Vostochny Cosmodrome

Discussion in 'Science & Technology in Russia' started by Drutten, May 27, 2013.

  1. Drutten

    Drutten Collegiate Secretary (10th class)

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    The Russian space program currently uses the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the bulk of its launches, including all manned ones. Some unmanned launches do take place from the much smaller Plesetsk cosmodrome northeast of St. Petersburg (south of Arkhangelsk) and other minor orbital launches also occur from time to time at Dombarovsky AFB and at the secret military missile range at Kasputin Yar (known as Russia's "Area 51"), but the latter are mere parentheses to the bigger picture. They also used to launch occasional space rockets from a bunch of small sites until quite recently (mostly piggybacking on extant ICBM operations), the last one of these minor sites ceased its space activities about five years ago.

    Additionally, Russian Soyuz rockets have since 2011 been operating out of the ESA Kourou spaceport in French Guyana. This of course involves a significant Russian presence too, but all in all ESA is running the show there.

    Now, the Baikonur spaceport has long been the mainstay of the Russian space program, a position it held during Soviet times as well. No wonder, it rose to international fame and secured its place in history with space age pioneers Sputnik 1 and Gagarins Vostok 1. It subsequently grew to become absolutely gigantic and it has supported everything from space stations to numerous interplanetary missions, including many worlds firsts. It is the only spaceport together from NASAs Cape Canaveral/Kennedy that has supported big honkin' shuttle operations (being the short-lived, albeit largely succesful Buran) and proper lunar missions*, including the first soft landing altogether, and the first automatic rovers and sample return probes. To this day it remains the world's largest spaceport and it contains facilities and general infrastructure able to handle pretty much anything you can think of in a spaceflight context.

    But there is a big catch. With the Central Asian political map having been seriously redrawn, this amounts to some serious rental fees for Russia, as it's in Kazakh territory at present. Also, this makes the question of upgrading the often aged facilities a difficult one. This situation has obviously become bit of a nuisance, but the Russians have so far accepted it as the spaceport infrastructure is, as noted, well established there, it works well and its position is much closer to the equator than the other main launch site in Plesetsk, which makes it a whole lot more efficient for big launches (such as manned ditto).

    However, an alternative is on the way. Back in 2009 the idea of a new massive spaceport on Russian soil able to facilitate future heavy launch systems, including manned ones, finally gained some serious momentum. In 2011, construction started and right now (May 2013) they're constructing Soyuz launch pads there with additional pads meant for the future Angara LV and possibly the Yenisei LV to come. In other words, the Vostochny cosmodrome is becoming reality and it's gonna be brand new. The Roscosmos budget has been doubled in only a few years and apart from these big construction endeavours they have also ordered a new fleet of freshly made, modern aircraft for their transport and training needs, they're actively pursuing new generations of launch vehicles and spacecraft and in summary it really seems like they have their sights set on a major revamping, shedding nearly all old Soviet remains.

    As expected in current Russia, not everything is all fine and dandy though. A bunch of odd corruption issues involving the contractors and on site workers at Vostochny have recently been exposed. Luckily, we're talking comparably small amounts of money here (could be a lot worse) and the appropriate authorities actually seem to me to have done a good job to date weeding some of those less pretty elements out. The most recent issue was somebody bringing in food without quality assurance - a modest $64 fine ensued.

    I dare to be positive regarding this, I think they're actually gaining the upper hand vs. corruption in general these days and the general attitude toward the phenomenon is rapidly changing too. It is in fact quickly approaching Western levels (yes, it does exist here too, believe it or not), having recently improved a lot over many other Eastern European states. Mr. Karlin has talked about this on numerous occasions and it's really a separate discussion, so let's leave that whole thing for other, more appropriate parts of this forum.

    Now, even before this new spaceport gets put into use it is worth noting that Russia has in fact remained the world's number one space power for years despite occasional financial difficulties and similar troubles. You don't hear about this that much for some reason, but here are some basic figures illustrating this:
    • In 2012, 27 out of a total of 72 orbital launches were Russian (runner-ups are 19 Chinese, 12 US, rest divided between Europe, India, Japan etc).
    • In 2013, 10 out of 27 so far have been Russian (7 US, 2 Chinese, rest as above).
    • Furthermore, out of those seven American launches this year, the majority (5) used Russian-designed first stage rockets (and in 4 of those cases, also Russian-made). Needless to say the Chinese ones tend to contain a decent amount of Russian tech as well...
    • Russia is the only nation to have conducted manned launches this year and in 2012 it beat China 4-1 in manned launch numbers. In crew-to-orbit numbers a whopping 12-3. The sole Chinese Shenzhou launch of 2012 was also their first one in 4 years, whereas the Soyuz has conducted steady operations all this time. US astronauts that have flown 2012-2013 have been aboard Russian vehicles as the shuttles are retired since 2011.
    ...The first orbital launch from Vostochny is expected in five years. So, what is really the future of Russian spaceflight? Will they stay dominant overall with their immense experience and reliable, affordable technologies or will the US and/or China catch up soon (again, in the case of the US)? Is the current Russian lead just some kind of fortunate fluke? What kind of impact do you think a brand new, proper spaceport will have? Especially now that it's destined to be completely Russian? These are all interesting questions for sure. :)

    Another most interesting matter is the overall international political situation, where space agencies such as Roscosmos, NASA, ESA, JAXA, CSA and so on are deepening their cooperation (rather than fiercely competing for prestigious reasons) while they (especially the Americans) are consistently ignoring and blocking out their Chinese equivalent in every possible way. This is an interesting read on the matter (PDF):
    http://rules.house.gov/Media/file/PDF_112_1/Floor_Text/FINAL2011_xml.pdf

    I quote:
    At the same time, NASA just signed up for another four years worth of American astronauts on Russian ships. The European ESA also signed up for extended cooperation with Roscosmos for future Mars endeavours which further cements their close relations, together with the aforementioned Soyuz LV cooperation deal at Kourou. The Russians are also welcoming future American cargo craft such as the upcoming Cygnus transport ship as it makes life better for everybody at the end of the day.

    This direction of things sure doesn't mirror the apparently neverending attempts at resurrecting the Cold War dinosaur that we so often see in written media in the West... And I admit, this is indeed a bit off topic in regards to the Vostochny project, but I just wanted to put things into a larger perspective.

    Feel free to discuss this and other things that may pertain to this Vostochny endeavour and the future of Russian spaceflight!

    *Many others have gone there in various ways but only Russia and the US have landed and returned, bringing back lunar soil and such. Of course the amazing achievements of the US Apollo programme are without compare (hey, people on the flippin' moon!), but let's not diminish the fact that the Russians did pioneer a whole lot in that area too.
  2. Drutten

    Drutten Collegiate Secretary (10th class)

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    Here are some satellite photos of the construction process at Vostochny:

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    I would guess that the upper photo shows general facilities. The lower one has the distinct features of a Soyuz launch pad and support infrastructure. :)

    Also, here is a promotion video. In addition, it shows some of the construction work as of April:
  3. Drutten

    Drutten Collegiate Secretary (10th class)

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    Well, work has continued and the cosmodrome and its surrounding infrastructure's taking shape fast.

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    Carlo likes this.

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