By Svetlana Sukhova
"Nuclear fusion is our future, by it requires raw materials. And it is available on the Moon in the form of Helium-3 isotope… The chances of all the players will depend on whether they have independent access to space", - says the head of RSC Energia Nikolai Sevastiyanov
RSC Energia proposed to Roscosmos an ambitious project. The manufacturers of space hardware promise to develop, as early as 2020, a transportation system, which will connect the Earth with the Moon. What we are talking about here is not a series of missions for purely scientific and propaganda purposes, like those accomplished by the Americans back in 1970s. The Russian scientists are planning to get down to industrial development of the Earth’s natural satellite. To be more specific, they plan to mine there the fuel of the future. The President and Designer General of RSC Energia Nikolai Sevastiyanov talked about this project in detail in an interview he gave to the weekly magazine Itogi.
Mr. Sevastiyanov, although ISS assembly is not yet complete, you have already stated that it is high time to draw up a detailed plan for industrialization of the Moon. Don’t you think that you rush into things?
At the current pace of development of our civilization, the thing that becomes the most precious is energy. Therefore, we’ve got to study possible ways of getting access to new energy sources and technologies for their use – that’s the idea that drives everybody. At the first glance, mining helium on the Moon may seem utopian. But once you look closely into it, you realize that it’s technically feasible. Moreover, it’s already time to start laying the groundwork for the future of power generation technology.
Is Russia destined to develop new technologies by herself or through international cooperation?
In my opinion, some part of the work will need to be done by ourselves, in order to establish our priority in a number of fields. I’m referring to the development of our own transportation system. US have the same objectives: in the period before 2014 Americans intend to spare no effort to get independent access to space. They officially stated that no foreigners will be allowed to participate in the development of the new transportation system – only their own.
Photograph by Vladimir Novikov
According to Nikolai Sevastiyanov (shown in the photo), the future Clipper spacecraft will allow establishing a permanent transportation link between a space station in an orbit around Earth and a space station in an orbit around the Moon
Why should Russia, with her huge resources of hydrocarbons, look for energy sources in space?
Today all the countries that already have space programs, or are only dreaming about them, realize that the time for industrialization of space has come. Today, it is limited to the development of satellite constellations in the interests of creating information infrastructure, but tomorrow the time will be ripe for power generation. As a matter of fact, the prime drivers of the growth of modern civilization are power generation and information technology. In 1990s Russia was suffering the consequences of seriously lagging behind in construction of its information infrastructure, which made carrying out economic reforms more difficult. Today this problem is, for the most part, solved. Now it is the turn of the power generation industry. Even large oil and gas resources are no safeguard against their eventual depletion. Nuclear fusion is our future, but it requires raw materials. They are available on the Moon in the form of Helium-3 isotope. Besides, there are plenty of other things up there in addition to Helium-3. The big question is how to deliver all this wealth to Earth. What production costs and, accordingly, profitability of this mining operation will be? The lion’s share of the expenses are transportation costs. The chances of all the players will depend on whether they have independent access to space.
What is your vision of how the lunar industrialization project should be implemented?
First, a few words about why it needs to be implemented. As I have already mentioned, the Earth’s companion is extraordinarily rich in rare and precious natural resources. For example, various estimates put the already mentioned helium-3 at anywhere between one ton and five hundred tons. And although the technology for its use on Earth is still in the development stage, it is not too early to start considering the project for its mining. Development of the industrial nuclear fusion reactor is estimated to take about thirty years – and that is just enough time to set up the helium-3 mining operation. First, we are going to send to the Moon unmanned spacecraft – a robot spacecraft is quite sufficient for gathering initial information. But industrialization of space will require manned space flight. Therefore, we need to get prepared for the fact that soon flying to space will be not only cosmonauts-testers, but representatives of terrestrial occupations – engineers, mechanics, geologists.
Illustration by RSC Energia
This chart shows RSC Energia’s vision of missions to the Moon
What are you planning to start with?
With what is currently available. Present-day technologies permit to carry out the first manned missions to the Moon using Soyuz spacecraft with upper stage Block DM. Of course Soyuz will have to be upgraded – we are going to use the technology of assembly in orbit, that is, on-board ISS. The money for this is not yet available: the Federal Space Program makes no mention of manned missions to the Moon. Our corporation proposes to correct this by having developed a lunar program.
What is your estimate of its cost?
Six full-fledged missions with lunar landings based on existing technologies will cost about 2.5 billion dollars. But before landing men on the Moon, we need to conduct ground reconnaissance, develop the technologies, descent and ascent. In other words, the total number of missions will be about ten, six out of which will be manned.
Let’s imagine that you’ve been given the go-ahead to proceed and the necessary funds. How fast could Energia implement its plans?
In 2010 a robotic spacecraft would fly to the Moon, in 2012 there would be a manned flight around the Moon, and in 2014 a man would go there.
And how would it look like in detail?
The only reason why back in 1960-70s they decided to go with super-heavy lunar rockets was because assembly in space at that time was looked upon as something out of science fiction. Today, it would be more cost efficient to assemble the vehicle in orbit. To send man to the Moon, first, a landing-and-ascent module needs to be sent into a circumlunar orbit. Immediately after, we have one more flight, which delivers the cosmonauts to ISS: they are getting acclimatized there while waiting for the spacecraft integration with the upper stage. After that, it’s the usual routine: they fly to the Moon, dock with the lunar module, land on the surface, work there, lift off and go back home.
Photograph by Valentin Kuzmin (ITAR-TASS)
Is Soyuz up to the task?
It was exactly for the lunar program that it was originally developed. Without men on-board – with tortoises as its only passengers – it already flew to the Moon. And in 1970s men were to fly to the Earth’s companion – Leonov and Makarov were in training for this mission. But they were supposed to fly on Proton, which at that time often had failures. In the end the mission was canceled.
But Soyuz is yesterday’s technology. What is going to replace it?
You are quite right: the costs of manned flight into space and cargo delivery to low-Earth orbit need to be reduced. The most expensive phase of a mission is getting from the Earth surface to low-Earth orbit because it requires accelerating in the atmosphere up to 8 km per second. Lifting off Earth surface requires three times more energy than launching from low-Earth orbit. RSC Energia has designed the Clipper transportation system, which will help to reduce the costs by a factor of three and increase the number of passengers to six.
Will they have to train for their flight just as long as today’s space tourists – for about a year?
This is true for now. But we aim at reducing the training time down to three months, and g-loads down to 2.5g. In that case our system will become capable of paying for itself. This can be achieved by the reusable system Clipper. We propose to turn ISS into a permanently operating artificial Earth satellite. The only question is who is going to provide transportation support. At present, this is done by Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, as well as Space Shuttles. The Europeans are developing their own transportation system ATV with the first mission scheduled for this year. The Japanese are building HTV, which is to become operational in 2009. USA have started the Orion project to replace Space Shuttle, but in Russia no decision has yet been made to start developing a new system. If Clipper is approved, this will allow a significant reduction in ISS maintenance costs from as early as 2015. In addition to this, the Clipper is a way of establishing a permanent transportation service between a space station in low-Earth orbit and a space station in an orbit around the Moon. The spacecraft in the winged configuration will be delivering people from Earth to ISS, and its other version, without wings, will be flying to the Moon.
Photograph by Grigori Sysoev (ITAR-TASS)
It’s hard to believe that such a program will cost Russia only 2.5 billion dollars.
We estimate a fleet of five spacecraft at two billion dollars. For reference: US are planning to spend up to 8 billion dollars on the development of their new spacecraft. If we had chosen to develop our system from scratch, as Americans have, we would have had to spend the same amount.
At what stage could we agree to cooperate with other countries in the implementation of the lunar project?
At every stage. At first, low technical risk flights and studies, followed by development of industrial facilities. There is a need for a permanently operating transportation system on a reusable basis. Plants and other industrial facilities on the lunar surface can also be constructed within the framework of international cooperation.
I want to make sure I got you right. Are you saying that the transportation system is not limited to the Clipper?
We have also designed a reusable upper stage, which will be kept refueled and will fly between stations in a low-Earth orbit and an orbit around the Moon. In addition to this, a transportation vehicle for heavy-cargo delivery. The Clipper is intended for manned flights to the Moon, it’s a sort of a quick delivery service: no more than three days of flight. But in the case of heavy cargoes, the task is different; here we need to save propellant. But in this case it is not necessary for the vehicle to fly fast. We have developed a transportation vehicle driven by electrical propulsion. This space tug has low thrust but high specific impulse. It will take it about a year to get to the Moon, but if such "tankers" are sent on a regular basis, the transportation to the Moon will become cost-efficient. The only thing that still remains to be done is to develop a circumlunar space station and a lunar landing and ascent module.
Collage by RSC Energia
Have you prepared a complete lunar program?
We have even proposed it to Roscosmos. Deployment of a continuously operating transportation system, provided the funding is available, could be accomplished by 2020. If we build a fleet of the Clipper spacecraft by 2015, we will build the lunar transportation system by 2020.
Is there also any process for helium-3 extraction?
That’s beyond our field of specialization, but the technology does exist. As a matter of fact, the process proposed for the Moon is the same as the one used on Earth. Take samples of soil (regolith), heat them, split them into component parts, enrich them, and liquefy them. One ton of helium-3 is equivalent to 20 million tons of oil!
Aren’t you afraid that owners of land on the Moon won’t permit you to mine on their property?
There is an international agreement according to which heavenly bodies cannot be owned by any state. Land can only be sold by a proprietor, and there are no "ranch owners" on the Moon. There are only people who want to lay claim to the property. In reality, the one who is the first to land on the Moon, who will actually drive the stakes into the ground, will become the owner of the land.
Are tourists going to help cover the costs of the lunar project? From what I hear you seem to have offered them a ride to the Earth’s companion for 100 million dollars?
100 million dollars is the price proposed by Roscosmos. As far back as a year and a half ago they calculated: to take tourists on a trip around the Moon would cost 200 million dollars (one launch of Soyuz launch vehicle carrying a Soyuz spacecraft, and one more launch of Proton with an upper stage). If two tourists paying 100 million dollars each fly together with one cosmonaut, that will cover the cost of the flight.
Don’t you resent being a "space cabman"?
There can be no space exploration without space transportation. For us, the manned space flight market is created mainly by the space agencies of other countries. Thus, we now have a favorable situation for expanding Russian participation in the international space market.
Itogi weekly No.7 (557)
February 12, 2007