September 10, 2007

Russia to get a new space port

14:44 | 10/ 09/ 2007

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) - On the last day of summer, the Russian Space Agency made a sensational announcement. Its head Anatoly Perminov painted an epic picture of Russia's immediate future in space, specifically its manned part.

A week and a half ago, during a final news conference with journalists at the MAKS-2007 international air show, to the surprise of many, he spoke modestly about the evolutionary path to be taken by the space industry. "Our primary objective," he said, "is to stick to existing reliable systems already used in manned flights." Evidently they found the air show to be the wrong place to disclose the agency's truly revolutionary ambitions.

What are these ambitions?

1. A new manned space transport system by 2015.

2. A new space center on Russian territory built from scratch (the existing launch facilities do not meet the requirements of the new transport system).

3. A Russian manned station in a polar orbit, after the International Space Station (ISS) outlives its usefulness in about 2020.

4. "A manned mission to the Moon in 2025, and a permanent base on the Moon in 2028-2032." (quoting Perminov - A. K.).

5. A possible manned flight to Mars after 2035.

It is no easy task. To build a new space center means first of all building an all-amenities town complete with every service. It seems such a garden city, which no one yet knows where to build, is to go up before the transport system is in place. Imagine how much steel, cement, bricks, vehicles, soldiers' barracks, potatoes, spaghetti, kilometers of road, manpower, etc. will be needed. And you should have these figures at your fingertips now, not tomorrow.

Also, you need to start designing the town's own generating plant, calculate its industrial load and put together a personnel recruitment program if you really wish to do it all before 2020.

To use military terminology, we are being told to go on the offensive on three strategic sectors at once, even without taking the Moon and Mars operations into account. And all that is to be done at the same time as juggling the currently running and widely publicized programs, to say nothing of the embryonic state of our space science and other things.

And this at a time when our space effort is financed at one-sixteenth of the total American contribution. To be sure, there has been much talk of off-budget funds, particularly foreign injections into our space industry. The only reality, however, is the number 16, while overseas enthusiasm is enough only for ISS tourism.

The Moon and Mars are better left alone. Should the offensive I mentioned go ahead, they will soon be sidelined. But I have a question I hesitate to ask. If, according to Perminov, who quotes Russian experts, a helium plant will be built on the Moon in 50 years' time at the earliest and a habitable base worth something like a trillion dollars graces the lunar landscape in the 2030s, what will the agency's lay brothers be doing there for a quarter of a century? I dismiss the possibility of astronomical and astrophysical studies, combined with the advantages of lunar monitoring of the Earth's surface, as not serious.

Here are the thoughts of Russian veteran space journalist Yury Zaitsev on what he heard and read.

"The lunar base mentioned by the agency's head is only 20 years away, a short time indeed. But the deadline brings to mind Khodja Nasreddin, a fabled Uzbek wit, who promised the shah to teach his donkey to speak. He was warned: if you fail in your task in the period agreed, you will lose your head. Nasreddin winked wisely to all his sympathizers: in 20 years time either the shah will die, or the donkey will kick the bucket.

"On the whole the agency's statement is fairly declarative: it only gives deadlines and says nothing about the nuts and bolts. But the crucial question is: where will they find the money? And not in a distant future, but starting next year and in amounts several times greater than the current financing of the sector.

"Meanwhile, bear in mind that a launch facility for the Angara vehicles has been under construction since the end of the last century and still needs at least two years to be completed. The goal of establishing a new space center in today's Russia is from the realm of fancy.

"In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I happened to serve as head of telemetry at the Angara site (now Plesetsk). No money was spared for its construction. I remember its scale well and the conditions in which ground crews had to prepare the first 'sevens' (first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles R-7s - A. K.) for combat duty. The need was desperate. God forbid we prepare a manned Moon flight under such conditions, not to mention a Martian mission.

"Personally I am in favor of manned journeys to the Moon and Mars remaining our fond dream. As it is, we are way behind America and Europe, and not only in scientific space missions. For example, we have had to abandon flights to distant planets of the solar system (over the past 20 years we have launched only three craft). We have a poor record on satellites for social and economic purposes, with the possible exception of communications.

"Before the 1990s, the U.S.S.R. built and launched 32 weather satellites. Today Russia has to obtain costly information from overseas. For nine years we have been failing to fulfill our obligations under the international program of geostationary weather satellites. Problems of space navigation and remote sensing are barely off the ground.

"There was some faint hope that the era of manned orbital stations may be ending. But no. We now hear of plans to build the tenth such station (a polar one) with the sort of efficiency comparable to the steam engine (which is equal to 5% - A. K.)."

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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