Reality and ambitions – Russian plans for future after ISS

TASS news agency announces about creating conception of establishing international cislunar space station under partnership, which was established to create International Space Station. Few days earlier RCC Energia was forced to confirm that new Russian ISS module is delayed and will be launched not earlier then on December 2017.

International Space Station program is still active and nothing indicates that something could rapidly change good international cooperation which was started on January 28, 1998, when governments of 15 countries signed treaty to start creating unique habitable place in space. Until first expedition in year 2000 every country which signed this document was not considering abandoning ISS program in spite of high costs of keeping ISS operational. Most of countries signed agreement to extend operational life of ISS to 2024 and there is general agreement that decommissioning of ISS will not mean end of idea of constant presence men in space.

In 2014 partner countries which were participating in ISS program established special workgroup which task was starting discussion on possibility of establishing space station beyond LEO orbit. TASS news agency informed that this group started discussion and begun creating possible plan which covers establishing space station on Moon orbit. Similar conception was showed by Orbital ATK on May 18, 2016 and was based on using number of Cygnus spacecrafts combined with service and habitable module. In Orbital ATK conception it was not mentioned that Outpost would be able to offer conditions for permanent habitation. In plan, which started to be created in international experts workgroup mentioned by TASS, it was also nothing about possibility of long term habitation. It would be rather experimental platform for testing technologies and periodically for performing scientific experiments. It is worth to remind that main problem in lunar manned missions is fact that radiation around Moon is much stronger than on LEO and station would require more advanced radiation shields which at the moment are not enough developed. Due this fact it should not be considered as successor of ISS but rather next step in space exploration. Ambitious objectives of Russian side are nothing surprising, if we remind that Roscosmos is still developing own plan of Lunar base which would be advanced construction with many modules and would offer space for 4 cosmonauts in the beginning and up to twelve after being in last phase of development. This base is still planned for 2030s, what is rather less possible if we look at present financial condition of Russian space industry; any kind of partnership which could be helpful for Roscosmos space program, especially in Moon exploration, would be something very desirable for Russian side. Space station on Moon orbit would be for sure something what would be very useful during establishing base on Moon surface.

Recently, on June 20, 2016, RCC Energia which is contracted manufacturer of new ISS module, announced that most recent Russian ISS module MLM Nauka  is entering into final phase of assembling; unfortunately there was nothing about moving forward in time launch of the module and still it  will not be delivered to orbit before December 2017 (it means 6 months of delay). MLM Nauka is in general backup copy of Zarya, first module of ISS which was launched in 1998 and serves flawlessly until present days. Nauka was designed to be long for 13 m with diameter of 4.11 m (with mass of 20.3 t) and will offer 70 cubic meters of pressurized space for experiments. After being docked to Zvezda nadir berthing port it will also serve for docking (it was planned to equip Nauka with three docking ports) and keeping cargo. MLM Nauka is important contribution of Roscosmos to ISS and it was also considered as one of the modules which could be used after separating from decommissioned ISS. Roscosmos planned to use Nauka, Zvezda and Poinsk as incipience of new Russian space station. Originally Nauka was scheduled to be launched on 2007 but mission was continuously postponed until half of 2017. Now it seems that again we will have to wait to see Proton-M with Nauka under payload fairing for next six months.

It is quite easy to spot that Roscosmos has impressive plans and for sure enough skilled engineers to achieve them. But along with potential of Russian space industry, there is still something what is necessary-the money. If we consider fact that in the moment different countries and companies are in the possession of serious plans of LEO space stations not to mention about Orbital ATK and their Lunar Outpost, it could be said that Russian plans are rather below of possibilities of Roscosmos, or competitors significantly improved their skills.

On picture above: work inside Zvezda module.