The sad story of "Zenith"

Alas, the success of a technical system does not always depend only on its perfection. And the sad story of the Zenit launch vehicle clearly shows how excellent the rocket from the technical side, instead of a brilliant career and brilliant achievements, turned out to be in a situation where you just have to survive. On December 26, the last of the already produced Zenit launches, and, despite the news of this year, it may be the last in the history of this launch vehicle.

The launch of the Zenit launch vehicle, on the left, is the aiming system, which determined the position in space.

Awakening power

The rocket, which was eventually called the Zenith, emerged from a combination of several ideas. First, the mass of satellites as a whole grew, and in particular, the Tselina electronic reconnaissance vehicle, the new version of which ceased to fit on the Vostok-2M and Cyclone-3 missiles. At the same time, at first, the designers of Yuzhnoye Design Bureau went in a rather unusual way, designing a rocket with two first stages standing side by side. The resulting design was called "double barrels" or "flounder". Secondly, among the rocket designers, the idea of ​​replacing the morally obsolete family of missiles based on the R-7 was vital - some of the drawbacks, such as large amounts of manual work, could not be eliminated in preparation for launch. Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, accustomed to working with high-boiling components on combat missiles, initially wanted to use them for a new project, but environmental issues appeared. Both the Ministry of Defense and the Council of Ministers reasonably considered that a rocket, which will launch frequently, should not use poisonous heptyl and amyl. By 1974, the concept of “double-barreled guns” was created with two first steps standing side by side with a diameter of 3 meters, using RD-124 and RD-125 engines with a payload in the region of 12 tons to a low orbit.

Even the issues of re-use of the first stage were worked out, therefore the engines were designed for multiple starting. In 1975, thinking about changing the engines of the first stage to just starting to create the RD-170, but for this you would have to increase the diameter of the rocket and make new equipment in production, so the work went slack. And here the third idea interfered - the “Energy-Buran” program. They decided to make the first stage universal - as a side accelerator of the extra-heavy rocket “Energy” and at the same time the first stage of a new medium rocket. Under this program, there were no problems with the allocation of funds for the new production equipment, so the diameter of the rocket was increased to the maximum allowable rail dimension of 3.9 meters. Zenit’s birthday is March 16, 1976, when a resolution of the CPSU Central Committee and USSR Council of Ministers was adopted.

The main problem in the development was the engine. And this is not surprising - the record parameters and the craving could not be obtained quickly and simply. The development was delayed, and the Celina-2 satellites had to be temporarily transplanted to the Protons. In 1984, bench testing of the assembly began, and at the first test a fire arose in the tail section, then the walls of the tanks burnt out, and the test bench disappeared into the fire of hundreds of tons of fuel. Flight tests of the rocket did not go smoothly either - the first two launches in 1985 turned out to be emergency. But, despite all the problems, in October 1985, Zenit launched its first satellite into orbit.

By the end of 1988, 13 Zenit rockets were launched (three of them were in emergency), and another eight units successfully flew in two launches of the Energy rocket. From a technical point of view, everything was fine. The RD-170/171 engine became the world record holder in terms of load (740 tons at sea level), and in the rocket they implemented or were going to apply the solutions at the cutting edge of technical progress. The process of preparing for launch was maximally automated from preflight tests in the assembly and test facility to the installation of the rocket into the launch facility, inspections there and launch. This made it possible to quickly and efficiently prepare a rocket for launch. In the version for "Energy" the first stage was going to be gently landed and reused. The dimension of "Zenith" was chosen very well - almost 14 tons to a low orbit conveniently surpassed 7 tons of the "Union", and in the launch complex a special reserve was created for heavier modifications. At first, Zenit launched only Tselina-2 satellites, but at the Plesetsk cosmodrome they began to build another launch complex, and Zenit could well become a universal Soviet middle-class rocket. Under it, even began to develop a new manned ship "Zarya", also ahead of time, reusable and with a rocket landing. Re-use of the steps, a modular super-heavy rocket, a ship with a rocket landing - the successes of SpaceX would be compared with Soviet achievements of twenty years ago. But all this beauty collapsed along with the USSR. Technical progress is a fragile thing, and in the conditions of political and economic upheavals degradation begins. In 1990-92, three consecutive “Zenith” accidents occurred, and it is believed that they are directly related to personnel leakage and production instability. Defense and space enterprises began to produce food combines and scooters at best, but at worst they ceased to exist, and instead of brilliant prospects, Zenit was torn between now independent countries (70%, including engines, did Russia, the rest was Ukraine), and his new challenge was survival.

New Hope

The second chance to “Zenith” was given by the idea of ​​the floating launch site “Sea Launch”. And again the prospects were brilliant. The main space money is concentrated in the geostationary orbit - there are telecommunication satellites that sell satellite television services, the Internet, radio and telephone communications. And to bring them into geostationary orbit is most advantageous from the equator. The fact is that the initial inclination of the orbit of the launched satellite cannot be less than the width of the cosmodrome, and this inclination needs to be zeroed out in order to be in a geostationary orbit. When starting from Baikonur, it is necessary to get rid of 51.6 ° of the initial inclination, and this consumes precious fuel. There is still a factor of Earth's rotation, but compared to Baikonur, the equator gives a gain of only 172 meters per second, amid the cost of inclination change, this is rather a pleasant bonus. The benefit from launching from the equator is so great that the same modification of the Zenit rocket can put 3.6 tons into geo-transitional orbit from Baikonur, and 6.1 tons when launched from the equator.

Photo: Sea Launch

Zenit was perfectly suited for the floating cosmodrome, mainly due to the fully automatic launch - it was possible to remove all people to another ship before launching, go away, and the accident would not lead to human casualties. The payload also proved to be very successful, 6.1 tons with the added DM-SL booster block are still enough, only four of all the launched geostationary satellites were heavier.

The Sea Launch Consortium was founded in 1995. It included Russia (70% of the rocket and the upper stage), Ukraine (the rest of the rocket), Norway (launch platform and control ship) and the USA (head fairing and assembly). In 1999, the first launch took place. But this time the problems began in the economic part. The consortium could not find enough customers for the company to be profitable. In 2012, the president of RSC Energia, Vitaly Lopota, announced that Sea Launch brings profit starting from four starts per year. There were only three such profitable years.

Despite the success of 2006 and 2008, apparently, the accident of 2007 and the loss of time to investigate it, putting on earlier debts, became fatal - in 2009 Sea Launch filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, which provides for the possibility of reorganizing the company. As a result of this reorganization, RSC Energia became the owner of 95% of the company. But the new miracle did not happen - the satellites launched in 2011-2013 were ordered before the bankruptcy, and not a single year became profitable. In parallel with the Sea Launch, from 2004, they tried to develop the Land Launch project, where Zenit was allowed from Baikonur, but even there they managed to make only six launches. And the aggravation of relations between Russia and Ukraine in 2014 buried both the Sea Launch and Zenit in the form in which they existed.

Latest rockets

At the beginning of 2015, there were news about a possible adaptation to the Sea Launch of the Angara rocket. The modification of the "Angara A-5" would be able to withdraw from the equator about one and a half times more than the "Zenith", but would require a serious alteration of the launch platform. In principle, the Angara start in Plesetsk was redone from an unfinished start under Zenit, but such works are money and time, which, obviously, was not. Moreover, in Russia the initiative development of the RCC Progress under the name Soyuz-5, which was originally designed as a rocket on natural gas and oxygen, was superimposed on the Phoenix theme planned in the Federal Space Program, on which they were going to create a middle-class RN carrying capacity of 9 tons. In 2017, it turned out that the result of such a cross was the fully Russian equivalent of Zenith. Its exact characteristics have not yet been announced, but there is information that it will be able to put up to 17 tons into orbit, three more than the two-step version of Zenith. Soyuz-5 will not appear soon, but is already a competitor of Zenit, and in the summer of 2017 there was news that Sea Launch was being remade for it. But it was not there - a month before, the S7 company, which bought Sea Launch at the end of 2016, announced the resumption of production of Zenit in the Ukrainian Yuzhmash. A collision arose - Russian engines have not been delivered there since 2014, and Roscosmos did not plan to make an exception for the S7. But by October, the S7 made a feint with its ears - the engines will be delivered to the USA and produce the final assembly already there.

Despite the fact that new launches from the Sea Launch are promised in 2019, there is no certainty about this. First of all, it is not known whether Yuzhmash managed to save people and equipment for the production of a launch vehicle in the face of economic problems. The company's management, about the difficulties of which news regularly appears in the Ukrainian media, may promise to produce as many rockets as you want, the plant has nothing to lose. But can they ensure the timing and, most importantly, the quality of the components produced? Further, Sea Launch costs approximately $ 30 million per year, is there enough money for the S7 Group to maintain the infrastructure before the start-up? Well, the simplest and most terrible problem is whether the Sea Launch will succeed in finding customers and competing in difficult modern conditions if it has had a profitable year even ten years ago when Ilon Musk was just starting?

Removal of the last "Zenith" at the start, photo Roscosmos

Coming back to the last “Zenith”, the dreary darkness on the photograph is surprising in the subject. The rocket was made a few years ago, and, according to rumors from the forum of the magazine "News of Astronautics", it has already extended the resource. And it is also impossible to delay the launch further - according to the information from the same place, for 2018 there is no agreement on the fields of incidence for Zenit with Kazakhstan. A restless rocket, which is almost already being pushed out of flight - a sad ending to the project’s career with such promising once perspectives. In these conditions, one can only hope that the launch will take place normally.


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