The first soviet space launch site could and should be preserved
Sergey Sopov: The first soviet space launch site could and should be preserved
General Director of Avialeasing Company refreshes Baikonur history and shares his outlook on its conceivable future
It’s been nearly 20 years from the Soviet era of extensive space exploration. Back in those days, booster rocket Energy lifted the winged spaceship Buran into orbit, while advances were made to work towards its piloted flight. August of 1991 put an end to the ambitious aspirations. Since then, Baikonur space launch site – a cradle of Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital travel – was wearing off its former glory and survival potential. Presently it employs only an ounce of its impressive capacity erected on the peak of two world powers space competition, while its idle facilities are falling in decay.
Sergey Sopov, Avialeasing Company General Director, believes that there is still a chance for us to preserve the existing space logistic infrastructure for future generations of Earth-dwellers. Still, the expert warns us, tomorrow may be too late.
Sergey Alekseevich Sopov
Year of birth: 1957.
Background: Perm Higher Command College, degree — engineer, field of study— Automated control systems.
Employment: served in USSR armed forces at Baikonur space launch site, was engaged in ground testing of Almaz rocket and space complex, Buran multiple launch space transportation system;
1988 — coordinated first launch of Energy-Buran multiple launch space system. Lectured in Moscow Aviation Institute;
1991— on invitation of President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, moved to Almaty where he established a space research agency, was in charge of Kazakhstan-based SS-18 rockets disposal and conversion projects;
1994 — appointed General Director of state airspace joint stock company KOSKOM by a decree of President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, organized lease out of Baikonur space launch site to the Russian Federation;
1995 — returned to Russia;
1996-1997 — General Director of Permskie Motory corporation;
1997-1999 — Chairman of Board of Directors in Permskie Motory corporation;
2001-2013 — Avialeasing company President;
2013 — nowadays — General Director of Avialeasing.
Has been honored with state and government awards.
— Sergey Alekseevich, are you feeling nostalgic as the Cosmonautics Day approaches? As you have previously said, the best years of your life were spent in Baikonur…
— Years of work in the space launch site were indeed the happiest in my life. My daughter grew up in Baikonur. The glow and wonder of those years remain with me constantly.
The city was fascinating: built on the banks of Syr-Daria river, in the bare desert, by the irrigators, and populated with poplars, making it a veritable oasis. At the time, eight secondary schools were functioning there, along with two vocational schools, and a branch of Moscow Aviation Institute. People commuted by four public bus routes and taxi. Residential area was linked with rocket site by both motorway and railroad operating a daily lot of eight to ten conditioned trains.
For a forbidden town with restricted access and pass entry system, it was plenty. In Baikonur (former Leninsk) people used to live, work, and study. Then they would leave military service and move to central Russia, newbies coming along to replace them.
In the prime of space industry, Baikonur total headcount amounted to 110 thousand people (discounting an army of construction workers all but outnumbering the flight support personnel).
— When have the bad times started for the city and the space launch site?
— In 1991, after the “sovereignty parade” of former soviet republics, Baikonur space launch site and its infrastructure became part of the Republic of Kazakhstan that gained ownership of a gigantic corpus of capital assets associated with former soviet rocket and space industry. In those mutinous times, Russia didn’t care much about the space, being engrossed in market economy development. It transpired later on, however, that Russian Federation is still interested in space programs, although in a much lesser scope than that of the USSR.
Rocket industry and associated USSR infrastructure were created in the framework of ideology: the very first soviet state had to pioneer all initiatives, space foremost. Yuri Gagarin’s mission was one of its signature milestones.
The new conditions canceled previous methods, and each individual country in the territory of the former USSR took a decision to deviate from the soviet roadmap. Therefore booster rocket Energy and orbital ship Buran, along with a massive share of the space launch site facilities, were cast away.
Kazakhstan didn’t actually need Baikonur either. It became a burden for the republic as its maintenance required grand investment.
At that time a group of specialists comprising space launch site officers and industry ministry representatives, and presided by Boris Gubanov, senior designer of Energy-Buran multiple launch system, was trying to project into the future. Their views apparently differed. Some regarded Kazakhstan merely as a source funds to proceed working under the auspices of the Republic; it could be phrased as You give us money – we launch your rockets. The purpose and destination were not questioned.
Other proposals were more practical. Gubanov came up with an idea emerged to convert Baikonur space launch site into an international spaceport.
— Was the new term a ground-breaking novelty?
— The difference between spaceport and space launch site is the same as between airfield and airport. The spaceport, on top of the launch site, implies availability of technology enabling receipt, processing and dispatch of cargoes and passengers into space (i.e. security systems, customs control, biological and passport control, storage area, pre-flight zone etc.). Clearly the major part of the project was a future matter. The current level of space logistics still suggests ad hoc approach to any individual launch.
Anyway, it was not about the term. It was about keeping the momentum of the past.
— What was the point of the proposal, knowing that the space industry in its soviet form was unclaimed by Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan?
— The idea was to withdraw Baikonur facilities from any individual jurisdiction while preserving them as property of the Republic, and then to offer them to those who might need it.
Essentially it was an international consortium establishment project springing from the capital assets of the space launch site, incorporated in form of a joint stock company. President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev supported the idea by signing in 1991 the directive concerning establishment of KOSKOM State joint-stock airspace company which was supposed to be in charge of the space program of the Republic. By the same directive I was appointed its president.
As an outcome of lengthy negotiations, Russia expressed its interest in the project. Space site concession or lease possibilities were being discussed. Initially it was assumed that Russia would only receive the items required for implementation of certain space programs. This approach would allow for retaining the unclaimed capacity in the ownership of the Republic, thus establishing the ground for the consortium. It was a sort of a compromise.
Russia would get the launch pads of Proton and Soyuz booster rockets, as well as several military test grounds solving tasks of defense (it’s where Russia operates currently). The rest of it (Zenit booster rocket launch pads, SS-18, test beds, air defense units, Energy-Buran compound system) was supposed to stay with Kazakhstan. That was, however, a challenging thing to explain.
Eventually, in 1994, instead of the proposed draft preliminarily agreed between the parties, a one-page contract was signed stating that the entire space launch site and its residential area was leased out to the Russian Federation for $115 mln. per year. I am not trying to judge whether it’s good or bad, too much or too little. I’m just saying it was a step forward to ensure that the space center would continue operating.
Apparently, Kazakhstan political leaders at that time saw no opportunity or potential within the country for implementation of such an extensive project. The task was too heavy for Kazakh legislators as well. As a manager I was too inexperienced at that time and lacked expertise to be a reliable pillar. Boris Gubanov who came up with the idea was very ill at that time and could not possibly be involved in the project promotion.
— To recap, can we say that currently Baikonur owes to Russia its continued operation, and it’s a thing to be glad of?
— Apart from the lease payment, Russia is funding the space site selectively – only in part that is claimed for its projects – while the “unclaimed” part is deteriorating.
Kazakhstan has no financial and staffing opportunity to maintain the functionality of unattended facilities. However, in 2004 a joint Russian and Kazakhstani Baiterek launch site project was started on the base of several land facilities of multiple space system Energy for Russian booster rocket Angara. When it became clear that Angara will not happen in the nearest future, the parties signed an agreement with Ukraine to launch a Zenit-based booster rocket from the site. It was an acceptable option. Still, in the light of the latest political events the project looks precarious.
The problem is actually different. Apparently Russia doesn’t like to depend on Kazakhstan in matters of space programs implementation, so it undertakes certain steps to amend it. The Vostochny space center construction can only be justified by the fact that Russia gets an unrestricted access to space from its own ground. Just in case things go wrong in relations with the neighbor republic. As long as everything is alright, Roscosmos will use Baikonur to solve the tasks not manageable by Vostochny capacities. Yet, as soon as the new space site is equipped and accomplished enough, it will take over the launches, while Baikonur workload will gradually diminish year on year.
— But currently Vostochny is in construction with a vague completion date...
— If the construction pit was made, it’s already billions of rubles spent. The site will eventually be completed, like Sochi Olympic facilities. Such major projects tend to be finalized sooner or later, regardless of preferences or mistakes of an individual. Especially because there was no strategic mistake here. The place is well selected, with an operable Soyuz rocket system “associated” with it. So the time will come when the launches will be moved to the Russian space site.
— You mean that Baikonur has little hope for survival in this framework?
— That’s the trick. The logic of the events is that in 20 or 50 years (time really doesn’t matter) the space site will be nobody’s concern. Apart from Kazakhstan, to which it will present a huge burden. The city will be still there, with the people – Russian and Kazakh. The entire vital infrastructure will have to be maintained somehow.
Another important highlight is political: Baikonur was the first point on Earth to open into space. It would be a globally sad thing if the site crumbled to dust.
— Is it possible to prevent the pessimistic scenario? Say, return to the 20-year old project?
— I believe it’s being considered by the Kazakhstan Space Agency nowadays. So far it is still not too late to separate the unclaimed capital assets by offering them out to prospective operators. Many year have passed from the day the idea was born, though. 20 years ago all sited were in good working order, and native industry was able to produce heavy transport space systems and provide them with workload, meaning – to offer the end consumer a package of launch services.
Presently the range of possibilities comes down to two space transportation systems (discounting the Ukrainian Zenit booster rocket) — Soyuz and Proton. Angara booster, should it ever be implemented, will simply replace Proton.
The construction unit of the launch facility is still operable. However, to attract shareholders and investors, the property will have to be separated from the bulk of fixed assets and duly proposed. So, a heavy rocket required for Mars exploration program could be “associated” with Energy launch system.
All conditions needed to prepare and launch a modern space transportation system are available at the site. Those include the launch system designed for heavy space units launches, surface facilities required for prelaunch procedures, a huge landing ground enabling receipt of reusable orbital vehicles. There are storages for oxygen, hydrogen and helium. There is an oxygen-nitrogen plant, access roads, railway branch, heavy weight carriers using two rail tracks simultaneously.
As a matter of fact, only two options are available now. We could preserve status quo and keep watching the activities, managing the process from within the current situation. Otherwise, Russia could be offered an opportunity that would meet its demands and give a chance for the space site development by Kazakhstan.
— Evidently Russia doesn’t easily make concessions...
— I’m positive that Russia is interested in retaining what it currently needs, namely the Proton and Soyuz launch facilities, but unwilling to pay for lease of the entire site. They would consider revising the contract terms in terms of financial aspects.
Nowadays the consortium with Russian participation may be established with a purpose to render services associated with Russian booster rocket launches. The consortium will perform the same operations as people currently working in the space center where an elaborate infrastructure is in place and functioning. And they will be paid for their work. Thus Russia will avoid having to pay lease and will only be charged for the services received from consortium (which is exactly the current situation, since it pays for labor of its specialists plus the lease).
In this approach, the capacities unclaimed by Russia are rendered available. They can be segregated and proposed to the interested parties.
The question of ownership is a matter of agreement. All parties concerned should care about implementation of the idea. Specifically we are talking about the future when Russia will start paying double price – for Vostochny and Baikonur space sites. The cost will have to be reduced anyway, but the problem is – what to propose and who will be interested.
— Who might theoretically be interested in operating Baikonur facilities»?
— Anyone: European Space Agency owning ‘Ariane’ heavy rockets, Israel, South Korea.
It’s hard to say whether the proposal will be in demand, though. When the idea emerged 20 years ago, I was sure it would be popular. Currently we have a very narrow audience: globally the demand for lifting heavy rockets to orbit is negligible. An average satellite weight to be placed into the geostationary orbit is 4.5 tons. To “hand” it there, it is required to place 20 tons of cargo into parking orbit (the satellite plus upper stage rocket). This task can be easily handled by the other world space launch sites. In our case, we are talking about offering a long term program to the global community.
In the present situation, no country but the USA an independently implement a project with use of heavy booster rockets. It takes a lot of effort to establish an infrastructure similar to that of the USSR, i.e. heavy launch systems. It will cost billions of dollars. Its maintenance – hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Our point is that the infrastructure already exists in Baikonur, ready to go. Land launch facilities take up about 60% cost of space transportation system establishment as such. So, Kazakhstan may still play a historic role in global space exploration.
I believe that the projects of this scope should be implemented under the auspices of UNO. Their purpose is launch of heavy booster rocket to the Moon and Mars in a coordinated international effort. Such programs are being already discussed nowadays: technologically a journey to Mars is possible. Now, with a certain degree of maturity, the trip itself is just a matter of time.
Spaceport is a point from where the mankind can reach out into the far space, beyond the boundaries of the Earth. There needs to be only one or two globally; hopefully, Baikonur can take its rightful place on the face of the Earth.
Even though, as of today, the space transportation system of such scale doesn’t exist, there is a field of opportunities. If you propose the opportunity to the mankind, people will start thinking it over. They will be visiting, looking… Maybe first it will all seem to be in vain. Still, it’s better than just sitting on top of the ruins of the past and feeling nostalgic.
When Gagarin was sent to space, it was never about the money. The project was non-commercial and extremely costly. A man is driven by thirst for knowledge. Buran and Shuttle launch technology is mastered; it’s just not in demand yet. But this will change.
Let me say as one who came up with the idea: today is the last chance to get on with it. The proposals set forth two decades earlier still stand.
Key provisions behind the idea of International Spaceport creation
— International Spaceport (IS) is established for UNO countries easy access to space;
— International consortium is a form of incorporation proposed for the IS activity. The consortium shall operate based on the United Nations Charter and international agreements providing for an outstanding status of the Spaceport;
— The outstanding status of the IS shall guarantee unrestricted access to space for all UNO countries;
— Countries participating in the project avouch that the spaceport opportunities shall not be used to the detriment of the third world countries (ban for use of the IS in military purposes, for launch of weapons or elements of national space systems used in military goals into space);
— Agreement on establishment and use of the IS shall be open, so that all the interested parties could join in. The access rules shall be stipulated in the designated legal documents;
— The IS technical foundation shall be the existing space transportation system enabling delivery of various cargoes (research, navigation etc. satellites) and, if necessary, people to the Earth orbit. To solve this task, the space transportation system shall comprise booster rocket, transfer orbit stage, interorbital tug, orbital ship, supply ferry ship, and versatile space platform;
— The IS shall be established based on the intergovernmental agreement between the initiating countries (Russia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil etc.) under the auspices of UNO. The agreement shall ratify the International Spaceport Charter;
— The International Spaceport is a logical evolutionary step in the process of development of space transportation systems, enabling free access to space for all UNO countries regardless of political climate and national interests of each individual country.