This will be the last entry in the series. If I write more about rockets in the future, it will be as part of a different series. There is plenty more that is worthy of discussion - but I simply don't have the time to research and discuss too much more for the near future. There are rockets that need launching and paperwork that needs filing, after all . I will be writing a conclusion to the series, and I probably won't be writing more entries for a while, if I do pick it up again. But I hope you've enjoyed what you've read so far - and I want to try to make this one the most enjoyable in the series.
Part 1: (The Basics of) Rocketry and Spaceflight
Part 2: Disasters and Anomalies
Part 3: Reusability and SpaceX
Part 4: NASA
Beyond the borders of the United States, there existed another space-based superpower: the Soviet Union. Starting with the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite in space (appropriately named "satellite" in Russian), it quickly established itself as a force to be reckoned with. Even with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this aspect has not changed; Russia is, as the Soviet Union was, consistently one of the two most advanced and most important nations in the world for space-based technologies.
And yet, precious little is known about the Russians, much less the Soviets, and their rocket technology. There is a language barrier that prevents the average space fan from learning about what Russian space is all about, there is a long-running animosity between Russia and the Western world that makes it difficult to appreciate the work done in that part of the world, there is a history of secrecy that has only recently started to dissipate, and there is a severe lack of high-quality English language reporting about Russia, including its space program. Well today, I'm going to shed some light on that which is largely unknown, with the help of the high-quality Russian-language productions on every aspect of that program that most simply would never have access to.
Unlike in previous entries, where I skimmed over much of the Space Race history due to the fact that the details of projects such as Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle are well-known, I will be covering the lesser-known Soviet history in much more detail. The knowledge of Soviet/Russian space for the average person tends to end at either Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin, so it is much more valuable to cover this history. And although, as many do, I sometimes tend to use Soviet and Russian synonymously, Russia is not the only relevant nation within the Soviet Union that contributed to spacefaring technology, so I will spare some time to talk about the others as well.
The Foundations, The Pioneers
The original fundamentals of the science and the engineering of rocketry were largely pioneered by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian, before the advent of the age of rockets, and developed into a working design by the work of Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, and their successors. I discussed their contributions in some depth in my very first entry; for Russia, as for every other space power, these were the pioneers who helped make rockets a viable concept. The Soviet story really begins, as most good stories about the modern era do, with the end of World War II.
The German rocket scientists under Hermann Oberth were the first to make a viable rocket, and as such German rocket scientists were in high demand at the end of the war. The United States got the lion's share of these scientists; under Operation Paperclip their talents were co-opted to help create the American space program. The German scientist/engineer, Wernher von Braun, was in many ways the father of the American space program. The Soviets did not get quite as many of those scientists - they were able to find some German scientists who worked under von Braun to help build up their program, but it was ultimately Soviet nationals who led the Soviet program.
Two individuals within the Soviet program are particularly worth mentioning: Sergey Korolev and Valentin Glushko.
Both men were Ukrainians, both imprisoned in WWII and worked as scientists within prison, and both helped to build from the ground up the world-class Soviet space program. At the end of World War II, they were both sent to Germany, among other scientists, to learn the secrets of German rocketry from the German scientists that the USSR managed to scrape together - and then went on to lead their own design bureaus within the Soviet Union. Sergey Korolev led the OKB-1 Bureau, which eventually became Rocket Space Corporation (RSC) Energia, which is currently responsible for the Soyuz program (the Russian ISS cargo/manned launch rocket launch family). Glushko started by leading OKB 456, which later became NPO (NGO) Energomash, the most famous engine-building company in Russia today (which produces the RD-180 engine sold for the American Atlas rocket), and later took up the leadership of Energia shortly after Korolev's death. Not-so-surprisingly, this is each man's respective legacy: Korolev is the father of Soviet/Russian manned spaceflight, and Glushko is the chief engine-builder of the USSR. Another man worth a brief mention is Vladimir Chelomei (who was mostly involved in aircraft and missile design), the man responsible for the creation of the Universal Rocket, one of the most important rockets of the Soviet/Russian space programs, which will be discussed shortly.
Before we start discussing rockets, however, it's important to discuss the genesis of the Soviet space program. In the aftermath of the truly brutal Eastern Front theater of World War II (where 80% of German casualties occurred), the USSR had been severely damaged. About 30 million Soviet citizens were killed, many from battle, but many more from the total war tactics employed by the Nazis and the part of the population that was killed in the Holocaust. And yet, the battle was not yet over; there was every indication that the once-allies that the USSR fought alongside in WWII, most notably Britain and the US, sought to destroy the USSR. Indeed, there was such a plan - known as Operation Unthinkable - that was set to be executed immediately following WWII. It was clear that that strategy would have failed - but it was also clear that this would not be the only existential threat posed by the West, especially after the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. Although the Soviet Union shortly developed their own nuclear weapon - which was completed in 1949 - a nuclear weapon is no good if you have no means by which to launch it. And that's where rockets came in - an intercontinental ballistic missile would be that capacity which would allow for a truly effective deterrence mechanism.
Based on this origin, it should be no surprise that Soviet rocketry was a military venture, shrouded in the secrecy one would expect from that aspect of it. Only recently did all the secrets of this program of the past become known to the public. But another important aspect of Soviet and Russian rocketry is a focus on the long-term; that is, when a craft is created, how can we make it useful not just for this mission that is in front of us, but for future missions that we are likely to attempt? This leads to much more continuity between projects than would be found in the American space program, which often leaves many rockets of the past behind as it moves to create new ones. And finally, you will find that for a wide range of reasons (labor costs, supply chains, modular design, scale of production), rockets produced by the Soviets and their successors tend to be significantly cheaper than their American counterparts of comparable purpose.
The Early Years: From Semyorka to Vostok
The first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R7 Semyorka, was developed in Russia by Korolev's OKB-1 design bureau, starting in 1953. In August 1957, the missile had its first successful launch - and it took only until October to launch Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite ever deployed, into space on a stripped-down version of the same R-7 launcher. In short order, the USSR completed a few more important milestones - the first animal in space (Laika the dog, on Sputnik II in 1957), an atmospheric satellite on Sputnik 3 (1958), and the first successful round trip (Belka and Strelka the dogs, on Korabl-Sputnik 2 in 1960). Finally, on April 12, 1961, the crowning achievement: the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into space on the Vostok 1. All of these happened on the same R7 launch craft. Shortly after: the first woman in space, the first spacewalk, and many other firsts that set the stage for the Space Race.
Before we go any further, let's spare a moment to talk about the space program that allowed these missions to come to be. As mentioned before, the Soviet program was a largely militaristic one - and it was also decentralized into a series of independent design bureaus that each worked on their own aspect of rocket design. The first major achievement, of course, was the R-7 Semyorka, the world's first ICBM and the template for many generations of Soviet and Russian rockets to come.
If this design looks familiar, it is because it is one still used by Russia to this day. After a series of iterative improvements, the R7 design became the Soyuz rocket, which is one of the most reliable rockets in Russia that is used to this day. That development occurred in the 60s and beyond, and you can see a lot of design similarity between the very first and the ones that follow.
The capsules followed a similar development - from Sputnik, to Vostok, to Voskhod, to Soyuz. And although this development occurred in the mid-to-late 1960s, it is interesting to note that both the manned capsule and the rocket known as Soyuz came out of the very first spacecraft that ever flew from the USSR.
40 years later, launching the same old thing - with a few upgrades, of course.
Besides the spacecraft, the infrastructure of the Soviet space program was developed during this time. Most important was the launch pad in Kazakhstan - the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a massive facility for testing, assembling, and launching rockets. Shortly after, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome was made in the Plesetsk region of Russia - a smaller cosmodrome ("launch facility") used mostly for military launches and missile testing. For the next 60 years, these two launch sites, especially Baikonur, would be the infrastructure that would allow the USSR to launch its rockets.
Baikonur in all its glory.
To the Moon
The news of Sputnik - and the events that followed - came as a shock to the US. How was it that a country full of peasants such as the USSR could beat the US into space? Of course, to those familiar with rocketry, this would have been no surprise - the Soviets were top tier rocket scientists - but the average person would not have known this due to the lack of general knowledge about the USSR. Nevertheless, the US sought to catch up - first by completing all of those milestones that the Soviets accomplished, but also to complete a manned Moon landing before the end of the 1960s. With all the economic power of the US and an absurd influx of cash, the newly established NASA was given that task - and was ordered to waste anything and everything but time in pursuit of that goal.
Although it was only much later revealed, the Soviets too attempted to complete a manned lunar landing - although with a mission that was quite different from the American one. The mission itself was a failure - constrained by the incompetence of the Khrushchev administration under which it developed. He made a few key missteps in the mission to land on the moon - declining an invitation to cooperate with the US program (a good way to help defuse Cold War tensions by working together on an important mission that would benefit all of humanity), starting the program late and expecting early results (directly responsible for many preventable mishaps in the years to come), and arguably starting the program in the first place. Although a lot of good did come to the Soviet space sphere from the developments associated with the manned lunar program, the main rocket - the N-1 - was a rather poor design and nowhere near ready by the time the Americans finally landed Apollo 11 in July 1969.
In truth, I don't think that the Soviets should have pursued a Moon landing - the Americans wanted it more, and they were willing to spend any amount of money to get there (and it cost about $200 billion in today's dollars to get there). The Soviets did not want to spend that kind of money (their lunar program probably cost about $30 billion in today's dollars) and being first simply didn't have the kind of advantage that would make it worth it. Certainly, national pride was important - but in this case it was probably best to fold on this specific venture. Nevertheless, a few years late, the order was made: a manned orbit by 1967, and a manned landing by 1968.
The manned orbit involved the Proton rocket and the Zond-L1, an early model of the Soyuz capsule. The Proton rocket was also developed in the 60s as part of Vladimir Chelomei's Universal Rocket program (a standardized ICBM / launch vehicle architecture created to allow many parts to be common between them). There are still rockets from that program that fly today - including the Proton-M heavy launch vehicle and the Rokot light launch vehicle. This was yet another program that was originally envisioned in the early Soviet rocket years that survived to the present day.
In the 1960s, we didn't understand rockets as well as we do now - and heavy lift rockets like Proton were a whole lot of trouble. While the first Proton launched successfully, the 1960s were littered with the graves of unsuccessful Proton attempts, which were made worse by the fact that Proton is an all-hydrazine rocket and was therefore extremely toxic when it exploded. Nevertheless, Proton did improve over the years - and that program netted the USSR one important achievement: the first live-creature orbit of the Moon with a Proton-L1 orbit with turtles. Unfortunately they were soon followed by Apollo 8, a manned orbit, rendering the achievement kind of moot. Proton, however, did find a use: it was originally designed as a multi-purpose heavy-launch rocket, and for the decades to follow it would execute that role quite successfully.
The real disappointment of the Soviet lunar program, however, was their rocket created for a manned launch: the N-1, an all-kerosene rocket of the same scale as the Saturn V and with little of that modular capability that Soviets were generally known for. It was one of the first serious attempts at creating a massive rocket from small engines - and the Soviets got far more than they bargained for in the process.
The Saturn V, the N-1, and some human in the middle.
Featuring a whopping 30 engines on the first stage, and thirteen between the second, third, and fourth, it was a horrendously complex design - with plumbing that made it tough to ensure that the rocket would work correctly. Although that design - many smaller engines - did end up a staple of Soviet and Russian rocket design, this early attempt was plagued by unreasonable deadlines and poor quality control. Four N-1 tests were launched, and all four failed. The people involved in the program who later commented on it said that they thought it would probably have taken until 1975 to make the rocket work, and a little longer to make a Moon landing successfully. Korolev died in 1966 - and after a brief and unsuccessful leadership by his #2, Vasiliy Mishin (a good engineer but an inept manager), Valentin Glushko took over the leading role in the Soviet space program - and he successfully pushed to cancel the program outright. Though the decision left a lot of bitterness and was motivated in part by a rivalry between Glushko and Korolev, the decision to cancel the program was probably a good one; the program would have succeeded if enough money and time were poured into it, but it was choking the other projects of the space program.
A good thing that did come out of that program, though, was the Soyuz capsule - a version of which was developed for both the N1 and the Proton. The N-1 Soyuz craft came with its own lunar lander - a smaller, more rugged version of the American one that could only land one person, but that was equipped with more reliable engines that would not have stranded the astronauts on the Moon in case of one of two engines failing (whereas for Apollo that would leave said astronauts stranded on the Moon with no means by which to survive).
The Soyuz lunar orbiter-lander craft
The lander itself
After the cancellation of the N-1, 70 or so spare NK-33 engines that were left for the program were left to sit in storage for decades - until they found use just recently as an interim design for the Soyuz-2.1v craft. The Soyuz capsule itself, configured for a lunar mission, was kept and upgraded for the decades to come and continued to be used. Interestingly, even though the program was a horrible failure overall, more was preserved from the Soviet lunar attempt - the Proton, the NK-33s, the Soyuz capsule - than from the successful Apollo program (neither the Apollo lander, Saturn V, nor its main F-1 engines were ever used in any meaningful capacity ever since).
Mir and Energia
The loss in the Moon race was unfortunate, however predictable, but the space program continued on. In the 70s and 80s, two major projects took center stage: the Mir space station, and the Energia rocket. Although the previous lines - Soyuz and Proton, most notably - continued to function, these projects were both expensive science projects that took center stage. The space station Mir cost about $4 billion over its lifetime (not that bad for a space station, but it did get quite expensive in a troubling time), and Energia cost $15 billion (which is pretty good compared to the equivalent and less effective design of the Space Shuttle that cost $200 billion, but still very expensive).
Mir was an early attempt at a space station, and a precursor to the ISS. Building on the Salyut space station that preceded it, Mir was an orbiting lab whose primary goal was to study the effects of long-duration space missions. Its goal was to operate for five years - it survived for fifteen before ultimately being deorbited. Although much stink was made about the many problems that Mir faced in its operation, it's hard to say that a station that got as much data as it did and operated for three times its intended lifespan was a failure. As with the ISS, each of these stations were built on the back of Proton launches.
The other project - my personal favorite of any rocket ever created - was the Energia. Seeing the development of the Space Shuttle, the Soviets saw that it was likely not worth it as a space taxi as the Americans envisioned - but that there was a danger of the orbiter being used as an orbital bomber, a weapon dangerous enough to pose a significant threat if there were no countermeasure. So the USSR started development on its own version of the Shuttle: a spaceplane known as the Buran.
Interested in quick development times, the Soviet engineers copied the shape and form of the original Shuttle in order to be able to piggyback on the wealth of aerodynamic data that the original Shuttle provided. But beyond that, it was an all new - and in many respects superior - design. The Buran could fly like an airplane off the ground, operate without a human pilot, was significantly cheaper to produce, and was damaged less after its flight (on the first and only Buran flight, only 8 out of 38,000 thermal tiles needed replacement). The critical design decision that really made the program what it was, though, was the launch vehicle itself. Rather than the external tank and solid rocket boosters design as on the Shuttle, the thrust was provided almost exclusively by the vehicle on which the Buran launched: the Energia, a massive multi-purpose super-heavy rocket.
Buran on the Energia
The brainchild of Valentin Glushko, the Energia was a beauty of a rocket. It had four boosters, each of which was powered by one RD-170 - the full-sized four-chamber version of the RD-180, and the best kerosene engine ever built. The core had four hydrogen engines, a departure from Glushko's own previous skepticism of hydrogen as fuel. The Energia was not used just for the Buran - it also launched the Polyus, a vehicle meant to be a satellite killer, which failed shortly after the Energia deployed it. It was meant as a multi-purpose modular superheavy vehicle - and I have always thought and continue to think that if Russia sends people to the Moon, it will be on the back of an Energia.
Energia, unfortunately, died due to a lack of funding after the end of the USSR - at the moment, the grandiose projects that it would have undertaken simply were not feasible. However, the boosters themselves were reformed into a standalone craft - the Ukrainian Zenit - and the RD-170 had many single-chamber or dual-chamber derivatives that sold well and were used quite well for other craft. But the story of Energia ends here... at least for the moment.
The Time of Trouble: the 1990s
As a largely government program, it goes without saying that the Soviet space program took a brutal hit upon the collapse of the USSR. Energia in particular lost most of its meaning; at the cost of any mission that Energia might complete, there was no chance that it would actually complete. Mir, as troublesome as it was, limped on. Soyuz limped on as well. But Proton? It managed to thrive - finding a new life as a commercial satellite launcher.
The 90s saw one of the first booms in the commercial satellite business - and Russia opened its doors to launching satellites on the back of Proton, because the money really did help keep the space program alive. In addition, the cooperation of Russia on the construction of the ISS was highly sought after - officially to keep Russian scientists for working for rogue groups, but undeniably to leverage the significant capabilities of the Russians in space station construction. Proton helped build the station, and Soyuz (both manned and cargo) has been and continues to be the primary workhorse that services the station. Sporting a six-month mission length, it was easily superior for launching manned missions to the absurdly expensive Space Shuttle - and the cargo trips were fairly cheap as well. In the face of a collapsing economy, despite many mishaps, the program did survive.
But it was undeniable that the economic rot around the space program did take its toll on the space program. This manifested in many forms, and that the space program survived as intact as it did is a testament to its superb architecture. But there were issues: politics between Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan were more strained than they were in the USSR, the manifestation of a demotivated workforce and a corrupt oligarchy, the temporary collapse of government funding, and so on. We will start by talking about Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and then focus the rest of the discussion on the undeniable core of the entire space program, Russia.
In truth, there is not all that much to post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Though it is friendly enough to Russia, it has very much lost any of the commitment to space that existed in the Soviet years. For the most part, their contribution is that the Baikonur Cosmodrome exists within Kazakhstan - and they charge $115 million a year for access to it. With as much Soviet era infrastructure as there is in the area, that's a small price to pay - but beyond that Kazakhstan steps in only to complain about environmental fallout from Proton failures, and not much else.
Baikonur won't be used forever; Russia has a lease until 2050 on the cosmodrome, but it has given every indication that it will phase out usage of that launch site over the years until there is not much reason to continue to use it. After that, Kazakhstan won't have much - just a launch site without much in the way of customers. It has expressed interest in renting the site out to other countries for space launches - possibly Europeans or Japan - and it wouldn't surprise me if they got a few interested parties in the future. But for now, they simply charge rent and have no follow-up for when the most important tenant inevitably leaves.
Ukraine was always a rather important player within the Soviet rocket industry, and found some business afterwards. Their Zenit launcher was the rocket of choice for the Sea Launch joint venture between Russia, Ukraine, the US, and some European nations. The Sea Launch project had an oil rig turned launchpad as a launching site, and was moderately successful in the 1990s and 2000s.
Ukraine, unfortunately, has a Russia problem. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have existed for decades - and most strongly came to a head after the Crimean crisis in 2014. That made it difficult for Russia to get spare parts for many of its important rockets - the 800+ launch Soyuz-U with a 98% reliability record had to be retired because of this, and Zenit will have to be replaced - but it also essentially shut Ukraine out of their entire space business. Sea Launch was also put on hold in the aftermath of Crimea, and eventually its assets were acquired by a series of Russian owners.
But more importantly, Ukraine has been a fairly lousy supplier of parts and rockets over the years. Many of the failures of Sea Launch can be traced to shoddy design from Ukraine on the Zenit launcher - and lost payloads were the result. Many Russian rocket failures could also be traced back to poorly manufactured Ukrainian parts - and some speculate malice on the part of Ukraine. But that makes it really hard for Ukraine to find any customers - Russia won't particularly want to work with Ukraine once the current crisis subsides, and Ukraine will have a hard time finding any customers in its current state. A once important role in the Soviet space program is slowly shifting from Ukraine to domestic Russian production - and in truth there is little likelihood that Ukraine will be able to reverse that tide.
However, there is one other important player relevant to Ukraine: China. Unsurprisingly, China is out for technology - and a cash strapped Ukraine drowning in debt is desperate to make money. Unfortunately, Ukrainian industry is quite damaged as well - so the best they can really do is sell Soviet-era technology to China. And not even the craft - just the technical specifications for a couple million dollars. China has acquired some of the Soviet space secrets as a result of these purchases of military technology - including specifications for the lunar lander that the USSR built. This should give an indication of about how healthy Ukraine's industry is at present.
The only post-Soviet player that isn't all doom and gloom. But there are problems here too. In the 90s, commercial transactions filled the hole in the space program treasury - Proton found a customer base, Russia's share in Sea Launch brought in some money, the sale of RD-180 engines by NPO Energomash to the owners of Atlas (General Dynamics, Martin Marietta, Lockheed Martin, and eventually United Launch Alliance) helped keep that production line running. Soyuz rockets are occasionally sold to Arianespace - the medium-lift capacity at a low price and high reliability is enticing. And finally, selling Soyuz seats made manned missions cheaper - some were sold to NASA, others to space tourists.
Much of that money is going to start to fade, though - and Russia needs to find new replacements for many of these cash cows. Sea Launch has been put on hold; a Russian airliner wishes to bring it back but that will take time. NASA is developing the Commercial Crew program - and while it's unlikely that the CC craft will be able to be as good as Soyuz (in price or effectiveness), there is a strong political desire not to rely on Russia to get people into space. There is a push to phase out use of the RD-180 - and while that phase-out may be delayed, it is clear that the RD-180 won't be used forever in the quantity it is used now. And SpaceX's low prices have made business tougher for Proton - many customers have been attracted by the low prices of Falcon and went for that launcher (some may switch back, SpaceX may not profit, but regardless it is a problem to lose customers).
Fortunately, the Russian government is not as poor as it used to be, so there is a much lesser threat to the Russian space program than in the 1990s. The economic fate of Russia will determine if it can pursue its most ambitious missions - such as a Moon base - but for now, there is little doubt that the program will live on. The only problem is, there are a lot of demons that have been buried for decades that need to be fixed.
The first problem is that of corruption and loss of worker morale. Many of the launch failures of the past decade can be traced back to ineffective work by the employees that build the rocket - a departure from the militaristic precision of the past. The reason is not too hard to see: launch employees have been paid far too little, and the industry has far too many people that perform redundant tasks. This leads to lazy work, falsification of inspection results, siphoning cash, and endless other problems. As the general spectre of corruption over Russia starts to lift - with the slow but effective dismissal of the problematic elements of that corrupt society - things are starting to improve. But this has led to many problems and will continue to lead to problems in the future.
The most biting example of these factors leading to failure was discovered just a year ago, when Proton-M was taken out of service to investigate an issue with underperformance of a second stage. One inspection led to another, and soon it was found that at an important manufacturing facility, documents were being falsified and important structural components were being swapped for cheaper, less reliable ones. A year later, Proton launched again, and did not run into any issues. Although manufacturing and corruption issues are far from over, things are certainly getting better - and one can be hopeful that Proton's dark days are behind it.
Another problem is dependence on old Soviet technologies and infrastructure. The problems with Ukraine have already been discussed; Ukraine is a difficult country to work with and has even worse manufacturing issues; much work was done to replace Ukrainian production with equivalent Russian domestic work. Kazakhstan and Baikonur are another problem - although the $115 million is not that expensive (between that and Baikonur repairs, Roscosmos spends about 4% of its money - not bad for its most important launch station), it is clear that new infrastructure should not be built in a rented property. So Russia has moved many of its launches to its military Plesetsk cosmodrome, which is hampered by being somewhat too far to the north (less efficient launches the further you are from the equator), but is in Russia so has seen more use. Proton and the manned Soyuz variants only have a launch pad in Baikonur, so they will be used there for now - but Russia intends to phase it out.
Towards that end, Russia has been building a new cosmodrome in the Far East: Vostochniy ("Eastern"). Although the standard blend of corruption issues has made that job more difficult than one would like, the new launch station has been coming together well - and is mostly awaiting the completion of its intended craft and the necessary launch pads to build and launch them on.
Inaugural Launch: Soyuz 2.1a
Another problem that Russia has, however, is Proton itself. As compared to a past government that was far more concerned about simply having successful launches, the environmental effects of hydrazine spills is now not insignificant enough to be ignored - and so Proton is going to be on its way out. For now, Proton's needed missions will be carried out in Baikonur, but it has a successor that will be launched from Vostochniy: Angara.
Started in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, Angara was originally seen as a means by which to move past old Soviet technology - and its design has changed enough over the past 22 years for one to wonder where it stands right now. This rocket is being built by the Khrunichev Space Center, the producer of the rocket - a contract that was received by a combination of nepotism and being afloat in the 1990s. In 2014, Angara made two flights - one each of the A5 heavy (five core) rocket and the small 1.2 rocket. Since then, nothing.
Why? An uncertainty of scope. The Angara is built around a concept called the Universal Rocket Module - a successor to the Universal Rocket, with a variable number of cheap, mass-produced launch cores (each with a RD-191, a 1/4 size RD-170 produced with very efficient modern manufacturing technology). Unfortunately, it's not clear exactly which Angara variants need to be built. A replacement for the Proton is a necessity, so Angara A5 will likely survive - but a lot of Angara's medium capability and manned capability has been taken over by an upgraded Soyuz called the Feniks (which will launch the Federatsiya, an upgrade on the Soyuz capsule meant for long-duration missions), so at this point it might be the only variant that makes it. And there was a goal of having Moon missions on that rocket - that got mothballed for reasons I will discuss shortly. But nevertheless, it's a rocket that promises to be cheaper than Proton (the goal is $40 million per launch, which might be achievable) and more effective too (using the more traditional combination of kerosene first stage, hydrogen upper stage).
So why did Angara's Moon missions get cancelled? As of late 2016: the reason became clear: Russia is reviving the Energia program and building a newer version of the same monstrosity that carried the Buran. That decision leverages a fantastic, proven design, and in my eyes is the best chance Russia has to make the Moon base a reality. If the economy can sustain that rocket, there is a very good chance that Russia will be able to make that manned Moon base by 2030.
And what about the ISS? I mentioned before that without Russia, the station would not exist and will not exist if Russia pulls out. That is because there is nothing anywhere close to as important to that station as Soyuz. Losing that capacity would mean that there would be little chance that the other partners would be able to pick up the slack. And that station is currently agreed to last only until 2024.
So why is Russia not too fond of the ISS? Frankly, it's just too expensive and it's keeping much of the other work Russia would like to do in the backburner for lack of funding. Russia does need a space station - and as the ISS dies, Russia intends to detach its own module on the station to create a smaller laboratory that is essentially another Mir: a small, planned to be permanent, station for exploring the long-term effects of human space travel. Russia is mostly waiting on the completion of the Nauka module ("Science") - and after that it is ready to agree on an end date for the station. At this point, it does seem like 2024 will really be the end of the station - as Russia wants to move on to its other projects.
The Russian space program is, for all intents and purposes, the inheritor of the legacy of the Soviet space program. Although it has opened up much more than in the past - more public engagement, a civilian program, selling launches to foreigners, and a dedicated central science-based organization - it bears both the troubles and the achievements of the past. The future, if it can be funded, looks quite bright: the best of the current rockets are set to continue to survive, the space industry has embraced the power of modern manufacturing techniques, and there is a viable means - a craft, a mission, a cash source - by which Russia can attain its longer term goals.
In recent times, one might note that Russian space has not been getting the best press. But here's the dirty secret: Russian space achievements seldom get good press in the West. Before Sputnik, no one even realized that Russia was a player, much less a dominant one. As the USSR built a space fleet that has thrived for half a century, few have took notice. As Mir orbited for 15 years, attention was drawn mostly to its flaws rather than its successes. And that aspect - a slow, but deliberate and continuous, march towards improvement - has never faded. As a better economy develops out of the ashes of a damaged post-Soviet world, there will be a chance to once again chase the future, rather than, as we tend to do these days regardless of where we live, merely seeking to live up to our own past.
Conclusion to the Series
Well, this is it: the full story of the world of rockets that I sought to share. Although this is but a small piece of that world, this should give everybody a taste of what I hoped to pass on: an appreciation of the world of rockets, of the struggles that go into making them work, and into the goals that we as rocket engineers seek to achieve.
I know that many folks think that we stopped dreaming, that we stopped chasing the stars - and that Elon Musk and SpaceX are the only ones that are really interested in that anymore. In truth, I cannot blame those that do that - there really is too little of a sense of that collective wonder left in the work that NASA does, and it's unlikely that the infrastructural work of the Air Force will inspire anybody. But rest assured: there is a whole world of work being done out there on making our space dreams closer to reality, step by step.
You don't need to promise that which cannot be delivered to inspire confidence in a future among the stars - the realities of what can be done and what is being done are every bit as interesting as the fantasies of futuristic worlds that are well beyond our grasp. Sure, that interesting work does come with quite a lot of tedium - the reality of engineering is that you have to do a lot of boring work to achieve those results that inspire people.
Money is a problem, and it always has been. We cannot simply hope that the money will simply materialize when we need it - the impulse of "we should be focusing on taking care of people down here rather than going to space" is far too strong to be ignored. And that is why we have to stick together - every country, every company, we have to work together if we want to achieve the most lofty goals we wish to achieve. We went to the Moon - and then never went again because the money dried out. But we built a space station together - and we've been keeping it up together. We could go to the moon together as well.
For the near future, this is the end of my rocketry blogs. If I choose to continue them, there will be another theme to it all, and a different name. But before we conclude, I do have a few final remarks. First of all, I appreciate those who read what I wrote - I know that few people are interested enough to do so, but I have seen that the few who are have gotten enough out of it to make the effort worthwhile. And second, I want you all to remember this: the only way we succeed is together. The work is tough and the finances are tougher - but the goals are worth it. Only together can we achieve them - not by sabotaging those who we do not like, not by allowing rivalries to dominate, but by working little by little, piece by piece, towards a better tomorrow. That is the most important lesson that the Soviet space program always tried to instill in its citizenry - and it is one that all of us, all around the world, should learn to take to heart.