Kliper: too many unknowns


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) - People say that Russians and Americans are very much alike. Mentally, of course. Especially when we think of something big and impressive, such as a space effort.

Sometimes, we copy each other's problems with mirror-like precision. Here is the latest example.

Until recently no one could doubt the prospects of Russia's reusable space transport system. For some years the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) has been talking its head off about the Kliper craft as the system's core. When early this year a tender was announced for developing and manufacturing a spaceship, it was a mere formality. Everybody knew the winner would be the Energiya Rocket and Space Corporation's Kliper project. Its features have been paraded dozens of times, its mock-ups have been on display at shows and exhibitions from Tokyo to Paris to Berlin. The fruit was about to fall from the tree.

Also until recently we knew practically nothing of a similar American project. The Americans intend to build, under NASA's Constellation Program, the reusable Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) for missions to the International Space Station and, later to the Moon and Mars.

Overnight everything changed. Late in June, speaking at the Farnborough aerospace show, the Roskosmos leadership suddenly announced that they were suspending the tender and would instead adopt a multi-stage program of creating a space transport vehicle. Now the main emphasis is on the time-tested orbital workhorse, the Soyuz spacecraft. On the American side, everything is tip-top and clear. They have even come up with a name: Orion.

From elementary algebra we know that a linear equation like X + 5 = 10 can be solved when there is only one unknown. The Americans seem to be on good terms with mathematics. According to NASA's interpretation, everything is clear and understandable. If the two aerospace giants - Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman - plus Boeing, which all claim leadership of the Constellation Program, are given the 1.1 billion dollars allocated for the development and construction of the spacecraft by 2012, we will get the desired X: the Orion.

For the Russian program, or its new package, it is impossible even to compile a rough equation. Here is a quote from an Internet news briefing held by Roskosmos chief Anatoly Perminov, who on July 24 tried to explain the sudden change in the plans to build a Russian space transport system.

"The year-by year breakdown of research and development costs provided by companies bidding to build a likely ship, in particular the Kliper, exceeds the figures in the Russian Federal Space Program budget for 2006-2015, so the program must be drastically changed.

"In view of the above, after examining the bids, a proposal by the Energiya Rocket and Space Corporation to develop a promising transport system in two or three stages was given preference. Its suggestion for the first stage is to upgrade and modernize the Soyuz spacecraft, which has proved its worth over forty years of operation by being very reliable and relatively cost-effective in taking a crew member to an orbiting station. The modernization effort, in our view, should ensure that the new Soyuz makes not only orbital flights, but also missions to the Moon, making room for new engineering solutions and system tests for use in the next stages of development of a new-generation craft. The results of first-stage work may help us to decide on the type of the next-generation ship, if one is necessary."

Even a cursory glimpse at the quote suggests there are three unknowns involved. The first is money. The part about "breakdown of costs" leads us to understand that no money has been or is available for the Kliper.

Strange. The new spacecraft has been in the news for some time now. Time enough for its full-scale replica to be put on view at the MAKS-2005 air show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, where it was photographed by dozens of journalists and seen by hundreds of tourists. A bit later, a special government resolution, dated October 22 and numbered 635, approved Russia's Federal Space Program. The Manned Flights subsection explicitly tells us that "... steps are planned to develop a new-generation spacecraft."

It emerges that Energiya and all the rest of them have been working on something which was in no way to be subsidized. Or, if subsidized, then the program had to be "drastically changed."

To my knowledge, Energiya has estimated the cost of the Kliper project at $1 billion. Let us recall, incidentally, the American program's $1.1 billion. But the Federal Program budgeted only one-third of that sum. In other words, a super-modern craft was to have been built without sufficient financing. But I do not think that anyone would ever have managed to develop and build a space transporter for the price of a pair of pantyhose.

The second unknown in this para-mathematical solitaire is the space veteran, the manned Soyuz ship. Why all this fuss with the Kliper if Energiya always had an ace up its sleeve - the Soyuz orbiter - which can easily be passed off as a Lunik? True, upgrading the ship would involve substantial outlays, as an old rule of thumb says about recarving something old into something new.

And the last unknown is the Kliper itself, which will now get a new lease on life "if necessary". This "if" breeds sad thoughts about the prospects for the re-engineered Soyuz and its ability to stride across centuries.

It is clear that developing a Kliper-type reusable spacecraft was attempted on the off-chance that it would be possible to fund it, which is so typical of Russians. But the well-spinned Russian idea failed to catch the attention of both Russian and foreign sponsors.

No one disputes that Russia is a great space power, and no one will ever doubt it as long as we throw out the deadwood of "unknowns" from our programs.

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