Optimal conversion and the Dnepr accident

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) - Anything more sophisticated than a steel ingot is liable to break. This maxim, of course, applies to rockets.

Even so, the setback suffered on the night of July 26 by an RS-20 Voyevoda (SS-18 Satan) intercontinental ballistic missile converted into a Dnepr launch vehicle makes one question the wisdom of converting ICBMs, at least today.

The rocket, launched at midnight, had not flown more than two minutes when the first-stage engine cut out and the vehicle crashed about 190 kilometers from the Baikonur space center, destroying 18 small satellites developed by students from Russia, the United States and Italy, and specialists from Belarus and Colombia. In addition to representatives of university student centers, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Russian Space Center head Anatoly Perminov watched the launch. The idea of converting strategic missiles became a reality in 1993 when the Treaty on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (or START-II) was signed, obliging Russia to remove most of its ground-based missiles from operational status, notably RS-20s, ICBMs with unique combat characteristics.

The scheme seemed simple and logical. Instead of a costly disposal program, inevitably involving American money, the junk could be scrapped by simply "firing" the missiles, with a triple benefit: complying with the treaty, boosting the country's prestige, and making money on commercial launches. It was emphasized that it would take only $100,000 to convert the RS-20, developed at the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye design bureau, into a first-class launch vehicle.

But the fast and easy wizardry seen in Charles Perrault's Cinderella does not, by definition, work with rockets. The first premise is that any time something is remade to conform to new standards and objectives, while at the same time maintaining high quality, it is always more costly than developing and manufacturing a new prototype. This is a time-tested rule that applies to all human endeavors. Any talk of high quality or reliability in the Dnepr case at a price of only $100,000 was a lot of hot air. It is not yet time to go into technical details except perhaps by making one general remark. However fantastic a product's safety, dependability or longevity, a quarter-century of operational duty cannot pass without leaving its impact. A special commission will hopefully describe the particulars of the accident.

This raises another question: Why should we have such a launch vehicle? As the Russian Space Agency boldly claims, the Dnepr is capable of placing a payload of up to 3.7 tons in low orbits of 300 to 900 kilometers. In passing it may be observed that a multiple firing of the third-stage engine is required to put spacecraft into an orbit of 700 to 1,200 kilometers. Despite my efforts, I could find no mention of the required refurbishment of the Satan's third stage.

But let us return to our "why". Indeed, in the mid-1990s, with mobile communications making whirlwind progress, specialists in Europe and America justly believed that a very large number of low-orbit satellites would be needed covering a considerable area. So a niche for conversion rockets existed, but fate decreed otherwise. Practically all programs using low-orbit satellites for mobile purposes were scrapped in favor of ground facilities. However, any day now we will certainly see other ambitious programs for compact-sized craft. But it is cheaper and more reliable to develop a new launch vehicle, particularly since Russia is a leader in this field.

At the moment, though, low-orbit commercial launches fetch low profits. General interest focuses on the geostationary orbit (36,000 kilometers) where large space communications systems can be placed. This is why the Khrunichev center and NPOmash have come up with a commercial proposal to use another converted missile, the RS-18 Rokot (SS-19 Stiletto), to place small payloads into a stationary orbit.

Specialists say such satellites will perform as well as large ones. But most significantly of all, the two centers are offering a package service. It includes manufacturing a satellite with an original inert-gas-burning propulsion unit, converting an army missile into a launch vehicle, and orbiting the satellite - operations a customer today can obtain only from different companies, often in different countries. The promoters of the idea also intend to afford the client the use of both ground-control facilities and equipment for receiving, processing and sending information to the end user. Now there's a real conversion for you.

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