Will Russia replace the Progress cargo space ship by the Argo?

I came across a story of sorts on a website called The Moscow Times that said that Russia was planning to create a reusable rocket to compete with Elon Musk.

I did not know that Elon Musk was a rocket.

The details in the article from 30 September seem to conflict wildly. The rocket becomes a space craft and requires 10 billion USD to design, and should at that price compete with SpaceX’ Falcon 9 in the “carrier rockets market”.

Considering that in its 40 year existence, Progress has flown a little over 150 flights, and considering that according to the article, Argo would have to cost less than 20 million USD per flight, Argo would have to fly 500 times to recoup its design costs. That seems a tad on the optimistic, not to mention unbusinesslike side—normally you would want to recoup costs before that.

Luckily The Moscow Times linked to its source, an article from the same day in a publication called RBC, and even though I do not speak a word of Russian and had to read the whole thing using Google’s clunky translation service, that article seems to make a whole lot more sense.

What Roscosmos, the Russian space agency appears to want to do in the relatively near future (assuming the translation is correct and the publication journalistic), is to replace the current Progress cargo space craft by a new, reusable space craft called Argo for ISS resupply missions.

A secondary use would be to use the craft for up to 30 days as an unmanned orbital research platform that can safely return its cargo.

The Argo is intended to compete with the SpaceX Dragon and indeed looks a lot like it.

Some data extracted (hopefully correctly) from the article:

  • Launch platform: Soyuz 2.1b.
  • Start of programme operation: 2024.
  • Duration of programme operation: 10 years.
  • Expected cost: 10 million USD for launch and landing.
  • Expected costs per 20 flights: 196 million USD, including launch, landing and after-flight maintenance.
  • Expected price: less than 50 million USD per launch.
  • Payload capacity: 11 m3 or 2 tonnes, 1 tonne for return flights.
  • Flight time as part of a station: 300 days.
  • Total mass: 11.5 tonnes.
  • Construction: 52% composite materials.

Like the Dragon, only the capsule part of the space craft would be reusable, with the ‘trunk’ being jettisoned during the return flight.

There are a few things worthy of discussion.

The USA are planning to withdraw from the ISS in 2024. The ISS also has a natural life span; you cannot just put a space station in orbit and assume it will stay intact forever. The ISS was originally planned to last until 2013, but I have seen claims that with the right upgrades it might survive as a viable space station until 2028.

So what do the Russians plan to supply between 2028 and 2034? One observer, Vitaly Yegorov, suggests they might sell supply flights to an upcoming Chinese space station.

And who are the Russians going to compete with? SpaceX’ customer NASA does not plan to stay around that long on the ISS. But are they even considering Roscosmos for supply services? I am currently aware of Roscosmos selling them astronaut ferry services at 80 million USD per seat. That is the lucrative business that is currently under threat from SpaceX and Boeing. ESA and JAXA in the mean time have their own supply craft.

The article also points out that currently there is not much demand for returning goods from the ISS. In that sense, according to Yegorov, the Argo competes with other Russian spacecraft like the Progress-MS and the Soyuz-MS. Yegorov: “Perhaps there will be a need for the delivery of goods to a lunar orbit. And, I think, with a sufficiently powerful rocket, the Argo will be able to make interplanetary flights.”

So what is not clear to me if this Argo spacecraft is merely being designed to bring Roscosmos’ own costs down, or if they actually plan on selling services that use the Argo.

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