the US commercial space cargo delivery contractor Orbital Sciences Corporation to deliver an upgraded version of the RD-191 engine to Orbital (as a replacement for another Russian engine that exploded on liftoff late last year).
The entangled co-dependencies of the world’s space programs continues to be as messy as ever, but they have proven unexpectedly robust so far—and the resilient skill of the Russian rocket builders is an enduring sinew in that partnership.
James Oberg is a retired "rocket scientist" in Texas, after a 20+ year career in NASA Mission Control and subsequently an on-air space consultant for ABC News and then NBC News. The author of a dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the past, present, and potential future of space exploration, he has reported from space launch and operations centers across the United States and Russia and North Korea.