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Russian next-generation spacecraft project in 2007

A concept of Advanced Crew Transportation System, ACTS, also known as "Euro-Soyuz," or Crew Space Transportation System, CSTS, emerged during 2006, when Russian company RKK Energia realized that its proposals to replace the workhorse Soyuz spacecraft with the Kliper reusable glider would be too ambitious for the current level of funding of the Russian space program. As of 2006, Russian Space Agency expected to get nine billion rubles until 2012 for the development of the next generation manned transport, of which, only 500 million would be allocated for the task before 2010. As a result, the agency decided to focus on the development of a modified Soyuz, capable of reaching lunar orbit. Potentially, such spacecraft could serve as a bridge paving the way to Kliper.

ACTS heritage

Possible technological heritage, which could benefit the ACTS program.

Russian-European lunar craft takes shape

Published: 2007 March 2

After almost a year of combined efforts, Russia and Europe enter the final stage in determining a look of a new-generation spacecraft, which would carry astronauts to the Moon.

In May or June of 2007, Russian and European space officials were expected to choose what they identified as an "initial preferred concept" for a future manned spacecraft. It is the first major milestone in the implementation of the Advanced Crew Transportation System, or ACTS. The program envisions a space vehicle, which would replace Russia’s veteran Soyuz spacecraft. It is designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, ISS, and to the lunar orbit, where it could eventually support human expeditions on the surface of the Moon. The program parallels a similar NASA effort to return American astronauts to the Moon.

Manuel Valls, Head of the Policy and Plans in the Human Spaceflight and Exploration Directorate of the European Space Agency, ESA, said that the ACTS program goes far beyond of simple upgrades to the Soyuz spacecraft: “Our plans are far more ambitious, and (therefore) it will not be just modernization of the Soyuz.”

Although several concepts of the spacecraft are still under consideration, European officials are confident that their proposals for a radically modified Soyuz would become a base for future development work.

A Russian concept would give Europe responsibility for the habitation module of the future spacecraft and leave two other crucial parts – the reentry capsule and propulsion module in Russia. However, ESA pushes to take on development of both habitation module and the propulsion section, leaving Russians the most critical reentry vehicle.

Europeans hope to use their experience in the development of the Columbus module for the ISS in the design of the habitation module of the ACTS spacecraft. At the same time, the propulsion module of the European ATV cargo ship could be re-purposed for the future manned spacecraft as well.

What is certain is that the reentry vehicle of the ACTS would be based on the Soyuz, Valls said, since any other shape, such as cone, would require extensive new development work and testing.

The officials narrowed the requirements for the size of the crew to three or four people, however the decision to house four rather than three astronauts would require changing the size if not the shape of the reentry capsule. In turn, an enlarged capsule would demand an extensive testing.


In addition to major components, the European aerospace companies, such as EADS Astrium and Alcatel hope to contribute state-of-the-art subsystems of the spacecraft, such as flight control computers and guidance systems.

Docking systems

For its initial missions to the ISS, the ACTS spacecraft will be equipped with the traditional Russian docking port, featuring active and passive docking systems. However for the lunar missions, later vehicles would carry so-called androgenous ports, which would enable any vehicle to play a role of active or passive spacecraft during docking. Both American and Russian-European spacecraft are expected to carry the same docking hardware, making rescue and cooperative missions possible.

Previous Russian publications also showed androgenous ports used as connecting interfaces between various sections of the ACTS spacecraft. Valls confirmed that such configurations are indeed considered and would allow leaving various pieces of the hardware in orbit and their subsequent docking with a separately launched spacecraft. “For lunar missions, we could assemble the spacecraft in the Earth orbit out of different pieces launched by different rockets.” NASA uses a similar mission scenario in its lunar exploration program.

Ground and launch infrastructure

According to Valls, the question is still open on the location of the main assembly line for the ACTS vehicle: "Although for certain missions from Baikonur, it is logical to assemble the spacecraft in Russia, in case of launches from (an ESA spaceport in Kourou), French Guiana, the spacecraft could be built in Europe," Valls said.

Last but not least crucial choice remaining on the table of Russian and European planners is the type of the rocket, which would carry the ACTS spacecraft into orbit. The traditional Soyuz booster obviously remains available for the ACTS program, and its new launch pad in Kourou, originally built for unmanned commercial missions, would enable increased payload. “However, we’d like to use the maximum capability of this family of boosters and looked with interest at Russian proposals about the Soyuz-2-3 rocket” (a bigger, better version of the Soyuz booster.) If built, the Soyuz-2-3 could use pads in Kourou with minimal modifications.

The option of using heavy-lifting but expensive Ariane-5 rocket is not on the table at this point, according to Valls. “Such vehicle has to be "man-rated," and you can’t do it overnight,” Valls said. The certification of launch vehicles for carrying humans, known as "man-rating," usually involves the installation of a special diagnostic system, which enables early detection of catastrophic problems onboard the rocket. In its turn, the early detection system has to be linked to the emergency escape system, capable of carrying the crew capsule away from the failing rocket.

Political and financial issues

Once ESA and Russia finalize a preferred concept of the ACTS in the middle of 2007, both sides would move on to more detailed tasks of determining responsibilities of various centers and industrial contractors, Valls said. Political and financial issues, including contributions of Russia and the European Union would have to be drafted. After another year of studies, both sides plan to present a proposal to the Ministerial Council of the European Space Agency in June 2008, which would ultimately decide whether to fund a full-scale development. In December 2005, European ministers unexpectedly rejected a Russian-European proposal to develop the Kliper reusable spacecraft.

In April 2007, the head of RKK Energia Nikolai Sevastyanov told reporters that a modernized Soyuz capable of circumlunar missions could fly as soon as 2010, according to the Russian press.  

Pushing brakes on lunar plans?

Published: 2007 Jan. 17

Russian space agency, Roskosmos, poured cold shower on the lunar dreams of its main contractor in the manned space flight Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007, as the agency itself struggled to formulate its space policy in the next decade. In the unusual statement entitled "On the Episodes of Lunatism," Roskosmos publicly reprimanded the head of RKK Energia, Nikolai Sevastyanov for advertising his concept of lunar exploration as it was approved by the federal government.

"It is regrettable that the head of the flagship of the national manned space program presents untried technical ideas, far removed from approved engineering decisions and technologies, as they were the direction, which the federal government had taken in the national space policy," Roskosmos said.

Since its appointment as the head of RKK Energia in 2005, Sevastyanov made a number of optimistic statements in the press about the possibility of sending Russian cosmonauts to the Moon and even establishing a permanent lunar base there. He advertised the lunar settlement as a possible mining site for Helium-3, an exotic chemical, which could power thermonuclear reactors on Earth – a far-fetched and very controversial concept itself.

"Roskosmos, along with other interested organizations and institutions works on determining strategy for the development of the national space program, including  manned space flight. However it is too early to talk about the existence of national decisions on the exploration of the Moon and other planets," the agency’s statement concluded.

Although RKK Energia’s compaign promoting lunar exploration generated considerable publicity in the Russian press and abroad, Russian space agency provided no money for the effort, and repeatedly said it could not afford to do so in the near future. At the end of 2005, RKK Energia also suffered a major setback on the international stage, when the European Union refused to join the development of the Kliper mini-shuttle, which RKK Energia considered to be the first step in the creation of a transport system from the Earth to the Moon.

Instead, in the summer of 2006, European and Russian space agencies agreed to consider upgrading the veteran Soyuz spacecraft, (also built by RKK Energia) for possible missions around the Moon. However there was little public information available on the state of the project since then, and many observers criticized Roskosmos for the lack of vision.     

In the meantime, across the Atlantic, NASA’s own lunar plans, which is believed to be exerting considerable influence on space programs in Russia and Europe, faced a new series of budgetary hurdles. Such climate was hardly encouraging for Roskosmos to make ambitious declarations about its goals in space.

Russian space agency's irritation with the "free-thinking" leadership at RKK Energia could also come from the agency’s perceived image crisis. Unlike NASA, Roskosmos has no extensive network of field centers, which manage space projects and conduct extensive research and development work. Instead, Russian space agency relies in all its practical work on industrial conglomerates, like RKK Energia, which often see the agency as nothing more than a bureaucracy distributing government money. Not surprisingly, Russian space industry sometimes appeals directly to the government and general public, bypassing its parent agency’s clumsy public relations apparatus.

Russian government shows door to top space manager

Published: 2007 June 22

Hardly two years after a controversial change of management at the helm of Russia’s leading space firm, there was a deja-vu of sorts at the RKK Energia Corporation. On June 22, 2007, Board of Directors of the Korolev-based company ousted its popular President Nikolai Sevastyanov, who was himself appointed to the post upon dismissal of his former boss Yuri Semenov in May 2005.

Sevastyanov’s firing did not surprise observers of the Russian space program, as his frictions with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roskosmos, had been well known. The agency made the conflict with RKK Energia public earlier this year, when it reprimanded Sevastyanov for promoting an unapproved plan in the manned space flight.

The Russian government is a majority stakeholder in RKK Energia and the bulk of corporation's profits comes from government contracts to build Soyuz and Progress transport ships and develop elements of the International Space Station, ISS.   

In the best traditions of a political coup, Sevastyanov’s ouster had taken place, when he was out of the country, representing RKK Energia at the prestigious Paris Air and Space Show in Le Bourget, France. As rumors of Sevastyanov’s inevitable dismissal were brewing in Moscow and Paris, he abruptly left the show for Russia, but apparently too late to change his fate.

In the sign of defiance, RKK Energia’s management released a statement on the company’s web site, expressing full confidence in its current leader and appealing to the First Vice Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov to appoint an open interagency commission, which could resolve the matter.

Among managers and engineers at RKK Energia Sevastyanov earned a reputation of an energetic and competent leader. However he did advocate ambitious long-term goals in space, which critics saw as technically controversial and financially unrealistic. Nevertheless, a positive public opinion about Sevastyanov was unmistakable. While in 2005, few had questioned government's decision to send the aging president of RKK Energia to retirement; this time, messages on online space related forums overwhelmingly supported Sevastyanov and fiercely criticized Roskosmos' handling of the dismissal, along with the agency's ability to lead Russian space program.

Vitaliy Lapota, the head of St Petersburg-based TsNII RTK is considered to be the main candidate to succeed Sevastyanov. A former director of the Russian space agency Yuri Koptev was previously believed to be among candidates. According to the Russian press, a new president of RKK Energia could be formally appointed during general shareholders meeting scheduled for July 14, 2007. In the meantime, Aleksander Strekalov, the head of RKK Energia's production plant, is expected to lead the company.

Work on the ACTS project jump starts

On Aug. 21, 2007, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, announced that it reached an agreement with Europe to form a working group on the development of a new manned transported system, which could support missions to the International Space Station, ISS, as well as lunar expeditions and even flights to Mars. Talks between head of Roskosmos Anatoly Perminov and the head of the European Space Agency, ESA, Jean-Jacques Dordain had been taking place at the MAKS-2007 air and space show in Zhukovsky, Russia. Perminov added that representatives of the Russian and European space industry were expected to start work on the project in September 2007 and the framework for the cooperation would be ready before the end of 2007. Roskosmos did not reaveal any details on the possible configuration of the future spacecraft.

Russia, Europe favor enlarged Soyuz capsule for future lunar ship

Published: 2007 Oct. 23; updated Oct. 29; Dec. 28

Russian and European space officials chose a bell-shaped crew module as a preferred configuration for the next-generation manned spacecraft. Resembling Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the new vehicle will be larger and heavier than its predecessor in order to accommodate from four to six people on a journey to the lunar orbit. The current size of the Soyuz limits the crew by three people.

The decision to focus on the particular design of the crew module represents a major milestone for the Russian-European project, aiming manned expeditions to the Moon. It is a result of the latest round of joint efforts by the European and Russian specialists, which started in early September 2007. Designers came up with as many as 10 possible configurations of the future spacecraft, including winged and wingless gliders, aero-capture vehicles and traditional capsules of various shapes. Engineers then conducted so-called “trade-off analysis,” considering pros and cons of each configuration for missions to the Moon and in the low-Earth orbit.

On October 18, 2007, during a meeting in Moscow, European and Russian space industries presented European Space Agency, ESA, and Russian space agency, Roskosmos, with the results of their studies. A day later, representatives from two space agencies met to consider a framework for the future agreement.

In the wake of the Moscow meeting, ESA and Roskosmos issued a joint letter to the industry on October 24, 2007, asking to develop a preliminary concept of a modular vehicle, including the reentry capsule, a habitation module and the service/propulsion module.

"We narrowed down the design concept for the future work," Manuel Valls, Head of the Policy and Plans in the Human Spaceflight and Exploration Directorate of the European Space Agency, ESA, told

For the design of the reentry capsule, agencies preferred a concept known in the Russian space industry as a “headlight.” The term appeared in the early 1960s, when Soviet engineers chose the shape of the Soyuz crew module, resembling a headlight of a typical car at the time.

Now, almost half a century later, Russian and European engineers hope to correct a major shortcoming of the Soyuz crew module – its extremely small size. "Have you seen the interior of the Soyuz’s reentry craft? Can you squeeze another person in there?" Nikolai Bryukhanov, RKK Energia's leading engineer working on prospective space systems, asked rhetorically about the possibility of upgrading the existing Soyuz spacecraft.

According to the agreement between Europe and Russia, industries would evaluate vehicles carrying from four to six people. Preliminary concepts of such spacecraft should be ready by mid-December 2007.

The rocket and the lander

In the complex engineering picture of the lunar expedition, a transport ship would be only one piece of a puzzle. Simultaneously, Europe and Russia would have to build a lander, delivering astronauts to the surface of the Moon, along with rockets sending the expedition into orbit. Both Russian and European officials indicated that neither side would lobby for the development of a giant rocket, which would be capable of lifting the entire expedition in a single launch. Instead, the transport ship with the crew and the lander will likely ride separate rockets into the Earth orbit, where they link up for a journey to the Moon. (It is the scenario NASA adopted for its program of return to the Moon.)

Unlike the Soyuz spacecraft, its namesake rocket has still potential for upgrades to carry heavier cargo. Conveniently, the Soyuz rocket will soon receive a brand-new launch pad at the European space center in French Guiana. Although officially, the Soyuz is coming to the equatorial site to launch commercial satellites, Europeans quietly conducted a feasibility study on its potential use for manned missions from the spaceport. In Guiana, the Soyuz launch pad would be just few miles away from its larger European counterpart – the Ariane-5 rocket, which looks to be close to a weight category needed to carry a lunar lander.  "At this stage, only general consideration to the design of the lander is given," Valls said, "We are not doing the work on the Moon lander..."

Sharing responsibilities

Along with design aspects of the project, Europe and Russia will have to resolve a difficult and politically loaded issue of rights and responsibilities in the new project. Given limited budgets for space, both sides need each other to accomplish such an expensive and risky enterprise as the lunar expedition, yet, both have to watch their internal constituencies and lobbies satisfied. On one side, Europe wants independent access to space for its astronauts, rather than to be a sub-contractor for traditional Russian spacecraft developers. On the other hand, Russia is adamant about preserving its own technical independence with a full complement of spacecraft, rockets and workforce to support it. Unlike post-Soviet 1990s, Russian space industry is no longer a beggar willing to take any paying job. All these conflicting political requirements could be as important as the reentry capsule’s shape and the crew size.

If this is not enough, mutual suspicions between Europe and Russia in the larger geopolitical scene of the last few years, from energy disputes to missile defense, further complicate the weather around any Russian-European cooperative venture. Yet, when the ministerial council of the EU will meet again to discuss lunar ambitions at the end of 2008, European leaders would have several other political issues to consider. One is a glaring fact that NASA is four years ahead with its decision to return astronauts to the Moon and the United States seems determined to do alone, if necessary. Next, on the horizon are rising giants of Asia, including China and India, who made their wishes for exploring the Moon loud and clear.

At this historic juncture, Russia and Europe can hardly afford to stay out of the journey to the Moon. The question is how to do it, and in the closing weeks of 2007, their space leaders might make a critical move.

On Nov. 9, 2007, Roskosmos announced that the Russian government had approved its proposals for the development of the new spacecraft, the launch vehicle and the launch site. According to Roskosmos, such proposals had been submitted to the government six months before. It was expected that a special meeting of the agency's board, including leading industry officials, would consider the new program after consultations with foreign partners, who were interested to take part in the development, Roskosmos said.

Vostochny factor

On Dec. 20, 2007, speaking at the meeting of the division on energy, machine building, mechanics and control process of the Russian Academy of Science, the head of RKK Energia Vitaly Lopota said that his organization developed two versions of the "new reusable" spacecraft: a capsule and a lifting body with folding wings. According to Lopota, the history of space exploration had proved the advantage of the capsule design over the winged configuration, prompting NASA to abandon Shuttle in favor of Apollo-like capsule, but in reusable form. "RKK Energia's designers chose the same path," Lopota said, "making the Soyuz upgrades... the first step in that process."

A new factor, which apparently could affect the design of the next-generation spacecraft, was the government's decision to base future manned space operations in Vostochny in the Far East. Lopota said that since the launch trajectory from Vostochny would extend some 12,000 kilometers beyond Russian borders, the future spacecraft would have to be capable of extended maneuvering in case of emergency during the launch. To solve the problem, RKK Energia proposed a "transformer" or "lifting body," which would unfold its wings after overcoming highest temperature loads at the altitudes from 90 to 50 kilometers. The vehicle would then land on the runway as a glider. Lopota admitted, however that few airfields were available in the Far East for emergency landings.

Speaking of launch vehicles for the prospective manned spacecraft, Lopota stressed the importance of the heritage left by the Zenit rocket, which "nobody surpassed."

Push into 2008

At the year-end press conference at the official Interfax news agency on Dec. 27, 2007, the head of Roskosmos, Anatoly Perminov said that the "competition for the best project of a new-generation manned spacecraft would be completed by April 2008." Perminov called a "lifting body" the preferred configuration, but went on saying that it will be "capsule-type vehicle" derived from Soyuz. According to Perminov, the cooperation with the Europeans was in active mode and the latest round of contacts had taken place at the beginning of December 2007.

Perminov also said that the new spacecraft would fly from the new site in Vostochny and its launches from Baikonur were unlikely. According to Perminov, the program could involve cooperation with India and Europe. However, hinting about possible hurdles in negotiations with the Europeans, Perminov said that "we don't know to what level of cooperation Europe would go in the development of such system." He stressed that a special agreement with Europe on the cooperation in the development of the manned spacecraft might be required in the near future.



Written and illustrated by Anatoly Zak

All rights reserved

Last update: December 28, 2007


Artist rendering of the modified Soyuz proposed within Advanced Crew Transportation System, ACTS. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2006 Anatoly Zak

Major elements of the upgraded Soyuz spacecraft proposed within the ACTS program. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2006 Anatoly Zak


Artist rendering of a reported concept, which would "marry" the propulsion section of the European ATV cargo ship with a Russian-built reentry vehicle. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2006 Anatoly Zak


An artist interpretation of a possible ACTS concept proposed by European officials, based on available information. It includes a European-built habitation module (left), Russian-built reentry capsule (center) and European-built propulsion module (right). Even a heavily modified Soyuz spacecraft was unlikely to satisfy requirements of the ACTS program due to a crew size limited by three. Click to enlarge Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak

Soyuz ACRV

A concept of enlarged Soyuz for as many as eight people, considered in mid-1990s could serve as a starting point for the ACTS development team. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak