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Russia's space exploration: its future lies with bold new projects

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Fri Aug 17, 2007 2:43 pm
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Interview with Nikolai Sevastyanov, a former president of the Energia Space and Rocket Corporation

“Space exploration is no longer just a proud fetish for Russia and other world powers. Venturing out into near-Earth space and using it nowadays is a valuable resource for national development and improvement in the quality of life,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said early this year, defining the role of space research.

Space activities are becoming part of the economic, military and political development of a country.

Nikolai Sevastyanov, a former president of the Energia Space and Rocket Corporation, the flagship company of Russia’s space industry, describes the present state of and future prospects for Russia’s space industry in an exclusive interview with RIA Novosti commentator Andrei Kislyakov.

Question: What characterizes Russian space activities today?

Answer: If we take a look at Russia’s space situation, we will see three distinct programs: a manned program, a program for launch vehicles, and a program for unmanned spacecraft. Current manned systems date from the 1960s. The Soyuz space vehicle, for example, first blasted off in 1967. There were modernizations, of course, but the basic philosophy has remained unchanged – these are all one-off craft.

But the worst thing is that this equipment is manufactured by outdated methods and uses old analogue systems. If we want to keep ahead in manned flights, we should adopt new technologies.

As far as rockets are concerned, the situation is no better. The Soyuz and Proton launch vehicles, our pride, were developed in the 1950s and 1960s. And already today we have to limit payloads orbited by them. The Proton, moreover, poses an environmental risk. As for the Soyuz, it has a problem of cost. The multiple-stage principle on which it is built requires a large number of engines, which account for most of the price. Here, too, we should move to new technologies.

As regards unmanned spacecraft, things have slightly improved in this field since the 2000s, if we refer to communications satellites. Two major programs are currently under way: one is the fully innovatory Yamal program (Nikolai Sevastyanov was one of the developers of this now successfully running program – A. K.) and a program to develop the Express family of upgraded satellites.

But we have practically no Earth observation or remote-sensing satellites. Nor do we have any research satellite in orbit.

In other words, we are exploiting space equipment manufactured with old technologies. And this has a serious impact on the industry’s future. Why? It is not only that we will soon find ourselves non-competitive in performance and cost-benefit characteristics. There is also the problem of personnel. Young workers do not want to produce antiquated models on antiquated equipment. The industry is ageing fast without an injection of fresh blood.

There is another headache. We are lacking a civilian space center of our own. Any country planning to increase its share of the international space market must have its own non-military launching center. Baikonur is, of course, a good facility, but existing legal restrictions stand in the way of investments. Russia and Kazakhstan are on good terms, but there are recurrent bans on Russian rocket launches from Baikonur.

Russia has a space center in the Far East called Svobodny. It could form a good companion to Baikonur, adding to Russia’s capability to launch spacecraft. Investments in new technologies would improve the performance and cost-benefit outlook for space hardware.

Q: What must be done to pursue the three space activities you mentioned?

A: A must is a program based on bold new projects rather than on previous developments. It could provide the occasion not only to retain Russia’s place in the space services market but also to regain its former leadership, attract young people into the industry, and promote related activities.

Last year, the corporation formulated a concept for a manned flight program and set out guidelines for Russia’s space effort till 2050. The corporation’s research council and an Academy of Sciences meeting endorsed them. In 2007, we presented them at academic readings dedicated to the 100th birth anniversary of Sergei Korolyov. The Russian Space Agency, however, has not yet supported them.

The program has four main aspects.

The first deals with a transport system. Today it is of fundamental importance. New developments must be more effective economically than old ones. We have suggested that an integral space transport system be established and, in addition to the Kliper vehicle, a new modern launch rocket developed, also capable of placing satellites in orbit. We have further proposed a space center of our own, as I have said before. The problem of space transport was thus addressed on an integrated basis, not piecemeal.

The second aspect is concerned with the commercial use of near-Earth space. The actual process is already under way. Modern communications satellites offer society exactly a commercially marketable service. This ensures a refund on investments made in communications satellites.

The next stage is Earth observation satellites. In the era of rapid industrial development and exploration of new territories, it is practically impossible to do without remote sensing.

It is also hard to overestimate the role of space navigation. The Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) is being successfully implemented. To know more about Universe, we must have our own scientific satellites.

I would like to stress particularly the manned part of near-Earth activities, and above all the International Space Station (ISS) as an international space port for at least the Russian segment of the station. Semiconductors and biopreparations are today the rage all over the world. Their manufacture can be successfully organized in orbit, using a high vacuum and the absence of gravity.

The third aspect deals with lunar studies. The program to explore the Moon will have an invigorating effect on our science, industry and education, and help combine fundamental research with hands-on activities in different branches.

But it is also necessary to consider the Moon as a source of minerals. This line has many followers and opponents nowadays, and needs careful examination. This brings to mind the way polar aviation came into being. While in the 1930s it could be described as a fashionable sport, today no one doubts that the polar territories cannot be tapped without such aviation. I believe that space, too, will be a well of new resources.

The fourth aspect features the Martian project we developed last year. I am referring to its manned part.

To sum up, we must today go over to new projects with new technical characteristics to obtain a greater economic effect. We should start with the development of a space transport system and a national space center.

Q: How do you assess Energia’s activities?

A: In 2002-2004, the corporation was in a near-bankrupt state. Its revenue was falling, its losses building up.

In 2005, I was asked to return to the company and pull it out of its deep financial crisis. In the same year the company managed to get back into the black. The corporation made its first earnings: revenue grew by 17% on 2004, and profits by 159 million rubles ($6.18 million). In 2006, revenue rose by 38% and profits amounted to 509 million rubles ($19.77 million). The company was able not only to cover the losses of previous years, but also to form its own funds for innovatory development.

Today we have a marketing development plan. The board of directors last December approved a program for development in 2007 and examined a similar program until 2015. The most important thing is that new initiatives were approved: the Kliper in the manned section, and the Yamal-300 satellite in the unmanned part.

In the past two years our engineers have also drawn up a program for the creation of a space transport system of a new generation, called Kliper.

I hope that Energia will carry on with these projects and make them part of a new innovatory program of Russia’s space exploration.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Copyright 2007 RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

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