New Vostochny spaceport to launch manned flights by 2018

Proton-M rocket launch at Baikonur. Source: ITAR-TASS

Proton-M rocket launch at Baikonur. Source: ITAR-TASS

Last week, Dmitry Rogozin vowed a new spaceport, Vostochny, will be built in the Russian Far East by 2015, with first manned flights to kick off just three years later. However the project is already raising eyebrows with many space pundits.

The Vostochny base is set to swing into action in 2015 with the launch of the Russian and Soviet renowned workhorse, Soyuz-2, another version of Sergei Korolyov’s legendary R-7 Semyorka missile. As of now, a bare building site of Vostochy is soring the eyes just as the construction ground of Baikonur did back in 1954, three years before the first satellite launch. The only difference is that, unlike the steppe-based Baikonur, Vostochny will be towering amid the Russian taiga. And indeed, up until the recent time, this important space facility was referred to as “Taiga” to lead potential spies off the scent.

The spaceport has capitalized on the infrastructure of the Red Banner Rocket Division, which was disbanded in 1990s, handing its facilities down to the failed Svobodny spacebase. The Svobodny port was far from a success story, having seen only five launches of light Start rockets (revamped Topols) over the entire seven years of its existence (1997-2006).  

The Svobodny port was closed for its inefficiency in the mid 2000s when the Russian military armed forces faced the chopping block. But the dream of a new “space gate” survived to blossom out in 2007 amid Russia’s economic awakening. According to the plan, the brand new Vostochny base was to be located near the closed Svobodny site to benefit from the Uglegorsk infrastructure, as well as from the Transsiba-Ledyanaya railway station and the 2010 Amur highway.

However, even extensive infrastructure doesn’t make the construction terms look less ambitious, considering its launching pads will be used for more intricate tasks than Start rocket launches. The port will also require a first-rate airfield with an up to 5,000km runway to see off super-heavy military airlift Ruslan jets with rocket carrier blocs on board. For instance, it took the Soviet Union three years to go the whole way with Baikonur from marking out the area to test-launching the first R-7 rockets.

The 1991 Soviet collapse left Baikonur, the world’s first and largest space launch facility, on the Kazakhstan’s territory, although it still remains a busy space port, accounting for the major bulk of Russian state and commercial space launches. However, Russia is now shifting some of its space programs to the Plesetsk spacecenter in the Arkhangelsk region, which is to host a launching pad for the perspective Angara rocket. It’s also worth noting that both Baikonur and Plesetsk are still lagging far behind their Soviet-era 90 to 100 launches a year.

Today, the launching capacity of both space bases could be upped by 1.5 times if necessary. Reserve launch pads for light and conversional rockets are still hosted by Kapustin Yar in the Astrakhan region and Russian Strategic Rocket Forces grounds. Hence, the purpose for erecting a new cosmodrome is not to relieve the existing ones of over-the-board missions, as there are in fact not enough of them.

On the one hand, the lease of Baikonur is not that cheap and every foiled launch tends to overshadow the Kazakh-Russian relationship. On the other hand, this spacecenter remains the only “center of attraction” for the two nations, a crucial point in their integration, whereas a significant drop in the number of launches after the introduction of the Vostochny alternative would only mark its decline. Moreover, there is no reason to expect Russia to come up with enough missions for both spaceports.

The construction of the Vostochny port in the Russian Far East is further justified by its potential to create more scientific, well-paid jobs in the region, which in its turn would allow for more jobs in the local service industry and would boost the region’s economic growth, a task that could however be tackled in another way. Only the future will tell what arguments seem to be more lucrative.

First published in The Voice of Russia

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