The successful launch of the Crew Dragon manned spacecraft made the United States the undisputed leaders in the space sphere
Conversation with pilot-cosmonaut, Hero of Russia Fyodor Yurchikhin about the situation in the domestic space industry and about the stellar prospects of others and their own.
Fyodor Nikolaevich, the Crew Dragon flight allowed Trump to declare that the US is now “number one” in space. Didn’t that shock you?
Nary. Without a doubt, the Americans are the leaders. In recent years, it has been common to say that they lag behind us in terms of manned programs, or rather, in terms of means of delivering crews to orbit, but the space industry is not limited to them alone. We focused on them only because such programs are the few where we have remained afloat, and we have not been particularly successful in other areas. Let’s remember. The last Martian program in 2011 ended in failure (“Phobos-grunt” did not leave even near-earth orbit), although it was promised to repeat the flight to Mars in the next time “Windows” (in two to four years), but it was not repeated and is not yet going to.
Meanwhile, the American Mars Rover Curiosity successfully launched in the same 2011 and subsequently transmitted to Earth a lot of interesting information about the red planet. Remember that Curiosity became the heaviest payload (899 kg) in the history of Mars exploration. Let’s also compare the terms of preparation of these missions: “Phobos-grunt” was approved as a project in 1998, and the formation of proposals for Curiosity 2004. For many years, Americans have been exploring deep space using the Hubble telescope, preparing its replacement, and regularly sending apparatuses to various planets in the Solar system. The us satellite group has about 900 devices, China has about 300, and Russia has about 150. US commercial space programs are not just about Elon Musk.
Founder Amazon.com Jeffrey Bezos created the aerospace company Blue Origin and the returnable new Glenn launch vehicle back in 2000 and is testing it. Not surprisingly, last year, NASA selected Blue Origin to develop and produce prototype spacecraft for the moon landing as part of the new American Artemis program. The US already has a launch vehicle for a manned ship-the Falcon — 9 (more than 80 successful launches have been carried out). The success of Crew Dragon means that the US now has a manned ship. What about us? There is no new ship, no super-heavy carrier. “Angara-5” (just one launch) will not replace the “Proton”in any way. Why was the USSR once a leader in space exploration? Maybe because the industry employed people who had raved about space since childhood?
That’s probably not the only reason
Not only. In the book “Cosmonautics of the XXI century. Attempt to forecast development to 2101”, published in 2010, is a Chapter written by one of the outstanding Soviet design scientists, academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Boris yevseevich Chertok. He’s writing: “The powerful scientific apparatus of NASA is developing not only technology, but also a strategy for the future of cosmonautics. Unfortunately, there is no similar intellectual potential apparatus at the state level in Russia.” Or here’s another: “The American government Agency-NASA is vested with great powers: all Federal spending on space, with the exception of purely military, is implemented through or under the control of NASA. The annual budget of NASA in 2009 exceeded the space budget of Russia by almost 10 times. Under these initial conditions, there is no doubt that in the next 10-15 years, a new super-heavy carrier and a manned ship will be created in the United States… And they will do it in the next 8-10 years.” Boris Yevseyevich was right! In the summer of 2018, Elon Musk (SpaceX) launched a super-heavy launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy. Since the launch was a trial, the only payload was the head of the company’s personal electric car-a cherry-colored Tesla Roadster with a dummy driver dressed in A SpaceX spacesuit. We called everything that happened PR. But what kind of PR can we talk about if Falcon Heavy has done its job? And why do we keep silent about the fact that there have already been three successful launches of the Falcon Heavy? Let me remind you that only two successful launches out of two in the USSR of the super-heavy carrier rocket Energia, which we proudly abandoned in the 90s of the last century. Our experts compare the RD-180, which we sell to the US, and SpaceX’s Merlin. Not in favor of the latter, of course. And again, we are silent about the fact that 27 engines were launched simultaneously on the Falcon Heavy. That is, it became possible to create a “super-weight” with the simultaneous launch of multiple engines at the start! Let’s not forget, by the way, that the US still has such carriers as the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V, and the super-heavy SLS is on the way. And it’s not just the United States that is rushing into space: another Chertok prediction is about to come true-“…China will be the second power capable of real domination in space.”
Russia, according to his calculations, will not even enter the top five by that time. And this was written by a man who was an associate of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. He was sure that for this purpose radical rigid social and political reforms are necessary. To quote further: “Russia’s future space programs will be largely determined by the timing of the creation of a new heavy (instead of Proton) and equally reliable carrier. This will take 10-12 years.” And he was not mistaken again: in 2015, there was a successful launch of Angara-5, although it was the only one (Ogonyok wrote in detail about the reasons for this situation with the Angara project in Nos. 1 and 2 for 2020). But there is still no domestic super-heavy carrier. As well as a new manned ship. But what is in abundance is words and promises.
Still, what’s all the fuss about flying the Dragon?” The US only patched up the gap created by the shutting down of the Shuttle program…
“Dragon” is something completely new. The Shuttle needed wings for landing, the Apollo needed parachutes, and here neither of these were needed — the ship was being powered down. But it’s not just that: Crew Dragon is not the only newest American ship. SpaceDev-a division of Sierra Nevada Corporation-is developing a reusable spacecraft “Dream Chaser” (“Running for the dream”) to deliver cargo to low earth orbit. Two tests have already been conducted and the first “Dream Chaser” mission to the ISS is scheduled for autumn 2021. And in contrast to the Crew Dragon is not a demo, but with a real cargo. Blue Origin tested its lander in the atmosphere and landed a reusable return stage. Such an interesting reusable spacecraft as the Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is already regularly flying into space.
Its uniqueness is primarily in the duration of the X-37 in orbit: if the Soviet ” Buran “or the American” Shuttle ” were designed for 30 days of stay outside the atmosphere, then the American ship in its fifth flight was in orbit for 780 days.
There are studies by NASA and Boeing on a manned version of the X-37, designed for three astronauts— a kind of mini-Shuttle. NASA and Boeing have another project — the CST-100 Starliner manned transport ship. In December of last year, it was also tested. However, it did not manage to dock with the ISS, but it managed to conduct several experiments in orbit and safely launch the device to Earth. This year, a repeat of the test flight is expected, followed by a launch with the crew on Board. That is, the US has several ships on the way, almost ready for permanent operation. Yes even what! I started at RSC Energia, and I am fond of its creation Soyuz, and I will never agree with those who call the Soyuz lander a “capsule” — it has a descent control system, it is controlled. But they are right about one thing-the accuracy of landing “Soyuz “is not in any comparison with the” Dragon”: the first needs tens of kilometers of” landing strip”, the second lands exactly in the specified coordinates. This is especially important, because every year the number of deserted places on the map of our country becomes less and less. The dragon is a unique ship-reusable, preserving not only the docking node, but also the engines. Russian ships have never had such a thing (Buran made only one unmanned flight)! Yes, the Dragon is much more expensive than the Soyuz, but this is the same difference as between the Zhiguli and Mercedes — in price, quality, comfort and design.
Will Crew Dragon be able to fly to the moon or Mars?
No. To begin with, we return from earth orbit at the first cosmic speed, and from the moon at the second cosmic speed. This means that we need, for example, a different thermal protection system, the descent control system works differently, not to mention that the lunar ship itself should be larger in size. The Americans are creating and Therefore Orion — another multi-purpose reusable ship, developed since the mid-2000s by Lockheed Martin as part of the Constellation program. In December 2014, Orion Orion Delta Delta IV Heavy Heavy. A flight to the moon with a flyby of the latter has been postponed for a couple of years and is now scheduled for 2021. In other words, in five years, the United States will have a fleet of manned ships designed for different purposes and distances.
What about us?
At the moment, Russia has only one manned ship the Soyuz. I do not agree that it is outdated: in recent years, Soyuz has undergone a series of deep modernization. It is not that it is inferior to the latest American developments, but that it is the only one. There is no” eagle”, although we promise to conduct its first flight in 2023. Any expert will tell you that it takes at least 5-6 years to create a spacecraft, but in reality it takes 2 times more. The Americans have the same time frame: it took about 10 years for Musk to create Crew Dragon. And this is despite the fact that a huge number of professionals from NASA went to his company. Musk is no accident at all: NASA and the state Department have been looking for an organization that will take on the risks for a long time. After all, it is one thing when a state Corporation conducts unsuccessful tests of a new device, and quite another if the failure follows a private company. The state is forced to deal with the causes and consequences of the disaster for months, as it was with the shuttles, stopping production, and the commercial structure can continue to work. This is a gain in time and money, which also explains why in the race between Boeing, which has more government funding, and musk, The latter wins. In Russia, all space structures are de facto on state orders. And there is no need to wait for a miracle: the time frame for creating a new ship will be standard-10 years. Omitting the details (who and when issued and approved the technical tasks), we state: today there is no design documentation approved by the customer for the production of a new transport ship. And how long it will take to approve these papers, no one will say. After all, even the Assembly of the “Union” takes two years with the entire database-from documents to personnel. And what does Russia intend to launch in 2023? Overall-weight layout?
But the ship has a name…
There were even several of them: “Clipper”, “Rus”, “Federation”, and now “the eagle”. But not “soaring our “eagle””, to paraphrase the famous phrase from the cartoon… It is not even on paper, but all because the leadership of Roscosmos often changes, followed by instructions for developers, and the RSC Energia, which is responsible for the development of the ship, changes its General Directors. Both have had six different leaders in this century alone. With the arrival of the next one, the industry immediately asks the question: how long will it last? Recently, the Board of Directors of RSC Energia voted unanimously to dismiss Nikolay Sevastyanov as CEO. How can you plan anything for any length of time if the authors of the idea are not able to be responsible for the final result? And here’s what’s interesting: six months earlier, the same Board of Directors also unanimously voted for Sevastyanov’s candidacy for this post and all his reforms. Only two people spoke against it, and that was outside the Council— General designer Yevgeny Mikrin and first Deputy Director Sergey Romanov. The ability to say ” no ” to management is now almost lost among Russian officials, but in the space industry it is extremely necessary, even when a competent specialist is at the head of the process.
So production of the ship hasn’t even started?
Production? Not even an approved drawing! Back in 2010, before the next expedition to the ISS, we discussed a new ship (I don’t remember what it was called then), and everyone was sure that it was “about to appear”. In the same book “Cosmonautics of the XXI century” there is an article by Gennady Raikunov, Deputy Director and chief science adviser of the FSUE “NPO Technomash”, a member of the RAS Council for space, who quotes excerpts from the” Fundamentals of the Russian Federation’s policy in the field of space activities for the period up to 2020 and for the future”, approved in 2008. So 12 years ago, it was planned to explore deep space, Mars, the moon and other planets of the Solar system, for which a new generation ship was to be created by 2015, designed for six people and 500 kg of payload. By the same date — 2015 — expected successful implementation of the project “Phobos-grunt” and flights of three (!) vehicles to the moon. There was a proposal to organize a domestic expedition to mercury with the lander working on its surface. To understand: even the Soviet Union did not send vehicles to mercury — it is too expensive and difficult, and we planned such a flight for 2019. All these programs are not executed, but someone is responsible for it?
It turns out that Russia will get a new ship only in 10 years? It will be outdated by then
I didn’t say it, but such conclusions are close to reality. Especially considering the fact that not all the tests will go smoothly. The experience of our partners confirms this.
So the US hegemony in the space industry can be considered a fait accompli. What did we expect? So many years of lack of money, leapfrogging in power and the destruction of unique personnel could not remain without consequences?
And every year there are fewer people in the industry who once forged the victories of Soviet cosmonautics. Today we have huge personnel problems and outdated funds. Well, you can’t create space know-how in old workshops! We need new premises equipped with the latest scientific ideas and technology. We desperately need young talented personnel. I am sure that the creation of a new product should go in parallel with the appearance of new teams focused only on this task, new technologies, new workshops, test stands… I Think the management should look at the ideas of an alternative project for a reusable ship under the conditional name “Argo”, which is being created today by a small group of specialists. I really like the idea of deep modernization of the Soyuz with the creation of a universal instrument-aggregate compartment that would be used for both cargo and manned ships, as well as for other payloads. As well as the idea of creating a new descent vehicle for the Soyuz in order to reduce the overload when returning from orbit and to increase the accuracy of landing.
Will the flight of the Dragon affect the loading of Russian production capacities?
When you produce four manned ships a year and then switch to two, I think it’s a significant loss. Now we are looking for the possibility of implementing at least three manned launches, and it is desirable not to lose the number of launches of cargo ships. In 2003, after the accident with the Shuttle Columbia, experts advised starting work on creating a cargo return ship based on the Soyuz. Then it could have been done quickly and inexpensively, but it was not done. Over the years, the partners have filled the gap with their own cargo ships, including returnable ones. Now Russia is experiencing difficulties with returning cargo from orbit. After all, the ISS project is not only about flying into space and conducting experiments there, but also about returning their results to Earth. You can’t get much back on Soyuz, and Progress burns up in the atmosphere when it returns. Russia today is in dire need of unmanned reusable cargo ships.
Among the expert assessments after the launch of the “Dragon” was this: everything is good, from now on, Russian-American cooperation on the ISS will reach a new level. Is that it?
The topic of space cooperation, given the current geopolitical situation, requires a subtle approach. When Russia entered the ISS program (1993), we were “ahead of the entire planet”: the USSR had previously conducted two unique space programs — Energia — Buran and the Mir station. Actually, the invitation of the Russians to this program was caused by the fact that since 1988, the Americans have not been able to create their own space station (Freedom), despite the fact that four space agencies participated in the project. Most of the problems they had with the creation of life support systems. Then the idea came to invite Russians who had the necessary experience thanks to the Mir station. It seems that everything is correct: international cooperation should be beneficial to everyone, and Russia’s participation in the ISS program looks reasonable and logical. But few people remember that the US Congress voted for the ISS project with the participation of Russia by a margin of just one vote — 216 to 215. One vote! And if we talk about the prospects for cooperation, I personally have no illusions.
With the advent of a line of manned ships, the US will begin to squeeze us out of the market for manned launches, as in its time with commercial ones. They won’t be shy about money, don’t doubt it. Leader on the he and leader. And we will complain about the dishonesty of the game, as we are now accusing Musk of dumping prices, in connection with the Pentagon and many other things. The ISS program is just over 20 years old. During this time, our partners have made the most of their cooperation with us. We, on the other hand, have given everything we had, and we have practically gained nothing new. Although we could: our cosmonauts who worked on the ISS always shared their observations and told us how intelligently some Western structures are arranged, but no one was interested in this. I am among those who are convinced that the ISS is increasingly becoming an unaffordable burden for Russia: too much money is spent on maintaining our segment of the station, and the returns are minuscule.
Today we are not able to set a task and determine how to consistently use the available capabilities of the station. The planning horizon is extremely low. Yes, so far, maintaining the ISS’s orbit and regular de — orbiting is our task. The little that only we can do. But if before the start of the ISS program, the longest flight of Americans did not exceed 84 days, then already under the Mir — Shuttle program, they made several long flights, and on the ISS they stayed at all 340 days (they proudly call it “a Year in space”). For comparison, Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov spent 365 days at Mir station (1987-1988), Valery Polyakov — 437 days (1994-1995), and Sergey Avdeev — 379 (1998-1999). But Americans have learned a lot over the 20 years of the ISS’s existence, from how to build the station to the details of space life and research. They are good students. What did we get? It’s easier to say that we lost it,- priority in a number of areas. Before the creation of the ISS, only Russia had the skills to build stations, we received the first plants fully grown in space, five crops of rye, the first living creatures born in space, the results of hundreds of biological and chemical experiments, and so on. You can’t even imagine how many unique experiments and world achievements we have carried out on Board the Mir station! This does not mean that Russia has no achievements on the ISS, but the comparison is not in favor of today. Back then, we worked with plants constantly, and on the ISS for four long expeditions, I did not have an hour of such work. And it is important: greenhouses are long flights, flights to deep space. Americans also worked in the greenhouses on the ISS practically continuously connected to that of the Europeans and the Japanese. Today it has become a bad idea to talk about competition between space powers, but the truth is that such competition is the best engine of progress. Alone, everyone is able to move faster to a certain limit. But there are areas in which it is necessary to attract partners. Do you think we are as interesting as partners in space programs today as we were in 1993? What are our chances of winning at least one vote in the US Congress? The answer is obvious to me.
Still, is there any chance we’ll be involved?
What program?” To the lunar or Martian? The same Chertok admitted that he did not see “fast prospects” for creating lunar programs, lunar manned projects… Even in the last century, there was “Barmingrad”, officially called the project of the Soviet lunar base “Zvezda” (1964-1974). The plan was for an entire city on the surface of the moon: nine habitable modules with laboratories, warehouses, living quarters, even a lunar train. So the project was curtailed, despite the fact that the resources — financial, human, industrial — the USSR had much more. According to Chertok, the manned lunar program with the construction of a habitable station today will not be pulled by either the Russian or even the American budget. According to him, it is possible to create a single lunar base for the Earth only by overcoming the division of the world into military and political groups. Do you think this is real? In view of the partnership between Russia and the United States… and alone, the United States will have to invest the funds allocated for all space programs in just one lunar project. The experts have got it all figured out. The limit of today’s opportunities for national programs is near-earth stations, where there is still much that can and should be done. For example, you can learn to grow plants stably in greenhouses, without which the conquest of deep space is impossible. Humanity is not yet able to provide itself with food in space.
So the creation of a Russian space station is on the agenda?
Quite so. Such a task would spur domestic technical thought. In 2018, I wrote a memo to the head of Roscosmos. I will not refuse any point from it even today. So one of the proposals was to create a national orbital station. And this is not only my idea, but also that of many sober-minded people in the Russian rocket and space industry. It is the national station. It’s time for us to learn how to create ourselves again. At the same time, I am convinced that the station should be high-latitude and, perhaps, not permanently operating.
Why is that?
I suggest that readers take a map of our homeland and draw two lines. The first at North latitude 51.6 degrees, the second at 65 degrees. The first line is the inclination of the ISS’s orbit. We can see only 7-10 percent of the territory of Russia from it. How much will we see from an orbit of 65 degrees? In addition, the station’s high latitudes will allow more active use of both Russian cosmodromes — Plesetsk and Vostochny. After all, sooner or later, the question will arise about Baikonur: we are not building new sites, the joint project “Baiterek” seems to be in a state of suspended animation. For the Soyuz-2 launch vehicle for a manned launch today with a calculated route in case of an emergency withdrawal, there is only one launch table — at Baikonur. The manned launch from Vostochny is very problematic for such an orbit tilt (51.6 degrees). We do not have a fleet of ships that would help in case of emergency situations (even the possible involvement of four vessels from the Ministry of marine and defense does not save the situation). Without dubbing on the launch tables, we worked only at the beginning of the space age (by the way, the Falcon-9 launches are carried out from three launch pads). Working with the high-latitude station will also enable the Plesetsk cosmodrome with existing launch sites for Soyuz-2 and Angara-5. Yes, and with the “Eastern” at an inclination of the orbit of 65 degrees, the route of withdrawal looks much safer. Thus, we will be able to use the sites of three spaceports, having a good reservation, after the construction of the launch table for Angara-5 on the “East”, although it may be a mistake to move the manned program to the” East ” — the question will still arise about the flotilla of ships. Using Plesetsk will now allow Mask to complain that we are cooperating with the defense Ministry. And another argument in favor of a high-latitude station: the Mir station was originally planned for an orbit of 63-65 degrees, but the technical capabilities of those years did not allow this to be realized, so we had to make a decision to return to orbit at 51.6 degrees. Today is a different time and different opportunities. The main thing is not to miss what is still left. And remember that our Northern latitudes will be in our field of vision — Sevmorput, gas and oil pipelines, cities… After all, we are a Northern country.
But why won’t the station be permanent?
An exhibit of the space pavilion at VDNH. Past successes are impressive, but we need to achieve new ones
An exhibit of the space pavilion at VDNH. Past successes are impressive, but we need to achieve new ones
Photo: Anatoly Zhdanov, Kommersant
- The duration of expeditions should be determined primarily by the scientific program. If there is a package of experiments that require strict microgravity requirements, such as growing crystals, then the presence of a person on Board will interfere. The cosmonaut running on the track produces extremely harmful micro-vibrations for a number of experiments. And the life support systems for it, which include various fans, do not create favorable conditions for conducting a number of experiments. People are not always needed: equipment and robots are able to act independently. It is much easier and more efficient for people to fly in, run a series of experiments, collect the results and samples of past tasks, and return to Earth. If it becomes necessary to conduct a long-term medical experiment, the expedition remains at the station. But creating such a station will require money, time, and solving many technical problems. For example, creating high-quality solar panels.
But Russia will have to withdraw from the ISS project?
No way! We will not even start implementing the project to create a national station in 4-5 years. If we abandon the ISS now, we will be left without anything at all. Another issue is that the ISS project can be terminated even without our desire: the participating countries have adopted a Directive that work will continue until 2024. There is interest in extending this period for another six years, but there is no solution for this “want”. And it may not be. In this matter, we are quite dependent on our partners, on what decision they will make. Today we can’t plan experiments on the ISS that last for 5 to 7 to 10 years. Our plans are to detach part of the Russian segment at the end of work with the ISS and build our own station on this basis. It seems to sound good, but in this case the new station will have the same orbit as the ISS, 51.6 degrees, that is, it will again “see” only 7-10 percent of the Russian territory. And there are many questions about the architecture of the “new” station. After all, it is unclear what it is.
And then what?
First: analyze the reasons for failure to implement the “Fundamentals-2020”. Of course, given the complications in the international arena and the economic problems we face. Clearly understand that we will not be invited anywhere if there is nothing to take from us. The United States, as the undisputed leader in the space industry, will strictly monitor its interests, determine the composition of partners and the conditions for their involvement in future international programs. We also need to choose a hat for Senka. First of all, the creation of a national high-latitude station and a cargo returnable reusable spacecraft is suitable for the current Russian size. In addition, it will require a deep modernization of the Soyuz to work in near-earth orbits and the creation of a new promising transport ship for flights to the moon and other planets. Russia can afford to explore the moon with the help of automatic stations and robots. A lot will have to learn again and we must be prepared for this. The past should be remembered, they can and should be proud of, but it is impossible for them to live.