Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that rarely breaks Earth’s gravitational pull.
In this week’s post we discuss a cancelled rocket launch in Russia and what that means for the Russian aeronautics and space industry. We’ll put some context into the situation by discussing the gallantry of rocketry in the Soviet era and what impact that has on restoring it in modern day Russia.
The Current: Cancelled!
On Friday June 27, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos postponed the much vaunted rocket Angara just before its scheduled takeoff. The space agency cited an unknown technical issue that was caught by the automated diagnostics system as the reason behind the cancellation. Roscosmos declared that the ‘minor technical issue’ would be resolved and that they would attempt the launch again on Saturday the 28th.
Once again though, the maiden voyage of the Angara was postponed again on Saturday and the rocket has been shelved indefinitely until the fixes can be made (the problems are still unknown). The Angara was supposed to be the headlining rocket of a new class of Russian space rockets that were to bring the Russian space and rocket program back into the first class international picture.
The string of rocket failures (all with Proton design rockets) in the past three years culminating with the much anticipated Angara delay (with President Putin watching live footage) has certainly taken the air out of the high hopes the Russians have had for their revamped program (at least for now). The Angara program was to be entirely Russian built – a program begun soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. The program has been successful in building rockets entirely made in Russia and, as was scheduled, to be launched in Russia as well at Plesetsk (a former Soviet missile site), in the North of the country. The program was designed to compete with privately run international competitors SpaceX and ArianeSpace.
Who is Angara?
The Angara rocket (named after a Siberian River) is heavier than its Proton design predecessors, uses a different fuel (liquid oxygen and kerosene instead of hydrazine), could carry up to 25 tons, and was making its first voyage into lower Earth’s orbit. But the industry and company, Krunichev Space center are the same that built the failed Proton rockets, such as the crash just last month carrying sophisticated satellite equipment.
The new launch site is also called into question. In an effort to make the program entirely Russian, the historic Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan was abandoned in favor of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome site – one of two new launch sites within Russia’s territory (the other under construction in Vostochny in the far East). One must wonder if there is a connection between the company, new site, and the rocket issues.
The all-Russia program is immensely important to President Putin who personally followed the events following Friday’s cancellation to make sure that Angara did not end up as another failed launch: ““Do not rush the work. Carefully analyze everything and report to me after an hour,” Putin told (Defense Minister) Shoigu.
A Whole Lot of Anticipation
We can start to see why President Putin would be so personally invested in the space programs redevelopment once we take a close look at the economic implications of the Angara program. But it becomes even more so in its historical and cultural meaning for Russia.
Yes, the new program has been in place since 1994. Yes, the program has cost nearly $3 billion. But you see, being at the top of the class in rocketry and the space program used to be Russia’s thing. The Angara is supposed to be the rocket that starts to get some of that mojo back.
A Blast From the Past (who expected that headline?)
Science faced numerous challenges in the Soviet Union in pre-World War II years where scientists were undervalued in society and faced terrible repression if they were found to be a threat to the Kremlin in any way. The ‘Stalinist Purges’ as they were known, infamously erased many of the top minds in Soviet society in the late 1930s. The war, however, showed how valuable science (especially physics) was when applied to certain technology – namely ballistics for military purposes. The atomic bomb displayed to Stalin just how important and powerful the sciences could be – and duly plunged efforts (and finances and resources) into creating a Soviet bomb to match the Americans (which it was in 1949).
As the mostly clandestine scrambling for nuclear weaponry accelerated, the civilian technological developments were racing at mind-boggling speeds as well in the throes of the Cold War. While simultaneously developing intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry atomic weapons, the Soviets were also busy reaching milestones in space, showing their industrial might and the extent to which they had invested in science and technology.
By launching the first satellites, having the first human orbit the Earth, first space walk, and have the first craft land on the moon, the Soviets had reached a pinnacle in aeronautics that was astonishingly fast given the difficult political and economic barriers. The Soviet legacy began to tarnish following the American milestones from the moon and the continuing success of NASA, but Soviet rocketry remains a potent symbol today even after the devastating blows from the fall of the USSR to huge budget cuts and an exodus of scientists.
So, the Angara program is Putin’s hope for a restoration of Soviet glory days?
Well, that simplistic view is not quite what it seems.
The Exploring Bear: Ursa Major
A successful Angara space flight would begin to put Russia back on the map as a major world player. Much like we saw in the Sochi Olympic opening ceremony, Russia is hoping to revamp its once vaunted industrial might – to show the world that the old bear is not hibernating any more – that Russia today is worthy of respect.
One can make arguments that the long term investment in Russian rocketry is part of the effort, along with increased political involvement (see Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria), to command more respect from global leaders after the USSR’s collapse, but to make the connection is a bit speculative.
I think it is important to note the individual effort to which Russia is going with its Angara program – to accomplish it completely using Russian materials, Russian design, and Russian bases. Going away from the Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan (which it had a long term lease on) is moving away from a facility that is also used by the U.S. to send astronauts to the International Space Station to a location where it has complete control. Perhaps this is also a symbol of breaking away from international cooperation (which the ISS continues to be).
It’s clear that since the Russians invested so much in the program, they’re not abandoning their project after their failures thus far. This is a project upon which much is weighing: historical pride, national investment, and international fame – not something that Putin would give up anytime soon.
Until the next suborbital transflight,
Your Faithful Historian and Observer,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb. Yale University Press, 1994.