As was often the case in past years, what seemed like science fiction quite recently has become a part of everyday life. We are talking about reusable rockets that have managed to loudly declare themselves in the world. Will Russia be able to respond to SpaceX or Blue Origin?
You can talk as much as you like about the fact that Elon Musk did not come up with the idea of reusing the launch vehicles, but this will not affect the overall picture in any way. Suffice it to say that in the first half of 2020, SpaceX made more rocket and space launches than Russia, Europe and Japan combined: only 11 launches. The first stage of the final version of the heavy launch vehicle - Falcon 9 Block 5 - regularly lands on sea and land platforms in order to soar up again soon, deafening the surroundings with its roar.
Usually it is customary to move from theory to practice, but we will do the opposite. Could SpaceX be a success without a reusable stage? Probably yes. Musk and his specialists managed to create an extremely economical and extremely reliable carrier for their class, and this, let's be frank, does not always work out and not for everyone. Suffice it to recall the heavy "Angara-A5", the launch of which is about twice as expensive as the launch of the Falcon 9. And it has yet to confirm its reliability and declared characteristics.
Reusability succinctly complemented the enormous potential of the Nine. Back in March 2016, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that the company predicts that the reusable first stage will reduce the Falcon 9 launch price by 30%: that is, from about $ 62 million to $ 42 million. Simply put, step reuse is a useful and necessary thing.
"Crown": old songs about the main thing
SpaceX's successes became a problem not only - or rather, not so much - for Musk's American and European competitors, but for the Russian space department, whose advantage for a long time remained the relatively low cost of launches: the heavy Proton-M with a launch price of 65 million was the most affordable of the heavy rockets. This carrier, which uses unsafe heptyl as fuel, was replaced by the expensive and almost flightless Angara-A5.
In turn, the completely new Irtysh is to replace the Soyuz-2. None of these missiles have real competitive advantages: on the basis of the latter, it is sometimes proposed to create something reusable (we will talk about this further), however, in the basic version, the missile will be a one-time analogue of the Soviet "Zenith" - a good rocket by the standards of the late 1980s. x, but now, again, it has no significant advantages over its rivals.
Does Russia have any truly breakthrough projects? The country has been and, according to some reports, is actively working on its reusable carrier. Back in the early 90s, the Makeeva GRTs JSC began to create the Korona reusable launch vehicle with vertical take-off and landing. It was supposed to be single-stage, that is, capable of reaching orbital speed without the use of detachable parts (for comparison, the Falcon 9 has two stages, while the Soyuz-2 has three).
It should be said right away that no one has yet implemented this principle in practice. One of the most famous representatives of this trend is the American McDonnell Douglas DC-X, which has remained as a prototype. In theory, this approach could make launches cheaper than ever, especially if a single-use rocket is returned back.In practice, after the launch, the launch vehicle will face too heavy loads, in addition, the cost of research work in this direction will be incomparably higher than if it were a multi-stage launch vehicle.
With regard to the specific "Korona", the 30-meter rocket should be injected into a low reference orbit up to seven tons of payload. The launch weight is approximately 300 tons. For launching and landing, it was proposed to use takeoff and landing shock absorbers installed in the stern. The degree of reusability of the rocket was supposed to be 100 flights, and its individual elements - at least 25.
The Makeyev Center calculated that flight tests and experimental operation of the rocket would cost less than two billion dollars. The amount seems gigantic, but do not forget that back in 2012, the head of the Federal Space Agency Vladimir Popovkin estimated the cost of developing the Angara rocket at 160 billion rubles, or $ 5.3 billion at the then exchange rate. Alas, resources for one more media were not found either in the 1990s or in the 2000s, so in 2012 the development was frozen.
However, it would make no sense to mention the project in the context of competition with SpaceX if it finally and irrevocably disappeared into oblivion. Apparently, the first successes of Elon Musk played a role. Back in 2015, the engineers of the Makeev SRC on an initiative basis carried out design and engineering work on the appearance of a promising carrier. In 2017, RIA Novosti reported that Russian specialists had decided on a schedule for the development of the Korona rocket: despite all the metamorphoses of the past decades, the name of the carrier remained the same.
At the same time, it was noted that carbon fiber was chosen as the main structural material. It was assumed that a liquid-propellant launch vehicle using a hydrogen / oxygen fuel pair would be able to launch up to 12 tons of cargo into a low reference orbit. For this, however, you need a "special injection scheme". It will be possible to prepare the rocket for launch through the use of simplified launch structures in just a day.
And although Korona is clearly not a priority for Russia, even if we talk specifically about reusable media, information about it sometimes “flashes” in the media. So, in January 2020, the lead design engineer of the Makeyev Center, Alexander Vavilin, said that experts are considering the issue of orbital refueling of the carrier. This will require two "Crowns". “The rocket will operate as if in a dual mode - both 'brains' are solving the same problem. After refueling, we disconnect and sit down,”he said.
Doesn't it look like anything? A similar scheme has long been proposed by Musk for a promising ship known as the Starship. In theory, the device will be able to meet with the tanker built on its base before the flight to Mars. More confused by another. De facto, the Makeyev State Rocket Center has never created full-fledged space rockets from scratch, although among its developments there are successful combat systems, such as the R-29RMU2 Sineva missile for submarines. Earlier, the company also developed carriers "Shtil", "Swell" and "Volna": they were created on the basis of ballistic missiles R-27 and R-29. Experts from the Makeev SRC took part in the work on the promising Rus-M family, but they were curtailed in 2011 due to a lack of money.
All in all, the Korona does not look like Russia's first reusable missile. This is a too risky and potentially extremely expensive project, which, moreover, has competitors in Russia.
"Wing-SV": the successor of "Baikal"
More often recently, we have heard about another concept, within the framework of which they want to return the stage “in an airplane way”. That is, after launch, it will be able to land at a regular airfield. One such project was named "Wing-SV", where "SV" means "reversible stage". It is assumed that it will form the basis of the concept of a light rocket.
In 2018, the Foundation for Advanced Research (FPI) reported that in Russia in the next four years they intend to create a fully functional demonstrator of the reentry stage of the launch vehicle. “We want to go in stages - first, the work on the subsonic demonstrator will be carried out, its tests will be carried out, the necessary adjustments so that we can approach the next stage with minimal risks,” the FPI said. The head enterprise is the V.M. Myasishchev Experimental Machine-Building Plant. The first test flight of the Krylo-SV carrier rocket recoverable stage is to take place in 2022-2023.
Interestingly, in the same 2018, a similar initiative was put forward by PJSC "Il", which was then headed by the son of the head of "Roscosmos" Dmitry Rogozin, Alexei Rogozin. Moreover, its wording was more than strange. “We have nowhere to land on the offshore platform. Roscosmos, together with the Foundation for Advanced Research, set the task of how to make the landing be of an aircraft type, "Rogozin Jr. said.
Work in this direction has already been carried out in Russia earlier. Back in 2001, at the MAKS aerospace show, a mockup of the Baikal reusable booster with a landing gear and wings was presented. It was assumed that the accelerator could be used as part of the "Angara" family of light, medium and heavy carriers, as well as for other missiles. In case of successful implementation, the specific cost of launching payloads into orbit was hoped to reduce by up to 50%.
In fact, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket (the reference was to it) can land not only on the sea, but also on the ground platform. Which, as we said above, she has been doing for a long time and quite successfully.
But these are all trifles against the background of the really serious problems of Kryla-SV. At first glance, the "airplane" scheme is universal. A reasonable question arises: why then has no one implemented it in practice? Vitaly Egorov, a well-known popularizer of science and a specialist in the rocket and space industry, has his own opinion on this matter. “The legs (like a Falcon 9 rocket - Ed.) Require minimal weight and rework than other options. You can land in an airplane way. You cannot save on this,”he noted earlier.
Indeed, in order to make an airplane landing, a rocket must have not only enough fuel to return, but also a whole set of complex, expensive and heavy systems - everything related to wings, landing gear, and so on.
Soyuz-7: in the footsteps of Elon Musk
In recent years, the word "Soyuz" has become a real "curse" for the Russian space industry - because of the confusion in the name. This is how the family of spaceships, Soviet rockets, and the new Irtysh (known as Soyuz-5) are denoted. Special attention should be paid to Soyuz-7 (again, not to be confused with the name of the old spacecraft), which in recent years have been designated two types of promising carriers at once: Soyuz-LNG and the Soyuz-5 version intended for the Sea Launch cosmodrome ("Sea Launch").
Recall that the latter was recently bought out by the Russian group S7. The floating spaceport was seen as a cheap and affordable way to launch a commercial load into orbit, and the founder of S7, Vladislav Filev, was sometimes called the "Russian Elon Musk." But the American dream did not work out: in the end, no one needed the platform. Back in March 2020, the Sea Launch assembly and command ship and the cosmodrome itself arrived at the port of Slavyanka in Primorye. Soon after, he was offered to be cut into scrap metal.
One can talk for a long time about the missed opportunities, but the fact remains: there is no rocket for the cosmodrome now. Deliveries of launch vehicles from Ukraine (Zenits were launched from Sea Launch) are, for obvious reasons, impossible, and there is no new rocket in the face of Soyuz-5. Against this background, the news was especially surprising in May 2020 that the engineers of the Lavochkin NPO intend to soon complete the development of the preliminary design of the Soyuz-7 launch vehicle for the Sea Launch cosmodrome.We even preliminarily chose the upper stage - "Fregat-SBU".
In 2019, it became known that the Russian private company Laros plans to launch the reusable media it has developed for the first time. The height of the single-stage rocket will be 17 meters: they intend to launch from a large car trailer. The prospects for the rocket today are vague: Laros has no experience in creating rockets, and the latest news on the company's official website is dated December 2019.
In general, the rocket is seen to be very similar to the Falcon 9. That is, the first stage should return to Earth vertically, like the SpaceX launch vehicle. “I’ll repeat myself, probably, but a disposable rocket is as 'effective' as a disposable airplane. To create a disposable medium is not even marking time, but a road back,”said Sergey Sopov, ex-head of S7 Space in 2018. The carrier is based on the preliminary design of "Soyuz-5". From this rocket, the promising launch vehicle should inherit the engine, namely the liquid kerosene RD-171, which Sopov called "reusable".
It is difficult to say whether this project once had any prospects, but at this stage it is somewhat naive to believe in its success. Now there is neither Soyuz-5 (that is, a base for a reusable rocket), nor Sea Launch (as an operating complex). And making yourself dependent on the successes / failures of the Energia rocket developing is a risky path.
And what about the aforementioned Soyuz-LNG? In theory, the launch vehicle being developed at the Progress RCC should, in one fell swoop, reduce the gap between Roskosmos and private companies from the United States. According to the head of the space department Dmitry Rogozin, we are talking about a medium rocket, which should replace the Soyuz-2. It will be not only reusable, but also methane: that is, it will use liquefied natural gas as fuel. It must be said that it is methane engines that are now considered the most promising. Methane is inexpensive, has a wide raw material base and, unlike kerosene, does not leave combustion by-products in the form of soot - this is especially important when it comes to multiple use of engines.
However, there is one "but". Now Russia does not have such rocket engines, although back in 2018 Energomash began developing a product that received the designation RD-169. Then it became known that tests of the methane engine could begin in a few years.
Little is known about the capabilities of the new rocket. Its launch mass should be less than that of Soyuz-2, and its payload, on the contrary, should be higher - up to 10 tons into low-earth orbit when launched from Vostochny (Soyuz-2 can put up to 9.2 tons into LEO). How exactly they want to return the first stage is not yet known. However, according to Dmitry Rogozin, if Krylo-SV proves its potential on a light rocket, then it can be used on a medium launch vehicle.
The rocket has ardent supporters: in particular, the former general director of the Khrunichev Center Vladimir Nesterov, who recently announced the advantages of Soyuz-LNG, opposing it to the "unsuccessful" Irtysh. However, words are clearly not enough for a promising methane carrier to get a start in life.
In conclusion, I would like to say that so far Russian reusable technologies exist exclusively on paper and in the future. Today, there are no finished products, no prototypes, or even clear terms for testing such missiles. And competitors, meanwhile, do not stand still. And even if SpaceX does not become tomorrow for some reason, its banner will be proudly carried in the hands of another private company.