Soyuz launch from Vostochny
A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifts off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome Nov. 28. Controllers have not been able to contact the rocket's primary payload, a Meteor-M weather satellite. Credit: Roscosmos

The article originally ran in the Dec. 4 issue of SpaceNews Magazine as “Like a Phoenix, Russia looks past Soyuz-2 to Soyuz-5.”

MOSCOW — Try as they might, the Russian space program is having a hard time sustaining a positive news cycle. For every small step forward, it seems they take one giant leap back. Budget cuts, program delays, and regular launch failures dog Russia’s space industry at every turn — making small victories and promises of glories still to come harder and harder to swallow.

With the latest setback, last week’s botched launch of a new weather satellite and 18 secondary payloads, fate seems to be piling on. After Roscosmos claimed a successful Nov. 28 launch of a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East, reports surfaced that contact with the rocket’s Fregat upper-stage, which transports the payload, was lost.

Russian officials took more than a day to acknowledge the mission had failed, but said little beyond vowing to complete an investigation by mid-December. Russian state-owned media, meanwhile, reported that a guidance-and-navigation error appears to be to blame for Fregat’s likely plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket’s flight control system, according to industry sources cited by, essentially used the wrong coordinates for launching out of Vostochny instead of one of Soyuz’s usual launch sites.

It is never good to lose a rocket, but the timing of this loss — the 12th failure across different families of launch vehicles since 2010 — is especially unfortunate for Russia’s space program. In recent months, industry leaders and Roscosmos officials have been touting the development of their own next-generation spacecraft, hoping to keep up with Western private space firms.

Russia has been lagging in efforts to ensure it remains competitive with new players such as SpaceX. But in the past year, a new player has emerged from Russia that is at least playing the part of private operator: S7, the holding company that owns Russia’s most successful private airline, last year stepped up to buy and modernize the troubled Sea Launch project.

The New Face?

S7 still has a long way to go to prove it is a serious player in the emerging private space industry, but it is already a refreshing face for Russia’s space industry. “Why are we doing this?” S7 CEO Vladislav Filyov told Bloomberg in a 2016 interview, “Just because it is beautiful.” Filyov’s lofty remarks earned him immediate comparisons to Elon Musk in the Russian press.

Since September 2016, things have been moving quickly for S7. The director of the company’s space subsidiary, Sergey Sopov, told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency in October 2016 that the company hopes to the secure a place in the commercial market with launches priced at $65-75 million. The only real question seemed to be what kind of rocket the company would use aboard Sea Launch.

Initially, speculation was rife that the rocket would be a medium-class version of the Khrunichev company’s Angara rocket. Angara, after all, became the only brand-new Russian rocket design to make it off post-Soviet drawing boards when it conducted its first test launch in 2014. But Angara’s star appears to be waning as S7’s rises. The hype now focuses on the latter’s plans.

Enter Soyuz-5

As with Western private space firms, S7’s private efforts feature a significant amount of government involvement and support. The company is working with Energia — a state-owned entity — on refurbishing Sea Launch. Meanwhile, the state space corporation Roscosmos, with federal funding, is working with Energia and other companies to develop new booster rockets.

As part of the 2016-2017 Federal Space Program, a funding document, Roscosmos announced project Phoenix — a 30-billion-ruble ($512 million) crash program to develop a new medium-class launch vehicle to replace Soyuz, and the Russian-Ukrainian Zenit vehicle, by the early 2020s. The idea was to have alternatives to Angara should any problems with that, primary, project arise.

Several design proposals were forwarded from Russia’s major rocket production centers to compete for the Phoenix tender. In the end, it was Energia’s proposal for a Soyuz-5 that won over. Roscosmos demanded work to begin by 2017 or 2018. On Nov. 10, Energia’s press service announced preliminary designs for Soyuz-5 will be completed by the end of this year.

The namesake of the new rocket, which is supposed to be ready by 2021, is a bit misleading. The Soyuz name implies continuity, but Soyuz-5 has little to do with the current family of Soyuz launch vehicles — which are derived from the Soviet Union’s very first R-7 rockets. Rather, Soyuz-5 derives from the Zenit booster first developed for Energia and used on Sea Launch.

Although manufactured by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash rocket company, Zenit is constructed largely from Russian-made parts supplied by Energia. About 70 to 80 percent of the rocket is reportedly Russian. The anticipated speed of development of the Soyuz-5 can be attributed to the fact that it is basically a program to clone and upgrade Zenit by replacing Ukrainian components.

“80 percent of the Soyuz-5 will be the Zenit-3 launch vehicle, with the only new components basically being engines used in the Soyuz-2 built into the new rocket’s second stage,” says Pavel Luzin, a Russian space industry analyst. “So, this Soyuz-5 will actually be a well known launch vehicle, and Baikonur already has all the necessary infrastructure launching it.”

In an interview with TASS published in late November, Energomash director Igor Arbuzov said that his company was in negotiations with S7 on supplying engines for the Soyuz-5 project. Zenit already uses Energomash’s RD-171, but the company has received 7 billion rubles from the state to modernize that engine by 2019 for Soyuz-5 under the designation RD-171MV.

Fate of Angara

A critical part of the Soyuz-5 story is the Russian space industry’s ongoing efforts to get Angara ready for service by 2021. The project will no doubt continue — it has been in development since the 1990s, and no one really knows exactly how much money has been poured into its development. Suffice it to say, Angara is too big to fail. But its outlook has been downgraded.

Nominally, Angara is supposed to be ready to hit the market by 2021 and launch from the $3 billion Vostochny Cosmodrome. But delays on both projects continue to mount, and 2021 should be treated as an aspirational date to generate headlines. Khrunichev, the company that is working on Angara, continues to struggle with quality control and financial problems.

And so, what was once supposed to be the centerpiece of Russia’s future space program looks increasingly like a sideshow. There have been delays in building launch infrastructure for Angara at Vostochny. And that spaceport itself, once intended to host manned versions of Angara to overtake Russian dependence on the Soviet-era Baikonur, also seems secondary.

“Angara-A5 is neither ready for commercial nor manned flights due to trouble with manufacturing,” Luzin said. “And then there is the problem of launching manned flights safely from Vostochny. If something goes wrong, cosmonauts will have to conduct an emergency landing in the tundra or the northern Pacific — it is not a good scenario.”

It seems, then, that manned launches aboard Angara rockets from Vostochny are a long way off. This has given S7 and Energia — the company building Russia’s new manned spacecraft, a replacement for Soyuz known as Federation — an opportunity to sell their Soyuz-5 project as the answer to Russia’s near-term space woes.

Ultimately, Soyuz-5 represents a triumph of older Soviet technology — with a few newer enhancements — winning over ambitious plans formulated under a better economy. Angara and Vostochny will continue to develop, but for now all eyes are on Soyuz-5 and Baikonur. In Russia, what is old is new again.

S7, when asked to comment on this report, referred SpaceNews to already published information on their plans.

Matthew Bodner is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. He previously worked for The Moscow Times.