First public announcements about the work on the Kliper project during 2004, coincided with the declarations by the US government about the impending return of American astronauts to the Moon.
Not surprisingly, RKK Energia could not resist a temptation to explore the possibility of tailoring its future flagship spacecraft for a possible role in the Russian "response" to the American challenge. Improving economic outlook for the Russian economy and slowly growing space budget perhaps encouraged RKK Energia to dust off its old plans for building a lunar base.
Initially, Kliper designers entertained the idea of sending their winged glider on its way around the Moon with the help of upper stages delivered to a low-Earth orbit by its own rocket. The concept was later replaced by a more practical proposal, which would include a combination of a Soyuz-derived reentry vehicle with the large habitation section, based on the cabin module of the Kliper. Both sections would be propelled toward the Moon by a large upper stage.
Capable of multiple missions
The manned spacecraft and its booster stage could be boosted into the earth orbit by separate launchers. Once assembled in orbit, the manned vehicle would be capable of shuttling between space station in the Earth orbit and the lunar orbit. Upon completion of a routine flight, the spacecraft would dock to the space station in the low-Earth orbit, where it could be refueled for the next trip by a cargo ship sent from Earth.
Part of a larger transport system
Accordingly, designs for the circumlunar vehicle were accompanied by ambitious proposals for a space station in the lunar orbit, known by the Russian abbreviation as LOS, and, eventually, by a lunar lander. The unmanned cargo ship powered by electric engines was also proposed for ferrying supplies between low-Earth- and lunar orbits.
All that infrastructure would support a lunar base, designed to implement far-fetched ideas of mining for Helium-3 -- an exotic element with a promise of serving as fuel for thermonuclear reactors!
In the meantime, by the end of 2005, the Russian government offered RKK Energia and two other companies to bid for federal funds for the development of a next-generation manned spacecraft. The federal tender listed the ability of the future spacecraft to fly beyond Earth orbit as one of the requirements. Almost overnight, RKK Energia found its winged vehicle competing with a "capsule"-based TKS spacecraft, theoretically much better suited for deep-space missions.
Even before the federal tender, the Kliper project survived another blow, when the European governments shelved plans for its own space agency to participate in the development of the Kliper. However after several months of uncertainty, a new concept for Russian-European cooperation had been conceived around the spring of 2006. This time, two sides considered combining funds, hardware and expertise to parallel the US effort to return to the Moon. The question remained whose proposals Roskosmos would bring to the negotiation table with the Europeans -- RKK Energia's winged glider and its derivatives or Khrunichev's capsules.
Circumlunar spacecraft turns favorite
On July 19, 2006, Russian space agency, Roskosmos, announced that it deferred the development of the new manned spacecraft until the next stage in the modernization of the nation's manned transport system. The agency's statement hinted that RKK Energia proposals for the Kliper spacecraft and Khrunichev's concept of the TKS-based capsule required the development of launch vehicles (Soyuz-2-3 and Angara-3 respectively), which Russian government would not be able to fund within 2006-2015 timeframe. The NPO Molniya's proposal for the development of an air-launched vehicle was rejected on the grounds that it involved the Antonov-224 Mriya carrier aircraft manufactured in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, while Russian government wanted all system contractors to be located inside Russia.
In the meantime, the agency accepted alternative proposals from RKK Energia to conduct a radical upgrade of the Soyuz spacecraft, in order to give it the capabilities for circumlunar missions. Roskosmos said that the upgraded Soyuz would allow testing of prospective technologies, which could be later applied to the next-generation systems. According to Roskosmos, results of this work would pave the way to the decision on the design of the next generation spacecraft, "if such (spacecraft) would be required."
Article and illustration by Anatoly Zak; last update: January 21, 2010
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RKK Energia proposed to combine elements from the Soyuz and Kliper projects, creating a manned vehicle capable of "shuttling" between Earth orbit and lunar orbit. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2006 Anatoly Zak