Russian competitor Elon Musk told about reusable rockets and ISS rental

The general director of Russia's first private space company S7 Space, Sergei Sopov, explains why they need a plant for rocket engines and why they want to lease an ISS.
In March, S7 Group closed the deal to purchase the floating launch site "Sea Launch" in California. The company announced plans for a year and a half earlier. At a press conference held then, journalists persistently asked the co-owner of the holding Vladislav Filev whether the project had any risks that Ukraine would refuse to supply even a private Russian company with the Zenit rocket. It turned out that the risks were on the other hand: S7 Space had already received permits from the US and Ukraine, and the Russian government's order for the supply of domestic components has been waiting for many months.

The question is hanging because of the change of government and will still be resolved, S7 Space CEO Sergei Sopov hopes. The company has already ordered 12 Zenit rockets and is ready at any time to begin the re-opening of the Sea Launch. This will be only the first stage of far-reaching plans for the space business. S7 Space is also going to launch ground-based launches, wants to build its own rocket engine plant to create a multiple modification of the promising Russian Soyuz-5 missile, and suggests that the government after 2024 not flood the Russian segment of the ISS, rent it and create an orbital spaceport there.

The Last Barrier

- The deal is closed, now your company enters a new stage - preparation for the first sea launch?

- Practically so. Except for one important problem, namely, the lack of a launch vehicle necessary for the resumption of commercial launches. When we made a decision to purchase the assets of the Sea Launch project, the sellers represented by the Roskosmos state corporation and the Energia rocket and space corporation (part of Roskosmos, owns the Sea Launch company, which owned the Sea Launch) Vedomosti ") assured us that before the creation of the Russian medium-class carrier" Soyuz-5 ", we can use the Zenit-3SL rocket for launching, which is created in cooperation with Ukrainian enterprises. Now the complex can only use "Zenith", which means that this question is politicized.

The guarantees of Roskosmos were our key condition for entering the project. We signed an agreement with the state corporation on cooperation to restart the start-up activities of the Sea Launch project. The State Department and five different US ministries gave their permission to the Russian company to own and operate the launch complex. We had to re-form, and in some areas this process continues, with a total of 40 licenses. At the same time, we gave guarantees to the American government that the project will be revived in the configuration in which it is fixed by an intergovernmental agreement between the US and Russia. We also persuaded the Ukrainian government to sell to our American "daughter" S7 Sea Launch a Zenit rocket. But everything stopped when we needed the previously guaranteed permission of the Russian government to supply the components (Roskosmos enterprises - Vedomosti) needed to make Zenit.

- Is it the unwillingness to fulfill agreements or bureaucracy?

- The draft of the relevant government decree was prepared by Roskosmos and agreed in the 20-th of April. It remained to sign it. But the cabinet resigned after the presidential election, and at the moment the approval of the documents is pending. A new government has been formed, it needs to get on with the course of the matter; accordingly, no progress yet.

- That is, the usual Russian bureaucracy. But since the project was supported by both Roskosmos and the government, the issue should eventually be resolved.

- I really hope for it. In the end, we spent our part of the journey, having spent considerable funds, now it's up to the government and Roskosmos. Another important point: how this order will eventually be formulated. The draft order prepared us earlier: it provided for the export of the American S7 Sea Launch of Russian engines, combustion chambers, control systems and other components with the possibility of re-export to Ukraine to assemble the stages of Zenit rocket carriers. But during the discussion, we heard the following opinion: let Ukraine just supply tanks in the US, and you yourself in California collect a missile from Russian and Ukrainian components.

"What do you mean collect in California?" Where to collect?

- This is what we are talking about. Build a factory and collect! Well, let's imagine that we overcame all difficulties and built production in the US. This, at a minimum, will require signing a new intergovernmental agreement between Russia and the United States, will require a new division of responsibilities of the parties, I'm not talking about taking into account the opinion of Ukraine. Obviously, the process would drag on for many years, which would threaten us with multi-million losses. And the launch complex of the Sea Launch itself is not eternal.

We are now trying to restore the project in the configuration established by the intergovernmental agreement between Russia and the US in 1996. It operates, the assembled rocket stages (the first and second) are delivered from Ukraine, the upper stage is from Russia. We, within the framework of the project, do not have access to American technologies, they are to ours. This all worked in this form for almost two decades, and any change contradicts the intergovernmental agreement.

- The space in the previous government was overseen by Dmitry Rogozin. Now he is appointed general director of Roskosmos, the topic will be closer to him. Can he speed up the process?

- Indeed, our interests in the government are represented by Roskosmos. We are a private company and do not have the right to submit draft government orders. It remains only to continue to hope that our partners in Roskosmos will fulfill their obligations, given before the sale of the complex.

- To make the first launch from the Sea Launch, as planned - in December 2019, when you need to get the first "Zenith"?

"Until the end of this year." In the allotted terms, we are still packing. When we received good from Ukraine last spring, we immediately signed a contract with the Ukrainian "Yuzhmash" for 12 sets of stages of the Zenit rocket. They have already financed their production for $ 24 million. There are three practically complete sets of Zenit at the plant, they lie without Russian engines and control systems.

Compete with Ilon Mask

- What is the cost of preparing the complex for launches?

- The restoration of the complex and its withdrawal from the conservation is about $ 30 million. But we are waiting for the question with the launch vehicle to be solved. What's the point of still spending money? To date, we have already invested about $ 160 million in the purchase of the Sea Launch and production of missiles.

- What works need to be done to restore the complex?

- The command ship and the platform are in partial conservation since 2014, partially de-energized. The ship needs major repairs in dry dock. It is necessary to make annual maintenance on the technological equipment, to reveal remarks, to eliminate them. It takes just one and a half years.

- How many employees are there in S7 Space now?

- A total of about 130, if you count together with the American division. In the US, we have 38 people - these are Americans who have worked in the Sea Launch project before, many of them for 8-10 years.

- How will the staff grow up, when will the launch be prepared?

- Up to 270 people can work at the sea complex at the same time. This is determined by the technology and the number of cabins on the two ships. During the launch campaign, people live there for weeks. From the point of view of the personnel, the command vessel is an ordinary ship, but at the same time it is an assembly and testing building. Inside it, the final assembly and verification of the rocket takes place: the docking of stages, the docking of the accelerating block, the fairing and the most useful load, the necessary tests. In addition, from the command ship, pre-launch preparation and start-up are controlled. The work is carried out by an international team: specialists from the Russian RSC Energia and TsENKI (the Center for the Operation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure Facilities, operates the Baikonur and Vostochny cosmodromes, is part of Roskosmos - Vedomosti), Ukrainian Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye , the American corporation Boeing.

- How much will it cost the customer to remove his spacecraft from the Sea Launch?

- From $ 62 million to $ 72 million.

- And how much are the services of SpaceX Ilona Mask?

- For commercial customers the same. To the state American customers, the SpaceX launches cost more than $ 90 million.

"To discourage customers from such a successful and globally distributed company, do not you have to bid lower?"

- This is a question of the price conjuncture in the market and, more importantly, the possibility to provide start-up at an acceptable time, rather than wait for the launch for years, as with Mask (because of the long line of customers.) - Vedomosti. The technical capabilities of the Sea Launch are limited to six launches a year. We plan to hold four. According to our calculations, this is enough to bring the complex to self-sufficiency. But so far we can not seriously negotiate with potential customers. Who will go to you if you do not have missiles? And this is the main problem of the Sea Launch project. The market is very narrow: everyone knows each other; know how anyone's doing. The Sea Launch itself, its technical characteristics and energy capabilities are known to potential customers.

- That is, you will still compete with SpaceX. It's not for nothing that Filev is called the "Russian Mask".

- SpaceX has 60 launches in its manifesto. We do not have any missiles yet. How can we compete?

- But in the future.

- Once again, I note that the "Sea Launch" limitation of technical capabilities - six launches per year. Complex logistics: from the base port to the launch point at the equator in the vicinity of Christmas Island - 5200 miles, both from Moscow to Vladivostok. Our ship goes there from Los Angeles for 11 days, the launch platform is 15. Although you can tense up and make seven starts a year.

But there is a solution to increase the number of launches. To do this, we must have a "Ground Launch" (a project to launch "Zenith" from the Baikonur cosmodrome - Vedomosti), then the situation will change dramatically. It turns out that the rocket is one, and its market segments are different. For example, Zenit from Baikonur can bring to the main commercial - geotransfer - orbit 3.8 tons, and from the Sea Launch due to the optimal position of the launching point at the equator - up to 6.2 tons. Plus, the opportunities to output to low (up to 16 m) and medium orbits with a wide range of orbital inclination. What choice for the customer! In this case, one can already talk about some kind of competition with the leading participants in the launch services market.

The first private trader in space

- "C7 Space Transportation Systems" (S7 Space) in 2016 received a license from Roscosmos for space activities, and in December 2017 you successfully removed Angosat Angosat from Baikonur into orbit. How was the first private space company created in Russia? You as the general director were her first employee, how and from where did you recruit the team?

- Personally, I hired my direct subordinates, deputies and the head of the cosmodrome - less than 10 people. People whom I personally know and in whose professional qualities I am sure. These are well-known specialists in the industry. Someone used to work at Baikonur, someone was engaged in the complex "Sea Launch". And already people hired by me formed their units.

Sergei Soloviev, my first deputy, I've known since 1984, when we lived in the same entrance on Baikonur. I myself from the space industry, took a direct part in the launch of the Energia rocket with the ship Buran. Solovyov, for example, recruited people from the enterprises of Roskosmos, which he used to work for. At the upper level, we take people with experience, they are 60-65 years old, and on the initial level - young graduates. And these young people will come out to the heads in 3-5 years, as our generation will retire to a more peaceful job.

- People willingly go to S7 Space? For Russia, it's still an exotic project.

- We have a big competition, a lot of people wanting to get to us. After all, this is an opportunity to participate in such a unique project, to work in the US and around the world. For comparison, let's take Baikonur. Have you been to Baikonur? It is necessary to visit once, that all questions will disappear. I lived there for 15 years - the steppe, in the winter cold, in the summer unbearable heat, there is no green. You will not entice young people there. These are two big differences - to work at Baikonur or at the "Sea Launch" in Los Angeles. And of course, we are more flexible in matters of wages. We are a private company and we understand that we need the best specialists who need to be paid accordingly.

- You are a well-known person in the space industry. Can you tell us how you got to know Filev, not on a secret missile base?

- We have known for 25 years, my leasing company supplied planes of its airline "Siberia". Having decided on the project "Sea Launch", Vladislav Feliksovich invited me to lead it.

- Who initiated the sale of the Sea Launch to the S7 group?

- RSC Energia has been looking for an investor for a long time, for them the project was unprofitable. And as a state enterprise, Energia was unable to reanimate it: after 2014, it practically could not directly interact with Ukraine. There was only one thing left to sell. They searched for buyers, considered various options, including with the Russian investor. The proposal to Filev was made. He decided that he was interested.

- Do you plan further ground launches from Baikonur?

- Yes, we offered Kazakhstan to conduct 2-4 launches from the 45th platform on Baikonur, with which in December 2017 Angosat was withdrawn. This is a Zenit complex built in the 1980s. Today he is returning to Kazakhstan from the Russian lease. If we decide the issue with Russian components before the end of the summer, then two Zenit rockets will be ready for us in January 2019. Ground-based launches would allow our company to carry out commercial activities in parallel with the restoration of the Sea Launch capacity.

- Has Kazakhstan agreed?

- Now there are consultations. Kazakhstan has problems with the formation of its own starting calculations - teams of specialists involved in the preparation and launching of launches. We suggest that they create joint calculations, then their employees could work on the "Sea Launch".

- You have been leading the space industry of Kazakhstan for several years. That experience is applicable now?

- Well, it's loud. Let's just say, in the 1990's I actively participated in the creation of the "Kazakhstan space". Any experience is applicable, nothing completely disappears. But this is another time, age, completely different tasks.

Reusable rocket

- Your recent criticism of the "Soyuz-5" rocket developed by "Energy" - that it is just "stout and heavier" Zenith "- caused a great noise. "Soyuz-5" should in the future replace "Zenith" on the "Sea Launch". If in the end this carrier does not suit you?

- We do not need a repetition of "Zenith", which was created 40 years ago. It does not matter whether it's good or bad. Just repeating the past is a road in the opposite direction, not even trampling on the spot. We would like to have a promising modern means of elimination, which is based on business-friendly principles. And they look like this: a fully reusable transport space system (at the first stage - partially reusable). Some believe that a cheap missile will be effective in a one-off version - nothing like that. One-time carrier - as a one-time airplane. Mask demonstrated to all the new approach to rocket building: reusability. An effective future missile should be serviced, have a resource of elements for 50-100 starts.

- Wow! Is the project "Union-5" still possible to make reusable?

- To discuss this possibility, we with RSC Energia have created a working group, at the meetings of which we are now defining the possible appearance of a new-generation missile, which we will use instead of Zenit in 5-6 years. We need a modern carrier, we can not afford to invest in the project of yesterday. It should also be attractive economically!

RSC Energia fulfills the state's order: its Soyuz-5 is supposed to put into orbit the prospective Federation spacecraft, and the first stage is to become the launch accelerator of a promising superheavy missile. Therefore, the issues of price effectiveness of RSC Energia during the design of Soyuz-5 simply did not worry. And we are worried. Highly.

For today, taking into account our position, the requirements have been clarified. We discussed them for a long time with the general director of RSC Energia, Vladimir Solntsev, and decided that within the framework of the Soyuz-5 project two directions are identified that combine both approaches - state and commercial. The first direction is a carrier rocket for state interests. The second we conditionally called the "Soyuz-5SL" (Sea Launch): it involves, first of all, the creation of a reusable first stage, reducing the mass, the use of other engines. All changes are aimed at reducing costs and increasing competitive advantages.

At the Mask the 30-ton first stage Falcon 9 returns due to multiple (up to five times) the inclusion of engines and seats on the jet stream of the central engine of the nine available. At the "Soyuz-5" at the first stage it is supposed to use a four-chamber engine RD-171 with a total thrust (near the ground) more than 740 tons - it is impossible to put a Mask stage on it in any way! The engine should be different: "simple" - not energy-intensive and therefore relatively cheap and allowing multiple launch. It turns out that for this S7 Space should have its own engine.

"Where do you get your engine from?"

- We would like to buy state-known engines NK-33 and NK-43, produced earlier by the Samara plant "Kuznetsov", as well as documentation, equipment, technical reserve from the state. In general, everything that has survived on this topic from the Soviet program. We intend to restore production, build our plant of rocket engines in Samara. Now NK-33 is used on the rocket "Soyuz-2.1v". Naturally, the engines will undergo modernization, because they are created about 40-50 years ago. Plus, we need a reusable engine, including, perhaps, and its multiple inclusion in one flight.

- How much does the plant of rocket engines cost?

"We estimate the project at about $ 300 million. This includes the production of not only NK-33 and NK-43, but also a control system that we would also like to do on our own.

- How long does it take to create such an enterprise?

- 5-6 years.

- That is, at the time of the appearance of "Soyuz-5" of its engine you will not have (the first test launch is planned for 2022)?

- Now there are approximately 36 ready engines NK-33 and NK-43. This allows us to begin the flight test program for the new Soyuz-5SL rocket, without waiting for the launch of the serial production of the modernized NK-33 and NK-43. We are more flexible and quicker to make decisions. And we will all manage at times cheaper than if the state company were involved in the project.

- These investments will have to be made before the revenue is received by the Sea Launch. What is the source of funds?

- We do not disclose the source of financing. We have a budget for this project, which fully satisfies us. But, of course, before deploying the entire program, we need to firstly restore the launches from the Sea Launch.

- How does the government look at the project of your plant?

- Our proposal is discussed in the government. We are also negotiating with the United Engine-Building Corporation (UDK, part of Rostek, owns the Kuznetsov plant.) - Vedomosti.

- You said that the prime cost of a carrier rocket in importance is exactly the same characteristic as the energy capabilities. And that "Soyuz-5" goes too expensive. Will RSC Energia get a lower price?

"Roscosmos" earlier officially stated that the cost of Soyuz-5 was reduced from $ 55 million to $ 35 million. They went to meet us, proposed to set out our demands, as I said, we created a joint working group with RSC Energia.

- Is it possible to reduce the price of a missile almost twice? Does this mean that the first price was excessively exaggerated?

"These are still declarations, of course." It is difficult for me to say what these calculations are based on, but only positively and importantly is that Roskosmos went to meet us and announced a price reduction.

- In 2017, at the "Roskosmos" conference, Filev spoke about the readiness to order 50 missiles with an option for another 35. Is this already the question of Soyuz-5?

- It was then about a medium that would suit us. Then with us still no one discussed what we need.

In aviation, for the production of a new aircraft, a starting customer is needed, he enters into a firm contract, pays 10% of the cost, and the manufacturer starts serial production. We wanted to go the same way - to order a batch of Russian missiles, that is, to become de facto a customer for Roskosmos. But we can not agree yet.

- For what period do you need so many missiles?

- For the duration of the Sea Launch. At the launch platform, the remaining service life is 24 years. In reality, it will last for 15-20 years. During this period, it will be necessary to suspend the operation of the complex for a short time, in order to overhaul the platform. This will have to go across the entire Pacific Ocean to Hong Kong, only there is a dry dock of suitable size.

- What, by the way, will the advantage of Soyuz-5 over Zenit?

- The main thing - in the cost of starting up due to a multiple reduction in cost and in reusability. Our benchmarks are significantly lower than now for Zenit and than for SpaceX.

- Reusability is your upgrade. And for the original project?

- I do not have project documents, but it is planned that from Baikonur to low orbit Soyuz-5 will be able to output 17 tons of payload against 15 tons from Zenit. These energy opportunities are needed to bring the manned spacecraft "Federation", developed by RSC Energia, into a near-earth orbit.

"This missile is for one project?"

- This is its central task. But what to do next? At one time, the Soviet carrier rocket Energy was created, its energy capabilities allowed launching 100 tons of low (non-closed) orbit! She was taking out the space shuttle Buran. You can applaud this achievement of our country. But are we able to create loads for the whole country, no, even the whole world, for such tasks, for which it would be necessary regularly, several times a year, to put into orbit 100 tons each? So in the situation with the "Soyuz-5" it is still necessary to find use for it, except for the launches of the "Federation".

ISS and deep space

- In the presentation of Filev at the Roskosmos conference it was said that S7 Space wants to rent the Russian segment of the ISS and create an orbital spaceport on it. Tell us about this idea.

- It is quite logical, if you think and plan a business for decades to come. If you have an expensive transportation system - the cosmodrome and the launch vehicle, you need to provide it with orders. Or you have to look for one-time commercial loads every day. Either go into large state programs, which is not easy even in your own country. Or you yourself create a large flow of cargo into space. This is exactly how the Mask plans to operate, loading its Falcon 9 missile with the deployment and maintenance of the Starlink satellite system it creates, which, as far as possible, should consist of more than 10,000 units! Thus, he himself creates a cargo flow for his carrier: if you display 10 satellites at a time, this is more than 1000 starts. Here and reusability is not a whim or a game of the mind, but a necessity.

We want to go the same way, but by forming the flow of cargo into the outer space. To do this, in addition to a reusable rocket (vehicle "Earth - near space"), the second part of the transport system will be required: a reusable transport (cargo) ship. Whether it is a freight version of the Federation ship or a similar ship from Boeing, it does not matter now. The main thing is that in the end we will get a reusable carrier rocket and a supply cargo ship.

What's next? In 2024, according to existing agreements, the ISS will cease to exist as an interstate project. Without funding from the ISS, one way is to be flooded. But even to repeat such a multifunctional technically complex object in orbit with a mass of 480 tons, you need $ 100-150 billion and 10 years of hard work of a large number of enterprises. Today the ISS is the heritage of all mankind, this is a new wonder of the world, if you want. Americans with their segment can do what they want, and we would like to disconnect Russian and use it ourselves as an orbiting cosmodrome, which will supply and repair ships leaving for distant space. And we could deliver the loads to it with our reusable rockets and ships.

If we take an international agreement on the creation of the ISS, then, in principle, all the functions that we declare for the orbital cosmodrome are indicated there. Initially, the ISS was designed for this, only with a bias towards science, experiments and fewer utilitarian commercial functions.

Take, for example, the plans for the creation of a space station in the near-moon orbit and a base on the Moon. How to build them, how to supply them? The traffic will be enormous. How much will the cargo reach the moon if it starts, as it is now, from the Earth? With the "Union-5SL", probably 800-900 kg of 16 tons, which can be brought to low Earth orbit at a launch cost of $ 40 million. That's efficiency! Can you imagine what the costs will be for transportation of cargoes to ensure the creation and operation with the crew of the near-moon station and the lunar base ?! But the same problem looks quite different if from a low Earth orbit these 16 tons of cargo can be picked up and taken to the Moon with the help of reusable transport tugs.

- Has RSC Energia even signed a framework agreement on such a project?

- While this is premature. We have outlined our concept of development to the government and Roskosmos. There are four stages in it. Restoration of the start-up activities of the Sea Launch, the continued operation of the Ground Launch, the creation of its own reusable space transportation system for near space, the construction of an orbital cosmodrome with orbital tugboats as key elements of a long-range transport system. This is a strategy for at least 20 years. In space, otherwise it is impossible.

But for these grandiose plans to come true, we must first successfully implement the first stage - to restore the "Sea Launch" serviceability. And then we need the support of the Russian government, which I mentioned earlier.

- Reusable space tugs with a nuclear power plant - is the future, such technologies do not yet exist?

- It is necessary to understand that it is impossible to master the development (not the visit, namely, the development) of the Moon, not that of planets or asteroids, on chemical engines, on which all the rockets that humanity has now fly. They are powerful, relatively safe, but extremely inefficient, so they can be used to transport large loads from Earth to low orbits, and then you need to use completely different technologies.

We are sure that not the one with the most money will win in the struggle for the distant space, but the one who will have a relatively compact powerful (megawatts and more) and a long-term (years) power plant in orbit. Today it is only nuclear energy. This energy is already used for the work of electric rocket engines, which have a mass efficiency of an order of magnitude greater than the engines on chemical energy, and capable of working continuously for weeks and months - there would be energy. They can work for weeks, months and every second to give a small increase in speed. Only such a transport system opens the way to the development of outer space.

- You have far-reaching, ambitious and ambitious plans, just as visionary about the cosmos says Mask. Bureaucratic delays already at the first stage do not discourage Филева as an investor?

- Our strategy: a reusable rocket, an orbital cosmodrome, nuclear tugs for a breakthrough into the far space - all this is very beautiful from the standpoint of business, and from the standpoint of new technologies projects. He is passionate about them. Once Vladislav Feliksovich said that the money smells and he does not care how to make money.