In March, 2018 of the year, the Russian holding S7 Group fully closed the deal to acquire the floating launch site "Sea Launch" in California. About their plans in this regard, the company reported 1,5 a year ago. At the press conference held at that time, journalists actively asked co-owner of the holding Vladislav Filev whether there were risks that Ukraine would refuse to supply Zenith missiles even to a private company from Russia. As a result, it turned out that the risks were on the other hand: S7 Space was able to obtain permits from the USA and Ukraine, but the company had been waiting for orders for months for the company to deliver Russian components to Ukraine.
The issue of resolution was in limbo due to the change of the Russian government, while the CEO of S7 Space Sergey Sopov hopes to resolve the situation. According to him, the company has already placed an order for Zenit 12 missiles and is ready to launch the re-launch of the Sea Launch project at any time. In this case, we are talking only about the first steps of a private Russian space company. In addition, S7 Space is seriously considering the possibility of conducting space launches, dreams of creating its own plant to produce rocket engines in order to create a reusable launch vehicle, and also proposes not to drown the ISS segment belonging to Russia in 2024. The company wants to rent this segment in order to build an orbital cosmodrome on its base.
In order to carry out the first space launch from the Sea Launch, as planned, in December 2019 of the year, the company must receive the first Zenit rocket before the end of 2018 of the year. According to Sergey Sopov, the company keeps within the allotted time. After receiving permission from Ukraine in the spring of 2017, a contract was immediately signed with Yuzhmash on 12 sets of stages of the Zenit launch vehicle. Missile production was funded by 24 million dollars. At present, there are three Zenith sets that are almost completely ready in the Ukrainian plant; they lie there without Russian control systems and engines.
On the restoration of the Sea Launch complex and its withdrawal from the conservation of S7 Space will have to spend about 30 million dollars. But the company is waiting for the issue with the launch vehicle to be resolved, since today they have already invested about 160 million dollars in the acquisition of the Sea Launch and the production of missiles. According to Sopov, in order to bring the complex to a fully operational state, it is necessary to overhaul the command ship in dry dock, since the ship and the launch platform are partially preserved from 2014. For maintenance, repair and removal of all comments will need just about 1,5 year.
Sea Launch is a commercial international project of a sea-based rocket and space complex. To bring it to life in 1995, a company of the same name was created. Its founders were then the Russian RSC Energia, the American corporation Boeing, the shipbuilding enterprise from Norway Kvaerner (today Aker Solutions), the Yuzhnoye design bureau and the Yuzhmash from Ukraine. The project was implemented, but in the summer of the year 2009 faced the first serious problems, the Sea Launch company declared its bankruptcy. After the reorganization procedure in 2010, the Russian company RSC Energia began to play a leading role in the project, but in 2014, the launches were completely stopped. This was largely due to a serious deterioration in relations between Russia and Ukraine.
At the end of September 2016, the Russian group of companies S7 signed a contract with the Sea Launch group for the acquisition of the Sea Launch project. The subject of the transaction was the command ship Sea Launch Commander, the floating platform for launching Odyssey, ground equipment located in the port of Long Beach (California), as well as the trademark Sea Launch. If everything goes as planned, launches from the floating cosmodrome will be resumed at the end of 2019.
Rocket Difficulties for the Sea Launch
The missile challenges for the Sea Launch project forced S7 Space in June 2018 to announce its readiness to resurrect the release of the Soviet NK-33 rocket engines to create their own reusable rocket. S7 Space expected to receive permission from the Russian government for the supply of domestic components to restore the production of Zenit launch vehicles in Ukraine, but this permission is delayed for an indefinite period. Without such permission, Roskosmos is not ready to sell parts for Zenith missiles to the Russian company S7 Space, knowing that they will then be sent to Ukraine.
To replace Zenit, the Russian state corporation offered a Soyuz-5 rocket with an RD-171 engine. But this rocket does not suit S7 Space for economic reasons, although, in fact, it acts as a domestic clone of the formerly deserved Soviet rocket. At the same time, the leadership of S7 Space came out with harsh criticism of the Soyuz-5 rocket. In an interview with the Vedomosti newspaper, Sergey Zopov said that the company does not need a repetition of the Zenith rocket, which was created 40 years ago, irrespective of whether it is a bad rocket or a good one. The repetition of the past is a way in the opposite direction, not even marking time in one place. S7 Space hopes to get a modern and promising means of launching cargo into orbit, which would be based on principles that are clear to business. These principles are the following: a fully reusable space transportation system is needed (at the first stage, it can be partially reusable). Some believe that a cheap rocket can be effective and in a one-time option - nothing like that, notes Sopov. One-time carrier today is a one-time aircraft. Ilon Musk showed everyone a new approach in the field of rocket science: reusability. An effective future rocket must be reusable and have a resource of used elements on 50-100 launches.
That is why the company is not ready to invest in the project of yesterday, S7 Space needs a cost-effective modern carrier that could be used through 5-6 for years instead of Zenit missiles. At the same time, the appearance of such a rocket is being discussed jointly with RSC Energia; a special working group was created for this by the companies.
The way out of the current impasse for the first Russian private space company was the decision to invest 300 million dollars in restoring production in Russia of the former Soviet pride in the rocket engine industry - NK-33, this engine was developed for the Soviet lunar program and has the potential of multiple use. For the resumption of their production requires cooperation with PJSC "Kuznetsov" from Samara, this company is the owner of all the intellectual property on the engine NK-33 and has the necessary production site, as well as a stock of several dozen of these engines, which were collected in 1970-s . Most likely, for the resumption of production it will be necessary to create a separate joint venture with the allocation of production sites directly to PJSC “Kuznetsov”.
Unlike the original Zenith rocket or the future Soyuz-5 rocket, the NK-33 rocket with five engines will be able to make a vertical landing at the expense of the central engine. Therefore, the new rocket can be made reusable, like the brainchild of the American company SpaceX - the Falcon 9 rocket. According to experts, the development of the rocket and the first launches can be carried out in parallel with the resumption of production of new engines. In the scheme “we fly on old, while new ones are released” in this case a new economic sense of multiple use appears. If the very first stage of the rocket returning to earth does not immediately bring economic benefits, this will provide the company with engines for the next launch, which will increase the time to create new ones.
It should be noted that the Russian company took into account the lessons of SpaceX's American colleagues on production optimization. Unlike the "Angara" or "Proton", in which rocket engines are produced in different cities separately from the design, the rocket on the NK-33 engines can be produced in one city - the full production cycle can be organized in Samara. The engines for the new rocket will be manufactured by PJSC Kuznetsov, and the rocket, literally “behind the fence”, will be made at RCC Progress. At the last enterprise, the process of launching Soyuz-5 missiles for Roskosmos should be launched soon; similar elements of the structure can be produced here for S7 Space as well.
The mentioned work will be possible only with the full support of the investor from the state. Support for one Roscosmos is not enough. State support can be expressed in various ways: in readiness to provide the necessary technical documentation and production facilities; in the timely implementation of contracts and agreements reached; and also in government orders for launches. At the same time, the state is also interested in creating a private rocket in the country. As a result, new production will appear, new rocket engines will be assembled, high-tech Russian products will be produced competitively on the world market, and the capabilities of Russian astronautics will increase. But if state-owned corporations consider a private company only as an extra-budgetary source of funds, the project will not take off.
When entering the rocket business S7 Space will automatically have to incur more costs. Not only the investments made at the start will be beaten off - about 160 million dollars, but also 300 million dollars invested in rocketry, as well as annual expenses at the level of 20-30 million dollars that will be spent on operating the Odyssey launch platform. At the same time, the market value of the S7 Space rocket should not exceed the cost of the main competitor and the leader of the current market, the Falcon 9, that is, it should cost less than 62 million dollars in a reusable version and 70-80 million dollars - in a one-off version. Given the "free" of the NK-33 rocket engines that were released in Samara with funds from the USSR, such a price level can be kept. So in the 1990-ies engines NK-33 were sold in the US for 1,1 million dollars apiece. And for example, the Russian RD-171 engine of the Soyuz-5 launch vehicle costs much more, it costs at least 10 million dollars. At the first launches, the company will need to be dumped in order to attract the first customers and conduct full-fledged flight tests of the new launch vehicle to confirm its reliability.
It’s too early to talk about equal competition between SpaceX and the Russian S7 Space. However, there is every opportunity to grow in Russia the first private space company that can take its share in the international market. However, it must be emphasized that this will happen only with state support. Nowadays, high-ranking Roscosmos officials like to blame the American company SpaceX for receiving state support, justifying our commercial failures in the international market for space launches. However, now there is a window of opportunity when it is possible in practice to prove and show exactly how such state support is provided and how a new product can be brought to the world market directly from the Russian Federation.
On possible competition with Mask
It is necessary to understand that today the Sea Launch cosmodrome is the only high-tech project that unites Moscow and Washington in the current geopolitical realities. Today it is a kind of "Soyuz-Apollo". This is a project that in the years of difficult political relations between the two countries should demonstrate the possibility of international cooperation between states. At the same time, Sea Launch will be forced to exist in conditions of very strong competition from the private American space company SpaceX, whose office, by the way, is located just 14 kilometers from the Sea Launch home port, notes Sergey Sopov.
According to the CEO of S7 Space, there is nothing new in this situation; it is planned to compete with Ilon Mask with the price, convenience and comfort of working with the customer, the quality of services provided. Sopov stressed that after the first launch, which is scheduled for December 2019, the company expects to carry out approximately four launches from the Sea Launch each year, and only to launch about 15 space launches in the next 70 years.
At the same time, Sergei Sopov understands that it will be tough to compete. Especially in the beginning. SpaceX is now in the 60 manifest launches, while S7 Space still has none and still has no missiles. It is very difficult to compete in such conditions. At the same time, the Sea Launch has a technical limitations - 6 starts during the year. This is due to the complex logistics of the project: from the base port in California to the launch point at the equator near Christmas Island - 5200 miles, as the distance from Moscow to Vladivostok. The ship will go there from Los Angeles 11 days, the launch platform - 15 days. With the stress of all forces from the Sea Launch, it will be possible to launch up to 7 rockets a year.
A problem with a limited number of space launches has a solution. To do this, S7 Space should have its own Land Launch (a project to launch Zenit missiles from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan), which can significantly change the situation. So you can ensure that the rocket is used alone, and its market segments differ. For example, from Baikonur, the Zenit launch vehicle is able to put 3,8 tons of cargo into a commercial geo-transfer orbit and, when launched from the Sea Launch, up to 6,2 tons due to the optimal position of the platform at the equator. Plus the ability to output to low and medium orbits up to 16 tons of cargo with a wide range of orbital inclinations. For customers, the possibility of such a choice is important. In this case, S7 Space will indeed be able to compete with the leading player in the space launch market.
On the official website of S7 Space, a schedule of launches on 2019-2022 from the Odyssey floating platform, which is part of the Sea Launch project, is currently published. The first launch is scheduled for December 2019, with three launches planned for 2020, four launches for 2021 and 2022. Initially, the launches are planned to be carried out with the help of the Zenit rocket, the contract with the Ukrainian Yuzhmash for the construction of 12 rockets was concluded in April 2017 of the year. Deliveries of the first rockets in the Russian company are expected in 2018 year. Sergei Sopov noted that S7 Space will not abandon the Zenit launch vehicle until the Russian industry prepares a new missile for the Sea Launch project.
At the same time, according to Sopov, today many, including those working at Roskosmos, mistakenly believe that this project is only a personal matter of Vladislav Filev, co-owner of S7 company. However, nowadays, when interest in space and in the whole industry has really returned, when ideas of flights to Mars and the Moon are heard again, and the launch of missile launches gather an audience comparable to large television shows, the Sea Launch project’s success or vice versa his failure in the most direct way can affect the image of Russia. Perhaps, Roscosmos does not yet see anything special in Sea Launch, believing that this is just another minor space project. At the same time, in the West, they are aware that restoring the Sea Launch project and carrying out the first launch from the Odyssey platform in 2019 will have a global response more than all the failures and successes of Roskosmos for the year, Sergey stressed Sopov.
Plans for S7 Space for the future
The next stage in the development of the company, designed for 2022-2024 years, is the creation of an orbital cosmodrome based on the elements and segments of the ISS. Back in 2017, the American corporation Boeing addressed NASA with a proposal to privatize the American segment of the International Space Station with a view to its subsequent commercial exploitation. This step is in line with the American policy of the last two decades, aimed at the commercialization of activities in low-Earth orbit.
The plans of the Russian company to create its own orbital cosmodrome, making it a key element of the promising space transport system "near space - deep space." As part of the creation of such a system, the ISS will have to become a full-fledged reloading base, a transport hub, between our planet and deep space, significantly reducing the overall cost of organizing such space flights. With the successful implementation of this project there will be no need to develop very expensive super-heavy launch vehicles, to transport equipment and fuel from Earth. Everything can be done in orbit: repair equipment, refuel, relax.
This ambitious project is proposed to be implemented in the format of a concession agreement for the domestic segment of the ISS. Also, the main structural element of such an orbital cosmodrome will have to be the reusable inter-orbit tug being built today in Russia, which has a megawatt class nuclear power plant on board. No one else has such technologies in the world, therefore Russia should rather occupy a free niche of shipments in deep space. It is for this reason that the full name of S7 Space sounds like “С7 space transportation systems”, since the first private Russian space company expects to work not only in the market for launching missiles and launching various cargoes into near-earth orbit, to maintain space infrastructure in orbit of the Earth, as well as engaged in the maintenance of interplanetary transport.