It has been more than half a century since Russia developed its last new spacecraft for carrying humans into orbit—the venerable Soyuz capsule, which still flies both Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts into orbit today. However, over the last decade, the Russian space program has been designing and developing a new vehicle, named Federation.
Like NASA’s own Orion spacecraft, the Federation capsule has been beset by delays and cost overruns for more than a decade’s worth of development. But when it flies, possibly as early as 2022 aboard a Soyuz-5 rocket for a test flight, Federation would be the rare human vehicle designed to fly beyond low-Earth orbit.
However, Russian sources are reporting a problem with the vehicle’s launch escape system. Federation will lift off from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in far eastern Russia, located within about 600km of the Pacific Ocean. Under certain scenarios, during which Federation’s launch abort system would pull it away from the rocket during an emergency, Federation could splash down in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
“Upon launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, the Federation spacecraft has a colossal problem in the event of a launch abort,” said Igor Verkhovskiy, head of business development for crewed programs and low-Earth-orbit satellite programs for RKK Energia, the prime contractor for Russia’s space program.
“We could end up in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, where we have no high-speed ships of the Naval or civilian fleets,” the Russian official said. “It could take several days for us to reach the splashdown location, risking loss of the crew.” A translation of the Russian news articles was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell.
A Moon vehicle?
It remains unclear how far along Russia is in actually developing Federation and its critical systems to support long-duration spaceflight into deep space. Russian news sources have previously reported construction of the pressure vessel, which provides the vehicle’s solid structure, only began in May. While Russian officials cite a 2022 launch date, that would seem to be unfeasible if work on the first pressure vessel did indeed only begin a few months ago.
Earlier this year, Roscosmos chief Dimitry Rogozin ordered changes at RKK Energia management—specifically in areas involved in designing the Federation spacecraft, perhaps due to delays and problems since the program first began more than a decade ago.
Eventually, Russia intends to use the Federation spacecraft for crewed missions to lunar orbit, much as NASA intends to use its Orion spacecraft. However, there are serious questions about the legitimacy of Russia’s plans to send humans into deep space, and the Moon, on its own.