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The Kourou-cosmonaut connection

Although the purpose of a new launch pad is commercial payload delivery to space, Russian officials make no secret of their long-range goal for the facility — human space flight.
A stone taken from the first Russian space launch pad at Baykonur in now-independent Kazakhstan in central Asia commorates the launching of Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.
A stone taken from the first Russian space launch pad at Baykonur in now-independent Kazakhstan in central Asia commorates the launching of Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.Russian Space Agency

The head of the Russian Space Agency came to South America at the end of February, and brought some special rocks with him. That may have seemed a tad ironic, because the space project he had come to dedicate was being delayed because construction crews were encountering too many rocks.

But these were hindering excavation for a new launch pad. The rocks that the Russian brought with him were stepping stones to a future pathway.

The Russian official, Anatoliy Perminov, was at the European space launch center in Kourou, French Guyana. In a ceremony, a stone and memorial marker from Russia's very first space launch pad was placed at the future location of new pad in French Guyana.

Europe and Russia have spent a long time looking beyond the soon-to-be-retired U.S. space shuttle. Although this new launch pad for the 'Soyuz' booster rocket is justified on commercial space traffic alone, it has even wider potential. It may become the cornerstone for a joint all-European human orbital flight access, both to the mature space station and to other orbital facilities for research, commerce and even tourism.

The new launch pad is located a few miles east of Kourou, where European space projects — particular the Ariane commercial launch system — have been blasting off for decades. Based on a French-Russian agreement in 2003, construction has now begun in earnest on a pad capable of handling Russian 'Soyuz' boosters. The first orbital flight is expected in about two years.

Perminov attended a special ceremony on February 26 to kick off the formal assembly effort that will involve hundreds of local workers supplemented by more than 100 Russian construction engineers and crew.

As part of that ceremony, he emplaced the stone taken from the first Russian space launch pad at Baykonur in now-independent Kazakhstan in central Asia.

Fifty years ago, that stone was washed by the flames of rockets that carried the first Sputniks, and a few years later, the first men into orbit. A plaque on the stone commemorates, in particular, the launching of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.

Although the purpose of the new launch pad is mutual profit through commercial payload delivery to space, Russian officials make no secret of their long-range goal for the facility. It is human space flight — more Gagarins, on Russian-European spacecraft — using a new access highway to space that bypasses existing political bottlenecks in Kazakhstan and in Florida.

"Yes, of course, over the long term, the 'Soyuz-ST' which will be launched from Kourou can be used also for manned launches," Perminov told reporters.

Igor Panarin, spokesman of the Russian space agency, said that human flights were possible in the future. He said that France had already raised the issue of using the Kourou spaceport for manned launches.

"It is possible that France and Russia will switch to a manned program," he said. "However, this is a matter for the coming decade."

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

Joint development of an upgraded Russian Soyuz spacecraft is a fall-back position for Moscow's original desire for a new six-man space ferry. Foreign partners could not be found to fully fund that project, so the Russians proposed a more efficient and flexible variant of the basic spacecraft they have used for all cosmonaut missions over the past forty years, the three-seat Soyuz.

Human spacecraft from Kourou could, by the middle of the next decade, be ferrying crews to and from the international space station and to other inhabitable facilities deployed in other orbits for a wide range of commercial purposes, including tourism. The upgraded Soyuz is explicitly being designed for the rigors of lunar flight, as well. Those missions, too, might originate from the new South American launch pad.

Creating the 30-meter-deep flame trench under the launch pad required excavating 200,000 cubic meters of earth — about a quarter of it granite rocks that required dynamiting. French engineers installed a rock crusher that reduced the granite to gravel that was used in the foundation and for the 30 thousand cubic meters of concrete that will be needed. The entire construction project is expected to cost almost $500 million, a third of it invested by Russia.

French space officials expect to make about four commercial launches per year to start, each costing customers $50 million. Due to its equatorial location, the launch site will allow the booster to carry more than twice its normal payload to the 'cash cow' geostationary orbits around the equator.

Special Russian launch pad processing equipment will be shipped to Kourou beginning late this year. By next summer, the first two flight vehicles will be delivered for launch preparation. Preliminary plans considered a special 'river-sea' vessel that would take the cargo from the factory on the Volga River through the Russian canal system to the Black Sea, then through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. But according to Panarin, a new route has been selected. "The rockets will be manufactured in Samara, then delivered to St. Petersburg by train," he explained last week. "Then to French Guiana by sea over a period of about two weeks."

The Director General of the 'Progress' rocket factory in Samara (called 'Kuybyshev' in Soviet days), Alexander Kirilin, said the booster has undergone a number of hardware changes required by Kourou operations.

"High humidity, rain seasons, aggressive insects and other factors may prevent the vehicle from normal and stable operation," he said. "Still, Soyuz operates properly in the temperature ranges from 40 degrees below zero to 40 degrees above zero Celsius in Russia."

French range safety practices require a ground-commanded engine shutoff capability, which has been added. The fuel tanks in the discarded first stage sections now have an automatic post-shutdown valve open command so they can quickly fill with water and sink if they reach the ocean surface intact.

Vladimir Klimov, the "first deputy general director" of the Barmin General Machine-Building Design Bureau that has built all Russian missile launch pads for the last 50 years, also told reporters that the pad facilities would be designed to be operated by a launch team of 98 people. They would fly in from Russia for the 'launch campaign' lasting a month or two. A skeleton staff of 15 specialists would be permanently in residence between launch campaigns.

This is just the way that 'Soyuz' launch operations are conducted at Baykonur. The big difference, aside from the jungles, is that at least at first man-rated vehicles won't be involved. But that is very likely to change in the next decade.