Russian plans for a super-heavy rocket

In 2014, Russian space industry finalized a concept of a mega-rocket, which would make possible human expeditions to the Moon by 2030. However, the very beginning of the costly project was quickly clouded by the worsening financial situation in the country.

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A family of super-heavy launchers proposed by RKTs Progress in Samara around 2013.


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A roadmap to super-heavy launchers

As the Angara rocket family was reaching the launch pad in mid-2010s, Roskosmos had to decide on the capabilities and the architecture of the next-generation space launcher. The payload of the largest approved version of the Angara rocket approaching 25 tons to the low Earth orbit was far too small for any deep-space missions that were considered at the time as the next step in human space flight.

By 2013, Roskosmos drafted a very preliminary roadmap toward the development of heavy and super-heavy launch vehicles. Not surprisingly, it matched closely the strategy that NASA had followed since 2011 within the Space Launch System, SLS, project. Speaking at the meeting on the prospects of the Russian space program chaired by president Vladimir Putin in Blagoveshensk on April 12, the head of Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin said that the agency had been conducting a study (known as Magistral) into a launch vehicle with a payload of 75-80 tons and whose "open architecture" would enable to upgrade it later to carry up to 120-130 tons into the low Earth orbit.

Potential payloads

According to a requirement formulated by the TsNIIMash research institute, the initial heavy vehicle could deliver a 20-ton crew vehicle into the orbit around the Moon, while the upgraded super-heavy rocket could carry into the vicinity of the Moon 30-ton payloads such as lunar landing modules, piloted transport ships, crew-tended space station into the Lagrange point or an electrically propelled space tug.

2013: Organizational steps

In June 2013, the Izvestiya newspaper quoted Nikolai Panichkin, the interim director at the TsNIIMash research institute, responsible for the development of the strategic direction of the Russian space program, as saying that his organization had been preparing basic requirements for a super-heavy launcher. At the time, the pre-preliminary work on the vehicle was expected to start in 2014, leading to a formal "Technical Assignment" for the initial phase of development known in Russian as Avanproyekt. Only then, would a federal tender choose the prime developer tasked to prepare a preliminary design for the chosen architecture of the super-heavy rocket.

On Oct. 25, 2013, the newly appointed head of Roskosmos Oleg Ostapenko told the Izvestiya daily that the agency had planned to discuss the roadmap to a super heavy rocket, its potential payloads and the exact architecture of the vehicle with the Russian Academy of Sciences, in order to prepare a proposal to the Russian government. Ostapenko also disclosed that a dedicated working group on the super-heavy launcher had just been formed. On November 13, Ostapenko chaired the first meeting of industry leaders apparently comprising this working group. According to a former leading Soviet official Oleg Baklanov, who participated in the meeting, the working group was assigned to draft a foundation for the development of the super heavy launch vehicle in just few weeks, the official RIA Novosti news agency reported. Another meeting of the working group on the super-heavy launcher was scheduled for Dec. 21, 2013.

On July 21, 2014, the Russian president Vladimir Putin paid a visit to the city of Samara, south of Moscow, which included a stop at RKTs Progress, the manufacturer of the Soyuz family of rockets. The company was also vying for the leading role in the development of the future super-heavy rocket with its proposals for the STK series. Seven weeks later, on Sept. 2, 2014, during Putin's visit to Vostochny, his Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told journalists that the president had given his "preliminary approval to start the work on the super-heavy launcher." At the same time, Oleg Ostapenko proposed to channel the money that had originally been allocated to build backup launch pads for the Angara rocket in Plesetsk and in Vostochny into the super-heavy launcher program. Ostapenko has been known for his sharply negative attitude toward the Angara rocket as too small for the future needs of the Russian space program. If approved, the plan would leave Angara with a single launch pad at each of two launch sites.


Above: Head of RKTs Progress Aleksandr Kirilin demonstrates the company's proposals for super-rocket to President Putin on July 21, 2014.

Choosing an architecture for a super-heavy launcher

As the American SLS project, Russian super-heavy launcher plans envisioned building a rocket with a payload of 80-85 tons in the first phase of the program. A pair of such rockets would be enough to mount a lunar expedition. In the second phase of development, the rocket would be upgraded to carry unprecedented 130-180 tons of payload in order to support, permanent lunar bases, missions to asteroids and expeditions to Mars.

During a meeting dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the first and only Energia-Buran mission, the head of RKK Energia Vitaly Lopota said that the super-heavy rocket would be built for the purpose of delivering 15-ton military payloads to geostationary orbit, such as big communications platforms and spacecraft for electronic warfare.

As of 2013, at least four companies were expected to propose their designs for the super-heavy launcher:

  • GKNPTs Khrunichev could submit its Yenisei-5 project or Kaskad family of launchers or an Aldan concept;
  • RKK Energia was apparently banking on Zenit-based vehicles, such as Energia-K, Sodruzhestvo and Energia-5K and, later, Energia-5KV;
  • TsSKB Progress was drafting a new family of vehicles based on yet-to-be-developed methane engines or even on solid-propellant boosters;
  • GRTs Makeev proposed a series of rockets based on a reusable first stage with vertical rocket-powered landing.

In January 2014, speaking at the Korolev readings in Moscow, the head of Roskosmos Oleg Ostapenko promised to submit a proposal for a super-heavy launch vehicle to the military industrial commission of the Russian government in February. He mentioned an initial version of the booster with a payload of 80 tons (developed in a shortest possible time period) and its further incarnation carrying 160 tons or even more.

2014: Price tag and development timeline

The 2014 draft of the new Russian space program covering the period from 2016 to 2025 requested 214.6 billion rubles ($5.9 billion) for the super-heavy launcher, the Izvestiya daily reported. As much as 700 billion rubles would be required to spend by 2028 in order to build an 80-ton launcher, according to estimates made at the end of 2014 -- beginning of 2015. (744)

This money would cover the development of new engines burning carbon-based fuels, such as kerosene or liquid methane, for the first stage; hydrogen engines for the second stage and a powerful multi-engine upper stage, also relying on hydrogen fuel. The entire price tag for the project, including the monumental launch infrastructure in Vostochny and extending until 2030, was estimated at 500 billion rubles ($13.8 billion). Thus, more than half of the funding for the project would fall beyond the 2016-2025 space budget, while the active development would not start before 2016. According to the Director General of the TsNIIMash research institute Aleksandr Milkovsky, from 2016 to 2025, Russia was to prepare the design and the manufacturing basis for the super-heavy launcher, as well as initiate ground-based experimental testing of its components.

As of May 2014, the general architecture of the rocket was to be finalized before the end of the year, Milkovsky said. Under the technical assignment from Roskosmos within the Magistral R&D project, industry was to complete draft designs (avantproyekts) of the super-heavy rocket complex by December 2014. Following the evaluation of these proposals at the TsNIIMash research institute, the final design was to be chosen and the formal technical assignment would be prepared. An actual development would then start in 2016. (711)

Obviously, the pace of the costly project would depend greatly on the economic situation in the country and the resulting space budget of Roskosmos.

Finalizing the concept

By December 2014, RKTs Progress in Samara, the manufacturer of the Soyuz rocket, completed the preliminary proposals for the super-heavy rocket.

According to industry sources, the giant rocket, whose booster stages would be built in Samara, would also include a two-stage space tug developed at GKNPTs Khrunichev in Moscow, which currently builds Proton and Angara rockets. The head of the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, Oleg Ostapenko reportedly rejected alternative proposals from RKK Energia for the rocket's architecture based on Energia-5K and Energia-5KV concepts.

The space tug would feature a hydrogen-powered stage intended for escaping the Earth orbit and entering a lunar trajectory and a second stage powered by storable toxic propellants. It would be used to enter an orbit around the Moon or brake near Lagrange points. The primary payload of the launcher would be the next-generation manned spacecraft, PTK NP, currently under development at RKK Energia. In addition, the rocket would have to be able to carry a variety of unmanned hardware, such as modules of the Lunar Orbital Station, lunar landers or even pieces of a lunar base. As a result, the upper stage would need its own autonomous flight control computers and a high-capacity power-supply system capable of providing electricity for the entire stack during its journey from the Earth to the Moon. Without resorting to solar panels, onboard batteries of the stage were estimated to reach as much as a half a ton.

In their baseline calculations, developers of the mega-rocket considered a final mass of the PTK NP spacecraft reaching 24 tons, resulting in the required payload to be delivered to the low Earth orbit approaching 100 tons, sources familiar with the project said.

Scaling down the project

A special commission led by the deputy head of Roskosmos Aleksandr Ivanov reviewed proposed configurations. The commission apparently gave preference to proposals from RKK Energia based on RD-170 and RD-0120, however deemed all of them unaffordable. Instead, the recommendations were made to consider scaling down the project. At that point, GKNPTs Khrunichev proposed Angara-5V configuration as an alternative. (744)

Postponed indefinitely?

To choose the basic design of the super-heavy rocket, Roscosmos formed an inter-agency expert commission at the end of 2014, which along with key industry figures also included officials from the Ministry of Defense and the Academy of Sciences, whose support would be crucial for the future funding of the costly project. The agency's certification center, TsNIIMash, was expected to give its recommendations to the expert commission by Jan. 20, 2015. The group would then have a week for the final consideration before a joint session of the Scientific and Technical Council on January 28 and the formal approval of the rocket design expected two days later.

However with the onset of the new economic recession in Russia in 2014 and the replacement of Roskosmos leadership in January 2015, the Scientific and Technical Council, NTS, met only on March 12, 2015.

According to the official press-release after the meeting, the NTS reviewed proposals from RKK Energia, RKTs Progress and from GRTs Makeev. As expected, the NTS essentially shelved the development of the super-heavy launcher to cut as much as 700 billion rubles from the budget until 2028. The project was relegated to the development of basic technologies during a period from 2016 to 2020.

Instead, Roskosmos recommended to the develop a preliminary proposal for the upgrades of the Angara-5 rocket with hydrogen-powered stages to form the Angara-A5V variant with a payload of 35 tons to the low Earth orbit, which could carry manned vehicles into the vicinity of the Moon and onto its surface.

The NTS did recommend to continue preliminary work on some foundation technologies, which could later benifit the super-heavy launcher, such as new materials and methane-fueled rocket engine. (744) In April 2015, during his annual press-conference, the Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the super-heavy rocket had just been postponed but not canceled.

2016-2017: New beginning

By the middle of 2016, the Russian scenario for lunar expeditions based on four Angara-5V rockets was deemed too risky and unreliable. Instead, Russia's strategic plans for human exploration of deep space defaulted back to a much larger super-heavy rocket.

The path to the development of a super-heavy launcher was built into the 2016-2025 Federal Space Program, and it was apparently endorsed with a government document signed by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. By the end of 2016, there were some rumors inside the industry that the Russian president Vladimir Putin would officially endorse the costly project as early as January 2017.

By that time, the architecture of the super-rocket favored by RKK Energia under designation Energia-5VR featured a five-booster first stage powered by RD-171MV engines. The boosters themselves would derive from the Feniks and Sunkar projects (a.k.a. Soyuz-5), which aimed to build a medium-class rocket with a diameter of 4.1 meters. The RD-171-based launcher could carry between 80 and 100 tons of payload and after additional upgrades, it could lift up to 150 tons.

In 2017, Roskosmos adopted the strategy proposed within the Energia-5V concept, as a roadmap toward the superheavy rocket. Also, the third stage developed for the Angara-5V heavy vehicle was eyed as the upper stage for the super booster.

Also, an intermediate version of the rocket with three boosters on the first stage and capable of delivering between 68 and 72 tons of payload, depending on the upper stage, was also under consideration. It was apparently designated Energia-3.

Around the same time, the manned lunar expeditionary complex relying on the super-heavy rocket received a designation 601GK.0000-OPT.

Next chapter: Super-heavy rocket development in 2017


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The article, illustrations and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: December 17, 2019

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: December 15, 2014

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The initial STK booster with a payload of 85 tons and the liftoff mass of 2,500 tons as of July 2014 considered at TsSKB Progress circa 2013 and 2014.


An artist rendering of a super-heavy launcher carrying manned spacecraft on a deep-space mission. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak


A launch vehicle capable of sending a new-generation manned spacecraft to the vicinity of the Moon could reach the launch pad in the second half of 2020s. Shown architecture was considered at TsSKB Progress in the first half of 2013. Copyright © 2013 Anatoly Zak



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