MOSCOW, January 10 (Robert MacGregor, RIA Novosti) – At the height of the Cold War in the once-closed Volga River city of Samara, Soviet engineers labored in vain to build a rocket to send men to the moon.
In 1974, with more than a dozen US astronauts having made that landmark voyage and popular fervor for space travel already declining, the program to develop the heavy-lift N1 launcher was shelved after four explosions during testing.
Four decades later, however, the legacy of that project lives on and the lunar rocket engines that had for decades lain forgotten collecting dust in a warehouse are now being used to resupply the International Space Station and launch satellites.
On Thursday, the NASA-funded Antares rocket powered by a pair of upgraded Soviet lunar engines sent the Cygnus spacecraft on its way to dock with the International Space Station on its first full resupply mission to deliver spare parts, experiments, food and water.
The event was the second of two landmark launches of the engines in as many weeks.
In December, another refurbished version of the same engine powered a new variant of Russia’s venerable Soyuz rocket on its maiden launch, lifting a cluster of research equipment into orbit.
The launches are “a testament to the long-term benefits we all continue to reap from the investments made during the space race,” NASA chief historian William P. Barry told RIA Novosti.
The launch of the new Soyuz, called the Soyuz-2.1v, from the forested Plesetsk space center in the northern Arkhangelsk region had suffered repeated delays over concerns of a possible engine malfunction. The delays tested the nerves of Russian space officials who have had to contend with a series of failures in recent years.
The launch ultimately went as planned, placing into orbit two calibration spheres used to assist earth-based radar signals for tracking and a small student satellite jointly manufactured by Samara Aerospace University and the TsSKB Progress factory, which also builds all Soyuz rockets.
The Progress plant dates back to World War II, when dozens of factories were evacuated from the warfront, turning Samara into a hub of the aviation industry.
In the 1960s, Sergei Korolyov, the head of the Soviet space program, defied naysayers by tasking a Samara factory, until that point focused on aircraft engine production, with building rocket engines to carry a cosmonaut to the moon.
The design team, led by Nikolai Kuznetsov, seized on a radical new approach called staged combustion.
“Kuznetsov and his team had to be extremely imaginative, creative and skilled to make the leap from building turbo-prop and jet engines to building a highly efficient, relatively small, but powerful liquid oxygen and kerosene rocket engine,” Barry said. “To have succeeded in this stupendous challenge with the limitations they faced is nothing short of phenomenal.”
The design, which was never fully duplicated in the West, required new metallurgical techniques to protect engine parts from ultra-hot corrosive gases. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Western companies began sniffing around for advanced Soviet technologies on the cheap.
In the early 1990s, California-based aerospace company Aerojet heard about the engines at a Moscow aerospace show and ultimately purchased about 40 of the rocket engines, called the NK-33, for around $1 million apiece.
Aerojet is now selling the leftover engines, updated with modern electronics and thrust control, to Orbital Sciences Corp. for its NASA-funded Antares rocket.
As the US Shuttle fleet was approaching the end of its operating life, Orbital signed a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for eight Antares launches to resupply the International State Station with spare parts, water and food. Two more are slated for later this year.
“The basic idea isn't so hard to grasp – the NK-33-1 engines are very good … The marginal cost of improving them for the current launches is still lower than putting brand new engines on a rocket,” said Asif Siddiqi, a Fordham University history professor who has written several books about the Russian space program.
Siddiqi said that although the stock of NK-33-1 engines – a modification of the NK-33 – could run dry, other engines could take their place.
While no new engines have been built since the Soviet lunar program was canceled 40 years ago, Yelena Merkulova, the head spokesperson for the Kuznetsov company that originally built the engines, said that her company’s main current goal is to restart production of the NK-33.
“Given the fact that the engine repeatedly successfully flew in 2013, there has been interest in the NK-33 among European space agencies in addition to our existing customers,” Merkulova said.
The reliance of the US space program on Soviet-developed hardware is a reflection of a move in the aerospace industry following the end of the Cold War to source parts and expertise from around the world.
“The launcher market is, in fact, far more globalized than generally assumed, particularly if you also look at the component level. With the increased commoditization of space, I assume that the globalization trend will continue to some extent,” said Peter Hulsroj, director of the Vienna-based European Space Policy Institute.
Staged combustion technology was later incorporated into other Russian rocket engines, including the RD-180 developed in the 1990s for the Atlas III and V rockets, which were built by Lockheed Martin and have launched a number of US government reconnaissance satellites.
Technical cooperation still remains hostage to politics, however. Russian media speculated this summer, amid frayed ties between Russia and the United States, that Moscow could consider banning the sale of RD-180 rocket engines to the United States, a move that would throw the future of the Atlas program into doubt.
“Like any other area of international cooperation, there are risks of losing control of the technology and permitting advances by competitors, be they states or commercial rivals. The benefits devolve from mutual exchanges, learning from others’ experience and in sharing costs,” Said Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, told RIA Novosti.