The first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7, which was Korolyov's most famous brainchild, has proved so robust and popular that it has been the workhorse of many Russian and foreign space programs for more than half a century. The R-7's civilian derivatives have been used to launch the first satellites, lunar and interplanetary probes, and manned missions under the Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz programs. The Rus launch vehicle is the latest stage in its modernization. It has better energy features and improved orbiting accuracy and operating standards. It will be launched not only from Russia's Plesetsk space center and Baikonur, leased from Kazakhstan, but also from Courou in French Guiana. The version of the rocket adapted for the conditions of this center has been designated the Soyuz-ST.
The conversion boom came into its own in Russia in the early 1990s. Decommissioning plans targeted many types of strategic missiles. Two alternatives existed: to recycle them using traditional techniques, which was costly and harmful to the environment, or to dispose of them by launching the rockets with a payload.
At the moment, there are six large conversion projects under way: the Start-1, Rokot, Shtil, Volna, Strela and Dnepr. Each of them has produced a rocket of the same name. All of the rockets are in the lightweight class and capable of putting spacecraft into low orbits up to 2,000 kilometers high.
The Start-1, developed by the Kompleks-MIT research center, had all three of its lower stages taken from the Topol (RS-12M) mobile ballistic missile. The other elements - the boost section, the post-boost vernier stage, and the upper stage - have been designed from scratch. A distinctive feature of the new vehicle is that, like its forerunner, it can be launched from a mobile transporter-launcher. Because of advantages such as its mobility and almost constant firing readiness, the cost of one launch is on the order of $8.5 million.
The Rokot is perhaps the most successful example of conversion. It has the best success rate of all the converted rockets. Its only accident happened due to a programming error, a human factor. You cannot avoid the human factor, despite multiple checks at plants and centers and triple or many-times-over controls.
The Rokot launch vehicle was developed at the Khrunichev Center from the RS-18 (SS-19 Stiletto) ballistic missile and consists of three stages. The first two make up the boost section of the combat missile. The third one is the Briz-KM boost section, which has replaced the standard bus.
Specialists from the Mashinostroyeniye research and production association took a different road in developing the Strela vehicle from the same RS-18 ballistic missile - they made as few changes to the design as possible. As a result, all the RS-18's basic elements stayed put except for the nose fairing, while the upper stage got a new module where the developers placed an additional stabilization system and the equipment needed by the missile to carry out civilian missions. This re-engineering does not allow the Strela to launch a bigger payload than the Rokot, but it does reduce overall costs.
Things are not going so well with the conversion of sea-launched ballistic missiles. The Makeyev Design Bureau State Missile Center has come up with several conversion products: the Zyb (a converted RSM-25 ballistic missile), Shtil (RSM-54), Volna (RSM-50), Priboi (a new product assembled from separate stages of the RSM-52 and RSM-54 and new specially developed elements) and Rif-MA (an RSM-52 converted for launch from an An-124 aircraft).
The one-stage Zyb rocket, which was first flight-tested in December 1991, differed from the combat version in that only its control system was re-programmed. In June 1995, the two-stage Volna was launched, carrying a research module in place of its warheads. In July 1998, a rocket was launched into orbit from a submerged submarine for the first time. One Shtil-1 put two satellites into orbit in a single launch.
Currently only the Shtil-1 and Volna are performing space duties. The Priboi and Rif-MA programs had to be shut down for lack of funding. For the same reason, work was stopped on converting the launch facility at the Nyonoksa range in the Arkhangelsk Region, which tests new versions of sea-launched ballistic missiles, for space launches.
The Dnepr launch vehicle is a converted version of the Voyevoda RS-20 ICBM (SS-18 Satan). Instead of a warhead, the Satan carries a specially developed upper stage, and its flight mission has been changed.
The first time the RS-20 was launched as a Dnepr rocket was in 1999. To date it has been used for seven launches. These were mainly cluster operations with several (up to ten) spacecraft put into orbit at the same time. New contracts have been signed and the order book is full for the next three years. Two to three launches a year are expected. The Dnepr can lift off not only from Baikonur, but also from the Yasny launch base operated by a missile division in the Orenburg Region; that is to say, from Russian territory. This avoids the need to comply with all the restrictions imposed by Kazakhstan on launches from Baikonur of rockets with corrosive fuel components. Lift-offs from Yasny, as well as from Baikonur, undergo thorough environmental checks to protect against possible harmful effects. Additional environmental monitoring is carried out after every launch. These safety measures are usually standard procedure regardless of the launch site.
New ways are being considered to use the Dnepr to deliver payloads into high orbits or even on missions to the Moon, Venus or Mars. Additional one-stage or two-stage booster sections are in effect modular space tow vehicles that add considerably to the rocket's energy thrust. A distinctive feature of this version is that the original rocket is left intact, free of any add-ons. The first certified launch of the new Dnepr is scheduled for the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007. Equipped with a space tow vehicle, it will be able to send a payload of more than half a ton to the Moon or 350 kilograms to Mars.
In its present configuration, a Dnepr launch carries a commercial price tag of between $15 million and $20 million. "We expect the RS-20 missile to remain part of the Strategic Missile Forces until 2016-2018," said their commander, Nikolai Solovtsev. "Up until 2020, these ICBMs may be used for space launches under the Dnepr program. Missiles with a service life of 18 to 20 years will be used as converted rockets. Their launches will provide a good yardstick for assessing the ICBMs on combat duty and lengthening their warranty periods. If two to three Dnepr rockets are fired a year, there will be enough to last us 20 years or so."
Converted rockets will launch all light spacecraft under the Russian Federal Space Program and will be used for commercial launches of foreign payloads. In the latter case, the volume of services will depend largely on decisions made by the U.S. government. The reason is that most foreign satellites use American technologies and components. If the latter make up more than 25% of a satellite, the project needs a license from the U.S. government. It may not be issued if Congress perceives that the use of surplus Russian ballistic missiles for space services poses a threat to the U.S. space missile industry.
The situation may get worse following George W. Bush's recent proposal, in which he declared himself the "universe's gatekeeper" and threatened to close the door to countries not on friendly terms with the U.S.
Yuri Zaitsev is an analyst with the Space Research Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences.