HOUSTON — Russian space officials on Tuesday unveiled a full-scale high-fidelity mockup of the spacecraft they hope will replace the veteran Soyuz space capsule. Descriptions of the Kliper (for "clipper ship") vehicle have been widely circulated in the space community but today’s presentation in Moscow was the most detailed yet.
The Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, the organization that has built all of Russian’s human space vehicles for the past half century, hosted the media event at its headquarters in Korolyov, a Moscow suburb. Deputy General Designer Valeriy Ryumin, himself a former cosmonaut, called the craft “a spaceship of the future” and boasted that “neither the United States nor Europe have anything of the kind."
But significant roadblocks still remain between today’s unveiling and the fulfillment of Ryumin’s boast. The actual first test flights of the vehicle, perhaps about 2010, will require funding levels that the Russian government has so far been unable to provide.
Furthermore, because the 13-ton spacecraft is twice the size of the Soyuz, it will need to use a different launch vehicle. Current plans call for it use the powerful Zenit booster rocket, which is built in Ukraine. Reliable commercial relations must be maintained for years to come, and the current political instability in Ukraine could impact the expected cost of the launch vehicle.
Kliper is designed to carry a crew of six as well as a half ton of cargo to the international space station, where it will be able to remain docked as an escape pod for a full year, twice as long as the Soyuz. It also has the ability to fly on its own for up to 15 days, either in separate orbit around the Earth, or perhaps farther out into space.
Officials say their initial plans are to build four of the reusable spaceships, each designed to make up to 25 flights. If the Zenit booster is not available, engineers are studying the use of two other as-yet-untested vehicles whose development costs could add to the project’s total cost.
Supplanting the Soyuz
The new vehicle is supposed to provide better service at lower cost than the Soyuz, whose basic design dates back to 1966. Since then, several upgraded and redesigned versions have been produced; the current model is called the Soyuz-TMA.
Each Soyuz launch reportedly costs about $30 million, although exact dollar values are difficult to determine. This is less than a tenth the cost of a flight by the U.S. space shuttle, but the crew size and payload are significantly smaller as well.
Kliper is supposed to be even cheaper, but with major improvements in payload.
The spaceship has two main parts, a nine-ton crew cabin and an "orbital module" one-third the size that is used to dock with the space station. The sandal-shaped main cabin acts as a wingless glider, similar to the "lifting body" designs that have been tested on unmanned space flights in Russia and the United States over the past forty years. Attached to its rear is the smaller oval-shaped orbital module, which is derived from one of the modules currently used in the Soyuz design.
A ring of thrusters around Kliper's rim will give it the capability to quickly get away from its booster rocket, should there be any malfunctions during the launch from Earth. Once through the most dangerous phase of ascent, these thrusters can be fired off in a ripple pattern to provide additional push into orbit.
The Kliper will dock to the space station back-end first, after the pilots have moved into the aft section and activated a docking probe. This is a design feature already developed and tested on unmanned spacecraft used with Salyut space stations in the 1980s.
When the spacecraft is ready to leave the station, it can jettison the orbital module, fire its braking rockets, and fall back into the atmosphere. Like the U.S. space shuttle, its design provides some aerodynamic lift, allowing it to skim the upper atmosphere while slowing down more gently than ballistic capsules such as Soyuz or Apollo.
Landing techniques are yet to be chosen. A winged variant can land softly at ordinary runways, while a parachute-slowed version can thump down anywhere on dry land, or even in the ocean if need be.
Show me the money
The intent of this latest unveiling seems clearly related to a quest for government funding. The Energia group has always been a semi-autonomous entity within the Russian space industry, often at odds with the Moscow government’s federal space bureaucracy.
While Energia officials boast that development and construction of the Kliper will cost 10 times less than NASA's next-generation Crew Exploration Vehicle program, that's still not pocket change. The U.S. program is currently estimated to require more than $10 billion to develop, suggesting the Russians need to find a billion dollars over the next ten years. This is five times the annual state budget for the Russian space agency.
Energia president Yuriy Semyonov acknowledged that plans to begin test launches in 2010 were budget-contingent.
"The date depends on the funding. We have some technological difficulties, but we are sure to solve them," he said, according to Russian media reports. "We will reach the [space station] no later than 2010 or 2012. If we join efforts with Europe or some country, it will take even less time," he said.
"We tried to get funding for the project already in 2005," Semyonov added. "We are thinking about Asian countries, the Middle East. We have very serious proposals. But they must be tied with political issues, because the matter involves proliferation of rocket technologies."
An official spokesman for the Federal Space Agency told the Novosti news agency last week that the government was far from endorsing Energia’s proposed new vehicle.
"There are plans for 2005 to carry out research to determine the role and place of the Kliper spacecraft in the system of transport and technical services of the International Space Station,” he explained, “and also in manned and automatic spacecraft of the prospective orbital infrastructure after 2015.”
Money has been budgeted to study this issue, but not to actually build anything yet.
“The draft federal space project for up to 2015 speaks about the development of the Kliper manned spacecraft,” the space agency spokesman continued, “but does not mention what type of booster rocket it will use."
Further, he stated, any decision about plans for additional work on the project, including the roles of other former Soviet states such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, must take into account the research that has been conducted and the results of an economic viability analysis connected with the choice of booster rocket.