Will Soyuz Beat Orion Around the Moon?

On June 3rd, the Moscow Times reported on a new development in Space Adventure’s plan to launch two tourists on a voyage around the Moon.  Having scored notable success as the first and only company to arrange tourist, or “space flight participant” trips to the International Space Station, Space Adventures has been promoting the lunar circumnavigation plan for some time, having announced in 2011 that it had secured one passenger (at the time rumored to be James Cameron) and was looking for a someone else to occupy the second seat, bringing along the additional $150 million to make it happen.

Apparently that may have happened.  Although neither person’s identity has been revealed, Vitaly Lopota, CEO of Energia, which is Russia’s largest (and quasi-governmental) aerospace company has confirmed that two passengers are seriously interested, and his company is working towards a flight in 2017 or 2018.

Under the scenario envisioned, the two tourists and a single Russian pilot would launch aboard a modified Soyuz featuring an improved heat shield. That craft would in turn dock with a keralox Block DM propulsion stage attached to an extra habitation module launched by a Proton (gulp).

In another interesting twist, according to a report in Spaceflightnow which is based on comments Space Adventures President Tom Shelley made at a Florida conference last week, the mission integration might take place in the vicinity of ISS, with the crew traveling initially traveling to the Station to await the launch and arrival of the transfer vessel. Although no-one is saying so, presumably the ISS visit would serve as a “fall back” provision if something prevented the combined Moon vessel from breaking Earth orbit.

While the story will no doubt continue to garner skepticism until a press conference is called and the names are announced, there are several reasons it may have merit.

In the first place, although the Soyuz may be regarded as a reliable but very dated LEO craft, a stripped down version of the venerable spaceship formed the basis for the Soviet Union’s partially successful Zond lunar program in the in 1960’s. Its flight record though, might give a moment’s pause.

Of the four unmanned Zond circumlunar flights which actually survived a perilous launch aboard the problematical Proton, and completed their journey around the Moon, the results were very mixed.

The first, Zond 5, made a high (20) G force landing in the Indian ocean,  but a pair of turtles which made the trip did survive.  The next mission, Zond 6, did not go as well, with a planned an atmospheric “skip entry,” the velocity shedding technique which Russia is likely to apply to future missions, marred by a cabin depressurization and a premature parachute deployment leading to a crash landing. Had it been piloted, no one would have survived.  Seven was the lucky number for Zond, with that flight resulting in a successful demonstration of the re-entry technique, and ending in a relatively soft landing on target in Kazakhstan. The final mission, Zond 8, made a ballistic reentry, also into the Indian Ocean.

Interestingly Zond capsules were also atop the ill-fated N-1 “Moon rocket,”  and were pulled to safety even as the giant boosters all failed catastrophically during first stage flight.

Even though the Zond program was canceled when the U.S.S.R. lost its race to the Moon with the U.S., the heritage, and the long successful track record of the Soyuz spacecraft  provides a basis for a Russia to get some measure of satisfaction by beating the U.S. back to Moon. Although no-one would call it a race, one should not overlook the fact that the only defined mission for the American Space Launch System calls for it to boost an Orion spacecraft on a similar circumlunar flight in 2021. It is not difficult to imagine that in the light of current tensions, Russia might be motivated to be the first to the finish line this time.

And, while the Soyuz certainly represents a minimalist approach to lunar flights, Russia has made no secret of the fact that it is focusing on the Moon as the “horizon goal” for its space program. In other words, Russia might be more inclined to invest the resources to modify Soyuz, and even conduct a test flight than would otherwise be the case. Even if the passengers who fund the trip are both American,  the pilot/commander  would still be Russian, with the flight being used to provide an early test of some systems intended for its next generation, lunar capable craft.

As pointed out in the 2011 Space Review article, Bad Moon Rising, a Russian circumlunar flight taking place prior to the American return to “deep space” would present a fascinating public relations challenge for NASA as it seeks to explain why it is that the nation is spending tens of billions of dollars to accomplish what two “tourists” achieved for $150 million each.

Of equal importance, it would present a serious counter example to those who argue that a massive booster is needed because dual launch orbital rendezvous is just too problematic.

Finally, one wonders if the spectacle of a modular lunar mission effectively supported by, and departing from the vicinity of ISS, might not cause a re-examination of the Station’s potential for performing similar functions in the future.

Posted in: Soyuz, Space Tourism

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1 Comment on "Will Soyuz Beat Orion Around the Moon?"

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  1. Dick Eagleson says:

    Not sure why the (gulp) after the reference to Proton. Sure, Proton has a less than stellar reliability record, but this moon scenario doesn’t involve any people riding the infernal thing. It’s just a freight hauler. If it blows up, too bad for the TLI stage and hab, but, hey, them’s the breaks sometimes. The would-be tourists can always return to Earth in Soyuz and try again later if such is the nature of their contract – and it ought to be.

    Completely agree with the “tens of billions” vs. $300 million NASA embarrassment thing. To paraphrase an old brokerage ad, NASA gets it’s embarrassments the hard way – it earns them.

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