Opinion: Do Russian lunar plans signal end to ISS?
At the start of 2014, NASA announced its support for an extension of the International Space Station (ISS) program until at least 2024. Recent news out of Russia, however, suggests that at least one ISS partner may view that date as the end of the line – if not even sooner.
The Russian media has run several stories recently insinuating that the long-dormant Space Race may be heating up once again. The Russian Federal Space Agency’s (Roscosmos) national space strategy has for some time hoped to put cosmonauts on the Moon. Until now, though, such statements were largely empty gestures without funding to support them. Lately, a number of developments signal a growing seriousness towards finally putting Russians on the lunar surface, even including speculation about a long-term Russian presence on or near the Moon.
In April 2009, Russia announced plans to develop a successor to the incredibly resilient Soyuz capsule. At the time, plans called for three variants: one for unmanned launches, one for low-Earth orbit (LEO), and one for lunar missions. The unmanned variant was envisioned to carry about two metric tons of material into orbit, and return with 1,102 lbs (500 kg). The LEO version would carry a crew of six, while the lunar alternative would have room for four. At the time, Roscosmos was considering the possibility of a reusable crew capsule, and rumors were circulating regarding the construction of a Lunar Orbital Station. It was later announced that RKK Energia would lead the contract on the vehicle’s construction, known as the Prospective Piloted Transport System (PPTS).
Five years after the initial public notification, the Russian space agency is making a bid for six billion USD to help make a lunar mission a success. For the time being, Roscosmos has been largely silent on the spacecraft, making it difficult to gauge its progress. We do, however, know a little more about the rocket upon which it is set to launch.
Around the time that the PPTS was made public, Russia similarly announced it was looking to design a follow-on to the Soyuz rocket. Dubbed the Rus-M, this Soyuz inspired successor was scrubbed only two years later when plans on a European-Russian joint venture fell through. One year after that, in 2012, it was reported that the as-yet incomplete Angara rocket was the likely contender for PPTS launches.
The Angara rocket was originally intended to replace a host of small and medium-sized launch vehicles, partially as a means of bringing all major components of the Russian launch industry within the country’s post-Soviet borders. It was, until the announcement in 2012, being considered exclusively for unmanned missions. Set for its maiden test launch this past June, Angara initially failed to make it off the launch pad as Russian President Vladimir Putin watched from the Kremlin. A few weeks later, it successfully accomplished its first launch.
Speculation that all this means an end to Russian participation in the ISS is based on two factors: the Russian launch schedule and Roscosmos’ strategic objectives.
Russia Beyond the Headlines reported last week that, between 2021 to 2023, Russia intends to conduct one launch of its new spacecraft every year to the ISS. In 2024, it would conclude with a manned mission to the ISS. The following year, a heavier variant will begin testing. Alongside this launch schedule, planning documents from Roscosmos show a request for $55 million to complete technical specifications for a manned lunar base by 2024.
For now, however, we can only speculate how these objectives will shape Russian involvement in the ISS past its current end date. The nature of that involvement will no doubt rest in part on the success or failure of Russia’s ambitious development programs.
For their part, the United States’ space agency has no official plans for the Moon, with President Barack Obama summarizing his administration’s views in 2010 as, “We’ve been there…”. Meanwhile, the European and Japanese space agencies have expressed interest in escaping LEO and contributing to missions beyond Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence.
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group.
Since 2011 Joshua Tallis has served as the manager for research and analysis at an intelligence and security services provider in Washington, DC. Josh has co-authored several articles in the Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International with colleagues from the defense community. Previous work experience includes internships at the U.S. Congress and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Josh is also a PhD student in International Relations at the University of St Andrews' Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. He is a Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and Special Honors graduate of The George Washington University where he received a BA in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs.