Interview with RSC Energia's Yuri Semenov


Interview with the Technical Director of Russia's manned space programs, President of S.P.Korolev RSC Energia, Designer General, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yu.P.Semenov that was given to a "Russian Gazette" correspondent.


Russian Gazette: Yuri Pavlovich, what is the mood at your Corporation on the day of its anniversary? What are its prospects? After all, the final decade of the last century was very difficult for the space industry.

Semenov: Paradoxical as it may seem, during the most difficult years of the last decade, especially the last five years of the last century, we have managed to preserve our potential, we have kept our intellectual elite, our staff from leaving. We have done some very good initial work on new projects. We have deployed several large-scale space projects. So, there have been some successes. But, on the other hand, we have to work under difficult conditions of insufficient funding and always look for ways to make ends meet. Hence our mood. If we had to address only technical problems, this would have been much more efficient both for the Corporation and for the country.

Russian Gazette: Nevertheless, in the last few years Energia has been participating in a number of unique space projects.

Semenov: First of all, let me say a few words about Mir space station. It's a great pity that this outstanding program came to an end. After 15 years of efficient operation of this station, we have finished its work in proper manner. There had been much talk about Mir falling down in the wrong place causing much trouble. This was a very difficult problem, but we have managed to deal with it. At its own expense and on a very short notice, the Corporation developed a new logistics vehicle Progress M1, which is much more efficient than the earlier version of Progress logistics vehicle. The new vehicle assured the required attitude of the space station, provided a specified retro burn to deorbit it and bring it down into a preselected area in the ocean with very high precision. That was very fine work.

Mir experience and the fact that in the last few years its configuration was completed, and that it operated as an international space station allowed our Corporation to enter into new, most promising projects. First of all this is the International Space Station (ISS) project. It has 16 participant countries. At present, these countries have invested in this project more than 26 billion dollars.

Russian Gazette: When the international crew of T.Musabaev/Yu.Baturin/D.Tito returned from ISS, our cosmonauts when describing the mission were making comparisons between Mir and the new station, and said that Mir had been much more comfortable and cozy.

Semenov: I think that was just nostalgia. Both Talgat Musabaev and Yuri Baturin had worked on Mir. And, of course, for them that station had been like home, while ISS is still under construction and will only become full-fledged in about four years. There can be no doubt that this is a new-generation space station, much more advanced, with ample power supply. And this translates into a very different range of opportunities, a much wider one, for science, among other things.

Mir laid a foundation for the classic approach to space station design: principle of modularity, multidisciplinary scientific experiments, adaptability to different tasks, transportation support, and many other things. All that we first tried on Mir, we are now going to apply to the international station on a new level. But, of course, properly speaking, ISS is not the first international space station. You know that Americans proposed to call it Alpha. But in actual fact everybody understands that alpha-station, station number one, is, undoubtedly, Mir.

Russian Gazette: What is the role of Russia and your company in the creation of ISS?

Semenov: The very idea to build ISS belongs to RSC Energia. This idea was born and started to be implemented as far back as 1993.

As a matter of fact, all the previous years the Americans had been working on space station Freedom. They advertised it at every exhibition as a great achievement and the next step in manned space flight. The project also involved participation of Canada, Japan and European countries. During ten years of work on it about 12 billion dollars were spent. But when we saw these designs in Houston where, in the early 1990s, we were invited by Johnson Space Center, it became clear to us, on the basis of the experience we had with Mir, that in spite of its grand scale project Freedom was not to be. The main miscalculation was their underestimation of the importance to a space station design of a Soyuz-class spacecraft. We had some cases where we had to urgently evacuate the crew. For example, when cosmonauts Vladimir Vasyutin and Alexander Laveikin got ill in orbit. There also has been some trouble during Valeri Ryumin's mission - once again a Soyuz was sent to his succor. Americans, on the other hand, put their money on their Space Shuttle. The vehicle of this kind is efficient for simultaneous deliveries to the station of crews and unique pieces of large expensive cargo and their return to Earth. But it is impossible to use the Space Shuttle as a transportation/logistics and crew rescue vehicle which is supposed to permanently stay as a part of the space station and to be ready for use at a moment's notice. It is not technically fit for such a role and it is too expensive.

So, when in the early 1990s we visited Boeing, one could feel that Americans themselves started to realize it. After the meeting and discussion of these problems with the US side, just one week later, upon return to Moscow, me and the head of the then just established Russian Space Agency Yu.N.Koptev signed in March 1993 a letter about joining our forces, and Russia entered into this international project. In two year's time the design was virtually ready.

Today Russia plays a fundamental role in the implementation of the ISS project: firstly, we have built Zvezda Service Module (the only one for now), which is the key element of the station. This module provides the focal point for the life support systems, fueling system, control system with the necessary software, and everything that is needed to support long-duration crew activities. Secondly, we have Soyuz TM vehicle which permanently stays within the station and provides crew rescue capability. Only in this case the station can be permanently manned, and not just visited by crews from time to time. And there are some experiments, which require humans to stay in orbit for very long periods of time.

Soyuz TM can seat three cosmonauts. In its day, Mir could simultaneously accommodate three such vehicles, which meant that a crew of nine could permanently work on-board the station. This provided more opportunities for scientific experiments.

Lastly, the only vehicle today, which can deliver propellant to the space station, is our Progress M logistics vehicle.

Not to mention the great experience accumulated over the thirty years during which we have been working on manned space stations.

So, not only we, but our partners from abroad, clearly realize that if Russia quits, there just won't be any ISS project.

Russian Gazette: Why then was so much pressure applied to us in connection with the flight of American Denis Tito to ISS as a member of a Russian crew? And, speaking in general terms, what are the relationships between international partners during the implementation of ISS projects?

Semenov: Let me tell you this: we have excellent and complete understanding with our US colleagues at the level of people who do the actual work. But at the level of politicians, other motives come into play. You know, when Americans announced about their financial difficulties, and that the station will be completed not by 2004, but rather to 2006, all the other participants - Japan, Canada, and Europe - grew indignant. Because while construction is going on, only Russian and US spacemen work on the station. And what about the others - they too have invested a lot in this project?

Some time ago the Russian side proposed a way out: while ISS was under construction, use Mir and its scientific equipment. Technically - and it was recognized even by US specialists - that was feasible. But as soon as the issue was raised to the level of US congressmen, it came to a full stop. Why, that would have meant recognizing Russia's leading role. Or take another example: our proposal to transfer scientific equipment from Mir to ISS using Soyuz and Progress vehicles. This, too, caused much indignation on the part of NASA for the same reasons. Unfortunately, this confirms that manned space flight is still in the realm of big politics.

Even today, at the construction phase, we propose to support the staying at ISS of several crew rescue vehicles, which would allow a crew of six, instead of three, to simultaneously work in the Russian Zvezda module. In this case one could meet all the commitments towards other partners. But the US side is still thinking it over.

Russian Gazette: Nevertheless, what are the consequences of the conflict with our US partners over Denis Tito, don't they interfere with your further joint work?

Semenov: You know, work in orbit, and all the activities that come before that, require an atmosphere of absolute calm. That's how we do things, it's a tradition, which developed over decades: even at the launch pad nobody runs, nobody shouts. No nervousness, at least no outward showing of it. If somebody is in a hurry, is bustling around, this does not bode well. We can tell jokes, but never get into a quarrel with each other. And, of course, we strive to organize our work under ISS project on the same principles. Of course, the situation around Tito's mission was abnormal.

That mission was not our whim. It was a transparent issue. We had a very serious funding problem. The government owed us more than a billion rubles (by the way, this debt still remains the same). The service life of Soyuz TM-31, which was staying in obit docked with ISS, was expiring, it had to be replaced. So we proposed to our partners: we would replace the vehicle, but at the same time we would bring to the station a tourist. We would earn through this a few millions, which, by the way, we wouldn't spend somewhere else, we would invest them in our joint ISS project. The Americans balked. There were no objective reasons for a refusal: Tito had been in training for eight months, he is a very energetic and knowledgeable person. And we were insistent: either we fly with Tito, or we do not fly at all, RSC Energia never went back on its commitments. As a result the mission did take place, albeit with certain non-technical features - the situation on-board at times took on a comic aspect: while on-board the station, Denis Tito socialized with US astronauts quite well, but only when TV cameras were off. When parting, they shook hands carefully staying off-camera. So, the things that were going on around Tito's flight were pure politics on the official US side.

By the way, now our opponents realize that they made a big mistake. And we have managed to come to an agreement with NASA that we would draw up a special joint document, which would define general principles for non-professional visits to orbit. And for now, in October, when it is once again the time to replace the vehicle, we plan to deliver to ISS one more passenger. This time the proposal passed without any difficulties, because Frenchwoman Claudie Haignere is a well-known cosmonaut, her country participates in the project. In another six months, in April 2002, also on a commercial basis, we plan to deliver to orbit a representative of South African Republic, he has already started to train. This proposal was not rejected either. The next in line are an Italian and an Australian. We also have applicants from other countries. All in all, we currently plan seven such commercial flights. Let me repeat, this part of the program is very important for us from a purely financial standpoint. We have to earn money. Paradoxically, although the program of Russian participation in ISS development has federal status, its funding is provided at about 50% level. And all this happens in spite of numerous statements about its high priority made at the highest level, for example during a meeting between presidents V.V.Putin and G.Bush. But the work on the program is performed on a continuous basis. Each Soyuz TM or Progress vehicle takes almost two years to build. Therefore, in order to be able to send crew and cargo to orbit today or tomorrow, we must procure the necessary materials and place the orders for long-lead items no less than two years in advance. We had and still have to borrow money, take money away from other, commercial programs. And it is here that problems with tax law begin. Sometimes it's getting quite absurd: in May of the last year RSC Energia received from the state 300 million rubles for ISS program funding, while paying 600 million rubles in taxes.

Russian Gazette: Is there any scientific research being conducted on ISS now?

Semenov: Yes, there is. Of course, while the station is still under construction, it is impossible to conduct full-scale scientific research. After all, even now a few hundred scientific experiments have already been planned. Nevertheless, virtually every crew has scientific knowledge. Frenchwoman Claudie Haignere will conduct a series of biological experiments in October. During Talgat Musabaev's mission, a photographic survey of Kazakhstan territory was performed. There is a series of experiments that began back on Mir conducted jointly with German physicists under direction of Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences academician V.E.Fortov to grow plasma crystals - such experiments are not possible on Earth in principle, one cannot create the right conditions for them here. I spoke with V.E.Fortov a few days ago. He was very enthusiastic and said the result can be a good candidate for a Nobel Prize.

Russian Gazette: Yuri Pavlovich, you mentioned that over the last few years RSC Energia has deployed several bold commercial projectsÖ

Semenov: It was during these years that we developed Yamal, a new-generation satellite. In effect, we have developed an all-purpose space platform which is virtually a 100% new design. A Block DM upper stage developed by RSC Energia together with Proton launch vehicle can simultaneously put in orbit two such satellites, which makes it possible to create in orbit a space telecommunications system that has twice as much throughput capability.

Yamal is a one-of-a-kind space platform capable of carrying out all kinds of scientific and technical tasks. The project was born out of practical needs: Gasprom, Yamal's customer, needed to establish reliable communications with any of its remote field offices. And already today at any oil-rig there is a TV and radio receviers: one can, without leaving one's office in Moscow conduct video conferences with on-site managers. One more user of the satellite communications is Gasprom Bank. Yet, all the Gasprom needs are covered by just three channels out of 12. The rest is used by other customers. Now, by the way, we have received an order for developing two more powerful satellites Yamal-200. Four more satellites have been ordered by our foreign partners, and other contracts are being prepared for signing.

But Yamal does not mean only communications. For example, we won a contract in one country, which is going to use spacecraft based on Yamal satellite platform for Earth remote sensing.

Russian Gazette: The press referred to Sea Launch as the most ambitious project

Semenov: Historically, in all the countries, space launch pads were always constructed on land. In our country these were Kapustin Yar, Baikonur, Plesetsk, Svobodny - all these launch sites were originally constructed as test ranges for missiles, and only later they came to be used for space launches. And it's not only in our country, that's how it was in the rest of the world.

But a land-based launch site has some serious drawbacks. Although missile ranges were established in unpopulated areas, the flight paths, nevertheless, pass over settlements and arable land. This makes it necessary to evacuate people and take large territories out of crop rotation. Besides, a land-based launch site is a very expensive facility. It is usually built by tens of thousands of construction workers, and then, during operation, a launch site is whole city.

It is obvious, that moving from land to the ocean would be a very attractive option. For a long time this seemed unfeasible, nobody just dared to try to do it. But we did. The first document about establishing the company to implement the Sea Launch project, which involves, beside us, Americans, Ukrainians, and Norwegians, was signed in 1995. And in four years time, in March 1999 we made the first launch. At present we have completed seven such launches.

What is the Sea Launch? It's two vessels. One is the launch platform, the other is the control center and a comfortable hotel for the personnel. For example: 40 thousand people live today at Baikonur in order to service the launch facilities. For Sea Launch 200 people are sufficient.

But that's not all. Launching from the ocean means an opportunity to launch from equator, with much higher efficiency than from our land-based launch sites. Launched from Baikonur, launch vehicle Zenit can put one ton of mass into geostationary orbit (GEO), while from a launch pad located on equator the same launch vehicle can put three tons into the orbit, that is, it exceeds in performance Proton launch vehicle. And if we eliminate some pretty obvious technical mistakes, Zenit will be able to outperform Arian-5. The future belongs to launch pads of this type.

Incidentally, we are developing another very interesting project with a mobile launch pad - an air-born space launch system Air Launch, where a rocket is launched from an altitude of 10 kilometers from an airplane. This will be a one-of-a-kind system for which there are no analogs in the world.

By the way, an even more revolutionary project would be the implementation of the idea that we put forward in 1990 to create in GOE a global multifunctional satellite communications system based on a heavy space platform. Back then we assumed as a basis for the telecommunications satellite a platform with a mass of 25 tons to be put in orbit by Energia launch vehicle. The documentation was released, we were tooling up for production. But everything collapsed with the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Today we return to the implementation of this idea, taking advantage of our experience in automatic docking of spacecraft in orbit and in assembling large structures under Mir program. This is a very topical task. The fact is that at present the geostationary orbit (and we, earthlings, have only one such orbit, precious as gold) is oversaturated: hundreds of satellites are operating in it. It's now like a street-car in the rush hours - there is no room to wedge in there! On the other hand, three heavy platforms (up to 15-20 tons) which have high-capacity power supply systems - in the first phase up to 60, and in the second phase up to 120 kW - will solve the problem of global communications and broadcasting. Today nobody in the world has this technology except Russia. This is a highly desirable and feasible project! Its implementation is urgently needed. For if we do not work on it now, our descendants won't remember us kindly.

One more very promising project is development of the Aurora launch vehicles on an order from Australia. This is the next, more powerful version of Soyuz launch vehicle, our most venerable rocket, which has been launched more than two thousand times. The new launch vehicle Aurora will be able to put into low Earth orbit not seven, but 12 tons, and two tons into the geostationary orbit. Today the launch site on the Australian Christmas island is already under construction. The first launch is scheduled for early 2003. Similar launching facilities will be built at Baikonur and Plesetsk - this time for carrying out Russian Federal programs.

Russian Gazette: Yuri Pavlovich, if the international cooperation under ISS program and other joint projects succeeds, than, probably, some day a time will come for interplanetary missions?

Semenov: Absolutely. Once in space, the Mankind will never halt its progress. The feasibility of organizing an international space mission to Mars which might last two years has been under discussion for a few years now. Moreover, if ever this project turns into something more tangible, and a decision on it is made, we have the technical capability to implement it. And Russia can play a decisive role in this project.

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