Russia is assembling a new group of engineers who will be responsible for crafting the nation’s lunar exploration strategy. It’s another sign that a highly ambitious human space program is gaining steam in Moscow.
The new department was created inside RKK Energia space corporation, Russia’s premier developer of human spacecraft that is responsible for the venerable Soyuz.
Officially, Moscow has been on a path to put a human on the Moon since 2013, when President Putin approved a general direction for human space flight in the coming decade. The program had been stalling for several years due to falling prices for oil, the main source of revenue for the Russian budget. Last year, however, the Russian lunar exploration effort was given a new impetus when the Kremlin made a strategic decision to cooperate with NASA on the construction of a habitable outpost in the orbit around the Moon, known as Deep Space Gateway, DSG.
Although the US saw the primary goal of the DSG as a springboard for missions to Mars, NASA’s international partners, including Russia, have been pushing the idea of exploring the Moon first. On the Russian side, RKK Energia led key engineering studies into the design of the DSG and participated in negotiations with NASA on sharing responsibilities for the project.
To coordinate various technical aspects of lunar exploration, the head of RKK Energia Vladimir Solntsev signed an order late last year to form Center No. 23Ts, which would report directly to him. According to a document seen by Ars Technica, the group will be responsible for developing long-term plans for human missions to the vicinity of the Moon and to its surface, as well as for implementing proposals for international cooperation in lunar missions. This is a clear signal that NASA might soon have a new liaison in Russia for all things related to the DSG. The same group will also take care of all the relevant domestic interactions between RKK Energia and its subcontractors.
In the recent interview with the official TASS news agency, Solntsev said that the company is working toward landing the first Russian cosmonaut on the Moon in 2031. (Note that changing timelines and altered mission designs are a constant in long-term space planning.) The first expedition to the lunar surface would be preceded by test flights of a new generation of transport vehicle, known as Federatsiya (Federation), which will be put in orbit around the Moon—first in automated mode and then with the crew onboard by 2030. A specially designed lunar lander would also be flight-tested in the second half of the 2020s, according to Solntsev.
Over the past several years, engineers at RKK Energia have conducted extensive paper studies of various scenarios for putting a person on the Moon and drafted the design of the cosmonaut-operated lunar lander. The bulk of this work centered at RKK Energia’s division of prospective space systems and was led by company veteran Nikolai Bryukhanov. According to industry sources, Bryukhanov’s division will continue to lead the research and development work, while the newly created department will focus on strategy, concept generation, and international cooperation. RKK Energia is yet to staff the new division.
The first order of business for the Russian engineers is to define their contribution to the NASA-led DSG project. So far, Russians had focused on the airlock module, which would be used by spacewalking cosmonauts and astronauts and to dock arriving crew vehicles. In 2017, the Russian team had already presented a general concept of the airlock module, but in the past several months, its partners have come back with a list of new requirements for this critical component. This triggered a major rethinking of its design and its position in the overall architecture of the station.
The module will now be attached to the barrel-shape habitation module along the main axis of the outpost and be able to simultaneously receive several arriving vehicles at a single docking port. The module should also accommodate both Russian and American spacesuits, which means that its “dressing room” section should be able to accommodate three people, as one person is needed to assist a pair of astronauts donning US-built spacesuits.
As a result, engineers at RKK Energia are now brainstorming a whole new architecture, which is currently expected to be ready before April. The first rough concept of the design has already been sent to NASA for initial assessment, industry sources tell Ars Technica. If approved by all partners in the loose coalition forming around NASA’s plan, the Russian airlock module might become the main entry point into the outpost for the crews of the Orion spacecraft and, possibly, other vehicles. According to current plans, the Russian airlock module will ride to the lunar orbit as a piggyback cargo on one of the Orion’s flights launched from Cape Canaveral on the giant SLS rocket.