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Angara is born in the wreckage of USSR

In 1992, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government called for the creation of the new space booster, which would be built and launched within the Russian Federation, ending the country's dependency on the hardware and launch sites in the newly independent republics of the former USSR. Leading rocket companies competed fiercely for a role in the project, which could mean a difference between life and death under the worsening economic climate of the 1990s.

Previous chapter: Energia-M launch vehicle

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Above: Highly detailed virtual rendering of the original Angara design.

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Origin of the idea

The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 had profound effects on the Russian space program. The nation's main space launch site in Baikonur ended up in the newly independent Kazakhstan, while several major suppliers of rocket components along with key tracking facilities were now in Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry had the most reasons to worry about losing its capability to launch strategically important military satellites, in case of a conflict between former Soviet republics.

On Aug. 3, 1992, less than a year after the failed coup to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev had instead triggered the final convulsion of the Soviet state, Russia's Military Space Forces approved a new assessment on the state and prospects of the nation's launch systems. (355) The document set the course toward the development of a new launch vehicle, whose design and launch facilities would not rely on contractors outside Russia. A month and a half later, on September 15, the Russian government issued an official decree giving the rocket industry the task to conceptualize the best architecture for a heavy space launch vehicle, which would be dubbed Angara after a great Siberian river.

The future rocket was required to carry up to 24 tons to low Earth orbit and up to 3.5 tons to geostationary orbit. The new launch vehicle was expected to replace Proton after 2005. Similar studies aimed to eventually built the Neva light-weight launch vehicle capable of delivering four tons of payload to the low Earth orbit and thus replacing the Ukrainian-built Tsyklon and for the medium-class Yenisey launcher designed to replace Zenit. (264)

The new heavy rocket would be first based at Russia's northern space port in Plesetsk, where it would lose up to eight percent of its payload capabilities comparing to launches from Baikonur. (744) However, in 1994, plans were also made to deploy it at a future new launch site in Svobodny with a much better geographical location in the Russian Far East.

Three leading Russian organizations of the rocket industry -- GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow (the developer of the Proton rocket); RKK Energia in Podlipki, which oversaw the Energia project; and GRTsKB Makeev in Miass specialized in submarine-based ballistic missiles, submitted their bids for the anticipated government contract. Initial technical proposals were under development at all three organizations from January to April 1993 and the first phase of the preliminary design (known in the West as Phase A) took place from June to December of the same year.

RKK Energia's design

RKK Energia evaluated more than 10 possible architectures and came up with the proposal for a two-stage rocket designated GK-6. At the heart of this concept was the idea to "split" the four-chamber RD-170 engine into a two-chamber version designated RD-180. Three first-stage boosters on GK-6 would be equipped with a single RD-180 each and installed as close to each other as possible, so that all nozzles of the three-booster vehicle would still fit into the launch pad for a single-booster Zenit rocket.

The middle booster of GK-6 would be topped with an upper stage featuring the RD-146 main engine, which had previously been proposed for the second stage of the Zenit rocket. In addition, the stage would carry a small movable steering engines, either RD-134R from NPO Energomash in Moscow or RD-451 from KB Khimavtomatika in Voronezh. The entire propulsion system was designed for multiple firings and, as a result, the second stage could act as a "space tug" in orbit, eliminating the need for an expensive third stage when delivering satellites up to an altitude of 2,000 kilometers. To go higher, including the popular geostationary orbit, RKK Energia was proposing to adapt its Block DM stage into a N12R vehicle and eventually replace it with the more powerful Yastreb stage sporting a hydrogen-burning engine.

By January 1994, GRTsKB Makeev, which had similar proposals, joined RKK Energia's bid, which became known as Energia-3. From February to April, the two firms prepared an addendum to the first phase of the preliminary design, which mostly introduced minor changes to the second stage.

Khrunichev's design

GKNPTs Khrunichev delegated the preliminary design of the Angara rocket to its development arm - KB Salyut, where the project was led by Vladimir Karrask. The team proposed to equip the rocket with two pairs of huge external tanks suspended on the sides of its main body -- a design somewhat reminiscent of the venerable Proton rocket, but on a much larger scale. This exotic architecture was apparently dictated by the need to make the rocket compatible with the launch pad for the Ukrainian-built Zenit launcher. The construction of the pad at Russia's northern space port in Plesetsk had started before the collapse of the USSR.

Khrunichev’s Angara would employ the most advanced and powerful engines in the Russian arsenal at the time. The first stage would be powered by a modified version of the RD-170 engine, which was already in use on the first stage of the Zenit. The Angara's second stage would be equipped with an RD-0120 hydrogen engine, borrowed from the Energia super-heavy rocket, whose production was no longer possible due to lack of demand. The third stage would also use hydrogen fuel.

Khrunichev argued that the advantages of hydrogen had been well proven by many foreign vehicles such as European Ariane-5 and Japanese H-2 rockets. Its use enabled a nearly 40-percent reduction in launch mass of the rocket comparing to RKK Energia's proposal: 645 tons versus 900 tons. Despite the higher cost of a hydrogen engine and its support infrastructure, Khrunichev still promised 30-35-percent reduction in launch costs comparing to a kerosene-only vehicle.

GKNPTs Khrunichev even promised to eventually modify the first stage for a rocket-powered return to the launch site and subsequent reuse! The second stage would be splashing down in the remote area of the Pacific. (134)

For the first time in the former USSR, the Angara rocket would be assembled in vertical position on a special movable platform.

The decision

In April 1994, GKNPTs Khrunichev and RKK Energia submitted their competing proposals to an interagency commission led by Major General Valery Menshikov, the head of the 50th TsNIIKS, the main military space research institute. The commission spent three months analyzing the proposals. In the climate of the cash-strapped Russian economy, it criticized the Energia-3 design for the need to develop the RD-180 engine and the largely new steering engine for the second stage. At the same time, the commission pointed out the need to develop expensive infrastructure to handle cryogenic hydrogen fuel for Khrunichev's Angara. Still, the commission favored the latter proposal, because it promised slightly better capabilities and more heavily relied on the off-the-shelf technology.

In August 1994, the Ministry of Defense and the Russian Space Agency declared Khrunichev the prime developer of the Angara rocket. The company itself explained its victory by better prospects for its survival in the collapsing Russian economy thanks to the commercial success of the Proton rocket on the international market. As a result, the company could potentially pay at least part of the price tug for Angara. Menshikov himself, while hinting that RKK Energia had proposed a better design, argued that it would still need Khrunichev's production line because the company did not have necessary manufacturing capacity at its own campus in Podlipki. (704)

Still, critics charged that traditional Russian nepotism had played a role -- at the time, a daughter and the son-and-law of the Russian president Boris Yeltsin worked for Khrunichev. Poor relations between leadership at RKK Energia and military space officials were also cited. In his memoirs, General Menshikov did mention that Energia's team had come across as overconfident and arrogant about its "superior" design, while Khrunichev's officials were open to criticism and had been willing to re-evaluate their proposals. As a consolation prize, RKK Energia was awarded the development of the second stage for the Angara rocket.

The August 1994 decision also added Svobodny in addition to Plesetsk as a potential launch site for Angara. At the time, the first launch of the rocket was expected between 2000 and 2002. (703)

Starting from scratch

On January 6, 1995, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree giving the Angara project the status of "special state importance" but set its first launch date a decade later -- in 2005. However, due to the terrible economic situation, work on the Technical Project (the second phase of development) did not start until the second half of 1996. When it was completed in the first quarter of 1997, the latest calculations revealed significant technical hurdles. As it turned out, the dry mass of the rocket's second stage had apparently been underestimated, making it too heavy for liftoff. A serious technical challenge was also presented by the need to ignite the complex hydrogen engine of the second stage in flight. RD-0120 engine would need to fire for around seven seconds before reaching full thrust with the first stage still attached just below it.

Moreover, the use of hydrogen technology and its production capacity, which had quickly decayed after the fall of the USSR, could make the project unaffordable under existing economic conditions in Russia.

As a result, in March of 1997, RKK Energia proposed to return to its original design of the Energia-3 rocket and by the end of the year even proposed the joint development of such a rocket in cooperation with Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The concept became known as Sodruzhestvo (Alliance). (164)

However, yet again, thanks to its stronger economic position and political backing in the Kremlin, GKNPTs Khrunichev wrestled the project away from its competitors, this time, without the formality of a federal tender. On July 7, 1997, the company conducted an official review of the Angara project, which apparently approved an entirely new architecture for the rocket. It left no role for RKK Energia, whose representatives had not been even invited to the event.

Ironically, the new configuration of the rocket adopted by Khrunichev turned out to be much more similar to what RKK Energia had originally proposed – the modular configuration. The use of hydrogen on the second stage, which was prviously advertised as a key ace in competition with RKK Energia, was now abandoned.

The new version of the rocket also required to "split" the Zenit's RD-170 engine, but not into a two-chamber unit, but in a one-chamber configuration designated RD-190. Ironically, at the time, NPO Energomash was well on its way to build the rejected RD-180 engine but under a $2-billion contract for the US Atlas rocket. If RKK Energia had had its way with the Angara configuration, Russia's new-generation rocket would now have the engine, whose development had been paid for by the US! (52)

Despite all the demands from RKK Energia, including a May 7 letter to Yeltsin to start a new competition, on Sept. 3, 1997, a joint meeting of the Military Space Forces and the Russian Space Agency, approved Khrunichev's unilateral U-turn in the project. The company was given until the fourth quarter of 1997 to prepare "an addendum" to the Technical Assignment for the Angara project. In reality, it was a thinly veiled permission to start from scratch.

In the new design, Khrunichev proposed a modular family which could carry from two all the way to 23 tons, depending on the number of booster "modules" attached to an identical core stage. The "heaviest" Angara would replace the Proton. Obviously, the gradual introduction of the new family would start with a lighter version followed by heavier configurations.

Given the fact that GKNPTs Khrunichev was now taking the task of developing an entire family of space launchers, all other rocket developers were justifiably concerned. On October 16, President of RKK Energia Yuri Semenov sent a letter to the heads of Military Space Forces and of the Russian Space Agency demanding a new tender for the development of launch systems, but to not avail.

Next chapter: Development of the Angara rocket

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Development milestones in the Angara project during the 1990s:


1992 Aug. 3: The Military Space Forces, VKS, approve a new assessment of the status and prospects for the upgrade and modernization of Russian launch systems. (355)

1992 Sept. 15: The government of the Russian Federation signs decree No. 716-53, announcing a tender for the development of the Angara heavy-lifting vehicle for military and civilian use.

1993: The Russian industry works on proposals for the next-generation launcher.

1994 January: RKK Energia and GRTsKB Makeev formulate a joint proposal for the next-generation Energia-3 rocket.

1994 April: GKNPTs Khrunichev and RKK Energia submit proposals for the next-generation launcher to a interagency commission.

1994 June 4: The interagency commission delivers the assessment of the proposed architectures for the next-generation rocket, favoring the Angara-2 configuration from GKNPTs Khrunichev.

1994 Aug. 12: The Russian Ministry of Defense and Russian Space Agency declare GKNPTs Khrunichev the prime developer of the Angara rocket.

1995 Jan. 6: President Boris Yeltsin signs Decree No. 14s giving the Angara project the status of "special state importance," and setting its first launch date for 2005. (164)

1995 Aug. 26: The Russian government signs decree No. 829 "On measures for providing the development of the Angara rocket space complex."

1996 April 11: President Boris Yeltsin visits NPO Energomash, which developed RD-170 and RD-180 engines.

1996, Second half of the year: Work on the Technical Project of the Angara rocket starts. (164)

1997, First quarter: Work on the Technical Project of the Angara rocket concludes revealing serious technical problems.

1997 March: RKK Energia proposes to revert back to its proposals for the Energia-3. (164)

1997 July 7: GKNPTs Khrunichev reviews the status of the Technical Project of the Angara.

1997 Sept. 3: A joint meeting of the Military Space Forces and the Russian Space Agency, approves a drastic redesign of the Angara project.

1997 Oct. 16: RKK Energia's President sends a letter to the heads of Military Space Forces and of the Russian Space Agency demanding a new tender for the development of launch systems.


Known specifications of the GK-6/Energia-3 launch vehicle:

Launch site
Launch mass (fueled)
905 tons
Propellant mass
685 tons
Payload to a 200-kilometer circular orbit with an inclination 63 degrees toward the Equator
25 tons
Total length
59 meters
Body diameter
3.9 meters
Stage I
Propulsion system
Three RD-181 engines
Thrust at sea level
1,176 tons
Thrust in vacuum
1,272 tons
Propellant components
Liquid oxygen - oxidizer; RG-1 (kerosene) - fuel
Propellant load
660 tons
Stage II
Propulsion system
One RD-146 main engine and RD-451R steering engine
Thrust in vacuum
90 + 35 = 125 tons
Propellant components
Liquid oxygen - oxidizer, RG-1 (kerosene) - fuel
Propellant load
113.6 tons


Capabilities of the GKNPTs Khrunichev's Angara rocket circa 1995:

Launch mass
approximately 642 tons
approximately 642 tons
Payload to low Earth orbit (200 kilometers)
up to 26 tons (62.7 degrees)
up to 27 tons (51.7 degrees)
Payload to geostationary orbit when using Briz-M upper stage
3.2 tons
3.8 tons
Payload to geostationary orbit when using KVRB upper stage
4.4 tons
5.3 tons
Payload to geotransfer orbit* when using Briz-M upper stage
5.2 tons
6.1 tons
Payload to geotransfer orbit* when using KVRB upper stage
6.9 tons
8.0 tons

(*Apogee 36,000 kilometers, inclination 7 degrees toward the Equator)

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; last update: July 3, 2016

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An exotic design of the Angara rocket proposed by GKNPTs Khrunichev in 1993, which proved to be unworkable. Credit: Russian Space Agency


The GK-6/Energia-3 proposal was at the roots of the Angara project. Credit: RKK Energia


According to original plans, the Angara would be the first rocket built in the former USSR assembled and delivered to the launch pad in vertical position. Credit: KBTM


Early proposals for the Angara family of rockets formulated around 1996-1997. These vehicles could deliver from 1,7 and 4 tons to 30 tons of payload to the low Earth orbit. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev


Various alternative configurations of the Angara rocket were studied at Khrunichev including this heavy Angara-4E, which would combine hydrogen core stage with external tanks and four standard boosters burning kerosene. This particular configuration enabled to fire the hydrogen engine on the ground, thus simplfying the flight profile. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev.


An Angara-5/KVRB concept circa 1998 with an original version of the hydrogen-powered upper stage (known as KVRB). Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev


Drastically redesigned Angara launchers displayed at the MAKS air show in August 2001. Left to right: Angara-1.1, Angara-1.2, Angara-3 and Angara-5. Even bigger -- Angara 5-UKVM -- was under consideration around that time. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak





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