Russia starts ambitious super-heavy space rocket project

On the 25th anniversary of the historic flight of the Soviet space shuttle Buran, Russia’s Roscosmos space agency has formed a working group to prepare “within weeks” a roadmap for the revival of the Energia super-heavy booster rocket.

The group led by Oleg Ostapenko, the new head of Roscosmos Federal Space Agency, is set to draw up proposals on the design of a super-heavy launch vehicle capable of delivering up to 100 tonnes of payload to the baseline orbit, former Soviet minister of general machine building, Oleg Baklanov, said on Friday.

"You have assumed the responsibility and dared to head the group, which is supposed to find an answer to the question how we can regain the position we demonstrated to the world with the launch of a 100-tonne spacecraft [Buran in 1988] within a few weeks," the ex-minister told Ostapenko at the event dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the flight of the Buran shuttle spacecraft.  

The new carrier rocket Angara is set to become the base for the ambitious project that could bring Russia back to its heyday of space exploration. It could be launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome which is now being constructed in Russia’s Far East, and will replace Kazakhstan’s Baikonur as Russia’s main launchpad.

The Buran orbiter landing at the Baikonur space center.(RIA Novosti / Alexander Mokletsov)

The 1988 launch of the Energia super-heavy rocket carrying the Buran space shuttle proved the rocket was capable of delivering 100 tonnes into orbit. That was five times more than the Proton-M rocket with a 20-tonne payload, thus making it the most powerful Soviet/Russian booster rocket ever developed.

As the International Space Station is scheduled to be taken out of service around 2020, ex-minister Baklanov explained that such a powerful rocket would allow the construction of a new orbital station “larger in its weight and dimensions.” Also, a booster similar to the Soviet Energia would be indispensable for “exploring outer space in a wise manner, working in shifts on Mars, the Moon and so on,” he added.

At the same media conference, president of the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation Vitaly Lopota announced that Russia will soon need super-heavy rockets to create a shield against possible future space weapons - which means deploying into orbit massive communications satellites and electronic warfare platforms.

‘Nothing better has been created’

On the 25th anniversary of the Buran flight, Ostapenko acknowledged that the Soviet Union’s achievements in space exploration remain an example for today’s research.

“Human ingenuity created the Energia-Buran system 25 years ago,” Ostapenko told the audience. “I am confident that events comparable by their scale are in store for us,” he said.

In his speech, ex-minister Baklanov claimed that “nothing new has been designed” in the 25 years which have passed since the creation of the Energia-Buran system. He warned that “a point of no return is very close,” and said there are only years left to recuperate the space industry to the previous level and keep the groundwork.

The Energiya carrier rocket at the launch site, the Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan.(RIA Novosti / Skryinikov)

We have a colossal amount of work to do,” Ostapenko said, pointing out that only the experience of previous generations of scientists could ensure success.

Our country has got huge potential; all we need to do is let the experienced professionals do their job the best way to ensure their self-actualization. I know we can do it. We’ve got strong support from the government, we’ve got thorough understanding of the tasks lying ahead,” Ostapenko said.

Comparable to the US Space Shuttle, Buran completed only one unmanned spaceflight in 1988, as the Buran program was scrapped in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and lack of funding.

Soviet shuttle ahead of its time

The Soviet Union’s Energia/Buran exceeded the American space shuttle program by practically all capabilities, according to a report prepared by experts of the All-Russian Research Institute of Aviation Materials. The analysis is dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Buran’s only performed launch into space.

Buran could stay in orbit for 30 days, while the American shuttle had a 15-day time limit. It could deliver into orbit 30 tonnes of cargo, compared to the US shuttle’s 24 tonnes of cargo. It could carry a crew of 10 cosmonauts, while the American shuttle could carry seven astronauts. Preparation for the Energia/Buran launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome only took 15 days. However, it took one month of preparations before the US shuttle was launched from Cape Canaveral.

The Energia rocket booster could be used to launch various payloads into orbit, whereas the American shuttle’s booster was one-task. A year and a half before the Buran launch, Energia was launched with a full-scale mock-up of the Skif-DM orbital combat laser platform weighing 77 tonnes, measuring 37 meters long, and over four meters in diameter. Though the mock-up failed to reach the desired orbit and fell into the Pacific, the Energia booster did its job fine, delivering the huge space platform into intermediate orbit, 110 kilometers above the earth’s surface.

But the most important difference from the American model was that the Soviet spaceship could perform the flight and landing in totally automatic mode, which it brilliantly demonstrated on November 15, 1988. 

Director General of the Vostochny cosmodrome Sergei Sklyarov and head of Roscosmos Federal Space Agency Oleg Ostapenko, right, at the Vostochny cosmodrome in the Amur region.(RIA Novosti / Svetlana Majorova)
Buran’s American counterpart used to land with switched-off engines, meaning it could make only one landing attempt. The Soviet spacecraft could take several tries if needed.

When Buran approached Baikonur Cosmodrome and started landing in 1988, its sensors registered too strong side winds and the robotic system sent the huge machine for another rectangular traffic pattern approach, successfully landing the spacecraft on a second try.

The Buran shuttle was designed to perform 100 flights to space, while its engines were ready to do 66 flights without replacement. During its flight, it lost just eight of its unique thermal-insulation tiles out of 38,800.

The Energia/Buran program, which cost 16.5 billion Soviet rubles, lasted 18 years and united over 1,200 industrial sites throughout the Soviet Union.

Thirty-nine principally new materials and around 230 absolutely new technologies were developed during Buran’s creation. Most of them are actively used in Russia’s aeronautical and space industries today.

Watch the footage of Buran’s historic landing:

But the most important difference from the American model was that the Soviet spaceship could perform the flight and landing in totally automatic mode, which it brilliantly demonstrated on November 15, 1988.

Buran’s American counterpart used to land with switched-off engines, meaning it could make only one landing attempt. The Soviet spacecraft could take several tries if needed.

When Buran approached Baikonur Cosmodrome and started landing in 1988, its sensors registered too strong side winds and the robotic system sent the huge machine for another rectangular traffic pattern approach, successfully landing the spacecraft on a second try.

The Buran shuttle was designed to perform 100 flights to space, while its engines were ready to do 66 flights without replacement. During its flight, it lost just eight of its unique thermal-insulation tiles out of 38,800.

The Energia/Buran program, which cost 16.5 billion Soviet rubles, lasted 18 years and united over 1,200 industrial sites throughout the Soviet Union.

Thirty-nine principally new materials and around 230 absolutely new technologies were developed during Buran’s creation. Most of them are actively used in Russia’s aeronautical and space industries today.