SPECIAL REPORT: The Exciting State of Russia’s Private Spaceflight Industry
Alexander Shayenko, head of a private space company: «We launched a Mayak satellite. It was the first Russian satellite built by enthusiasts».
Making space accessible to everyone.
Roman Zharkikh, chief engineer of a private space company: «Small missions with low responsibility are not our specialty.»
While earning good money.
Zaynulla Zhumayev, Education department of a private space company: «Our average revenue is about $1.6-1.7 million per year.»
How do Russian private space companies work in a zero-gravity market?
Sergey Sopov, CEO of a private space company: «Space is a very capital-intensive industry. Your $160,000 won't buy you anything in this industry. You can't get something out of nothing».
Pavel Pushkin, head of a private space company: «Here's an interesting vehicle: It's our first shuttle, which was launched several times. It's called the VA TKS, and it was manufactured in the USSR. It was quite an interesting project, too bad it was shut down. Still, it's the actual shuttle. We're building almost the same vehicle, just a bit more roomy».
The USA has Elon Musk, and we have Pushkin. Russian engineer Pavel Pushkin believes that he doesn't have any competition. He vows to organize trips to space twice a week by the year 2025, for anyone who can pay $250,000.
Pavel Pushkin: «It's not much compared to the trip to orbit because the orbital trip costs $40, $50, or $60 million. Our tickets will cost only $250,000. The majority of people don't have this much money. But it appears, many people do have this kind of money. We plan to use our rockets to launch about 700 people per year into space».
Pavel's been surrounded by space museum exhibits since he was a kid. His whole family works in the space industry: his grandparents, father, wife, and father-in-law. After graduating from MAI, he worked at the Khrunichev Space Research Center.
Pavel Pushkin: «Here you see the Proton rocket. I contributed to its design and upgrades».
Pushkin also helped design the Angara rocket. After it was successfully tested, he proposed his own design — a space tourism center.
Pavel Pushkin: «Unfortunately or fortunately, the executives of Khrunichev weren't interested. They were busy with designing Angara and upgrading Proton. They said they were working at full capacity and my project was too small for them. That's why an investor and I decided to found our own company and continue to work on my project».
They're designing a seven-seat crew vehicle, a rocket, a new private spaceport and further developing their company.
Pavel Pushkin: «Here's what our flights will look like. On this slide, you see the rocket flying upward, then the engine stops, the vehicle detaches from the rocket, and uses the momentum to continue flying upward. Or rather, falls, as I usually put it. First, it falls upward, and then downward. Momentum helps it fly. During this stage, people experience zero-gravity. Right before re-entering the atmosphere, we deploy the brakes and land the vehicle».
The estimated cost of launching the project from scratch is $200 million. Pushkin found a Russian investor from the Forbes list. He doesn't reveal the name, though. The first expenses of the 30-person space company happened to be quite earthly.
Pavel Pushkin: «In order to build a sub-orbital space vehicle first, we had to build a room where it could be assembled a place where our people can work and create. Here's what our office looks like. We've managed to renovate it and create the necessary working conditions. The first stage of creating a space center is basically finished».
One can count all of the private Russian space companies on one hand. They have the total of 100 employees. Compare that to the 250,000 employees of the state space companies.
Pavel Pushkin: «Space is rather depressing. It's not really profitable in its current state. The industry primarily focuses on government contracts. It's hard to find a niche where you can be your own boss. When the majority of private companies reach space, they start to request government contracts».
It's difficult to bypass the monopoly. In Russia, almost anything connected to rockets is highly classified.
Pavel Pushkin: «We have a Roskosmos license. We also have an FSB license that allows us to work with classified information. We need those licenses to ensure the safety of our passengers».
A few dreamers dare to challenge state corporations, such as inventor Alexander Shayenko, together with his friends.
Alexander Shayenko: «We're making a satellite to show the Russian people that you don't have to work in Roskosmos or be Elon Musk to work in the space industry, and that a group of friends can launch a satellite from their basement».
Actually, these guys assembled the Mayak satellite. They received money from 300 investors via a crowdfunding platform. The previous summer, they launched it on the state-owned Soyuz-2 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Alexander Shayenko: «With all the tests, our satellite cost about $16,000 It's not that much, actually. A major Roskosmos corporation could only write a technical paper for that money. Small companies can do some things faster, easier, and cheaper than major corporations».
After graduating and teaching at Bauman University, he worked in such corporations for 15 years. He didn't like that every project took so long to execute.
Alexander Shayenko: «That's the main idea: you can trust in large space corporations abroad or somewhere else or you can do something yourself».
Shayenko quit his well-paid job, rented a basement on Myasnitskaya and launched a crowdfunding campaign to found his own space company whose inventions will help astronauts breathe freely on their way to Mars or other distant worlds.
Alexander Shayenko: «This device contains micro-algae, the microscopic one-cell green plants that photosynthesize and create breathable air for the astronauts. The thing is, astronauts currently have to take air tanks with them from Earth».
The development of the closed-loop biological system with the chlorella-algae cost $6,400 and was designed by 15 engineers and biologists. The way this experimental bio-reactor works is rather simple. The CO2 goes here and oxygen comes out of here. You can even feel a light breeze. The only issue is that, according to the developers, this much air would suffice only for a cockroach. A human would require 12 gallons of algae which means a tank twenty times the size. The other issue is that the chlorella requires a lamp which uses as much energy as three households.
Alexander Shayenko: «We're working on making the production of chlorella more energy-efficient. Right now, we're shining differently-colored lights at chlorella trying to understand which one provides the fastest growth. The growth with red lights is rather slow, blue light provides the fastest growth».
In order to compensate for the invested assets and pay his 15 employees Alexander has to search for an earthly application of his space technologies.
Alexander Shayenko: «The space industry in Russia is rather small. Oddly enough, agriculture and water purification are much bigger industries. We might not fully comprehend them because we come from the space industry but the markets look much more promising. It's ironic; in order to fund space research we have to find earthly applications for our tech».
So far, Shayenko hasn't succeeded in attracting customers from the space industry.
Anton Zhiganov: «Roskosmos will be their customer if it understands the business of those who need their technologies».
Anton Zhiganov, the head of a new Roskosmos department which was created a year ago to find ways of cooperating with private companies.
Anton Zhiganov, Roskosmos: «We're observing the development of private initiatives in both the Russian and foreign markets. Our cooperation with those companies will depend on the niche that their developed products or services will serve».
Roskosmos presented the services that it's interested in: remote mapping of the Earth and reliable satellite communication. Being able to make a call from the middle of the taiga is more valuable than Martian and orbital voyages.
Pavel Pushkin: «When state corporations want to enter the market, they find out that there is no market. Then they go back to government contracts. It's a major issue. We've found a niche where we focus on human needs. Their need for entertainment».
This architect of space tourism initially wanted to cooperate with state corporations but their facilities happened to be overloaded.
Pavel Pushkin: «They are working on their own program which is their main source of profit — the federal space program and the arms program. They see us as one-time contractors. They give us one-time contracts to design some nut or bolt. But we need multiple contracts. We need to be constantly conducting tests».
So far, the engineers have been designing the engine. It's fueled by alcohol — it's cheap and doesn't produce soot.
Pavel Pushkin: «In order to create an engine, we have to test control systems first. Here's the assembled fuse box of the control system. It's currently testing several devices, flow meters, and even valves are plugged into it. Here's an interesting device that looks like a dental drill. In reality, it's a temperature sensor».
Pavel Pushkin makes no secret of the fact that his rocket looks like Elon Musk's Falcon. However, he borrowed the idea from another billionaire.
Pavel Pushkin: «Our American competitor is the company Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon. Their project is similar to ours and costs roughly the same. But while they reach a height of 60 miles, we reach 120 miles. They offer 3 minutes of zero-gravity, while we offer 5.5 minutes».
The pre-orders are already coming, primarily from Arabic countries and China. However, the company doesn't take the money of the potential space tourists. The secret billionaire-investor will require 7 years to cover all the costs. It's hard to make money off of space, but some people succeed. It's the same nano-satellite that was presented to Putin by gifted teenagers a year ago.
«This satellite will study weather while in space. We've developed a sensor that tracks charged particles and registers their charge. My colleague's holding it. This satellite will be in a decaying orbit so we'll be able to gather detailed information about the orbits of charged particles».
The satellite was developed during a single semester at the Sirius Center.
Roman Zharkikh: «It's record time for the Russian space industry. Such satellites usually take three to five years to develop».
The highschoolers asked the president to help them put their satellite in orbit for free as part of the test launch program. On July 10th, this 2-pound cube will undergo some adjustments and fly to the ISS on board the Progress ship. It will go to outer space in August.
Roman Zharkikh: «We can take a single backup unit. We have flight units and one backup. I'll demonstrate what it looks like and how it works. An astronaut will use it so we made it easy to hold. It can be fastened so the device won't float away. Upon exiting the station, the astronaut opens up the case, takes out the pin, which switches the unit „on“, and releases it to fly along the ISS orbit».
All of the nano-satellite's circuits were developed here, in Skolkovo.
Roman Zharkikh: «It's like a construction kit: one can assemble various units and attach various useful modules. These units can fulfill practically any function currently executed by a large satellite».
The highschoolers only had to assemble it and fill it with hardware that was developed during the same semester at the Sirius Center, with the help of MSU students.
Roman Zharkikh: «It tracks charged particles in the Earth's orbit and maps their distribution that'll help scientists and the ISS astronauts locate increased radiation zones».
Several years ago, when engineer Roman Zharkikh came to work for Sputniks he was told that the start-up wouldn't last for very long. Now, his former colleagues aspire to join the first Russian private space company that actually turns a profit.
Zaynulla Zhumayev: «Our company is currently self-sufficient… We believe, that in a couple of years, we'll be able to turn a stable profit».
It all began with a Skolkovo grant for the first Russian private satellite. The 60-pound unit was launched in 2014, on-board the Dnepr rocket. After that, they started to produce satellite components and accessories and selling them on the international market.
Zaynulla Zhumayev: «We were mostly selling them to foreign customers like the space agencies of Pakistan, Myanmar, or Kazakhstan as well as professional Russian companies. There's an educational launch market. I'm talking about Cube-Sats and testing equipment. There are just a few markets located in Russia and the near abroad. There's also a far bigger market of educational satellite-prototypes».
Such prototypes cost just $1,500 an affordable price for a school.
Zaynulla Zhumayev: «The satellite is not just hanging from a frame — it's a magnetic frame. The electric conductor creates a magnetic field channeled in this direction letting the satellite navigate with the help of a magnetometer. The satellite is located next to a large rotating globe. The receiving stations are marked on the globe. So if you shine the satellite's high-frequency transmitter on the receiver the satellite will transmit the signal».
A professional model of a 4x4 inch Cube-Sat satellite costs $24,000. Only universities can afford that.
Roman Zharkikh: «We focus on the free launch program but launching this kind of unit costs approximately the same as manufacturing it. Something like that. — $16,000 A bit more than that. I'd say about $20,000».
Attaching additional useful loads to a ship is called «piggybacking». It's the main source of profit for the state space corporations. And not only the Russian ones. The average price is $18-36,000 per pound. But first, there's a bunch of paperwork.
Roman Zharkikh: «If we want to employ astronauts, we'll require the good will of Roskosmos because this method can't compete with automated launches in terms of price».
The more private companies appear in the industry, the more the youth wants to engage in it. A new company created by the CEO of S7 is currently hiring.
Sergey Sopov: «You see this arm and those rails? They were built to launch the Zenit rocket automatically. The launch was unmanned. Right before the launch, people left the site and headed to the command bridge three miles away. There were no people at the site».
There are negotiations about the purchase of the floating spaceport Morskoy Start. Sergey Sopov, the CEO of the S7 Space company, spent four months there.
Sergey Sopov: «We're not just astronauts, we must also be sailors that's why our whole crew wears the uniform of the Russian trade fleet».
Only a part of the floating spaceport is on display in the cosmonautics museum: the self-propelled platform, Odysseus. It was used to produce oil in the 80s.
Sergey Sopov: «It's like a submarine. Or like two cruisers».
The platform also includes a command vessel and land-based facilities. They are currently docked in the closed Port of Long Beach in California. It's just nine miles away from the office of their potential competitor — the American company SpaceX.
Sergey Sopov: «This ship is in full standby, meaning it's completely shut off. We power it only to conduct monthly maintenance. We haven't begun to take it out of standby yet. We need a timetable to understand when exactly to do that because the process is very costly. It's actually quite expensive. Maintaining the Morskoy Start station while in standby costs us about $16 million per year. Just to have it there».
The spaceport's been dormant for several years. After buying it, the new owners will prepare it for a launch in December 2019. A rocket will be put in the hangar, and the platform will leave the port. Sopov adds that Farewell of Slavianka must be played during the departure. It'll sail 5,000 sea miles to the launch site at the equator. The voyage will take two weeks.
Sergey Sopov: «We didn't buy it to waste money. We bought it to earn some money. That's why we're interested in accepting any useful loads and contracts. We won't be launching manned orbital units. Our specialty is unmanned space units. The primary focus of our complex is taking heavy satellites to the geostationary orbit. I'm talking about communication and telecommunication satellites».
Four launches per year should cover the cost of the platform — $150 million and bring good profit. The only problem left to solve is the shipments of the Zenit rockets designed specifically to fit the platform. They were ordered from a Ukrainian company but 80% of the parts, including the engine, are produced in Russia. And then, politics got in the way.
Sergey Sopov: «In the current circumstances, there's no direct cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. For eight months, we haven't been able to get a simple authorization for the shipment of the engine and control system to America to later ship them to Ukraine to assemble the rockets and ship them back to Russia».
All sides want to resolve this problem as soon as possible. About 150 state corporations work together with the private company. Fulfilling the contract will bring them $500 billion. And later, they will receive a contract for a new rocket for the spaceport.
Anton Zhiganov, Roskosmos: «Any new player serves as an incentive for the others to develop. Any competition is the engine of technological progress. Our partners from S7 Space Transportation Systems aren't competing with us. They'll be launching our units from water. We don't have another floating spaceport. It's not competition, it's an opportunity».
Experts believe that after Dmitry Rogozin heads Roskosmos, the government will be more actively attracting new investments to the industry.
Zaynulla Zhumayev: «We believe that the space industry would work more efficiently if more money and more projects were distributed among private companies».
S7 Space has already proposed creating an orbital spaceport based on the ISS when it's operating life ends. It would be a sort of a terminal before flying to distant planets. At that point, the industry might require the photobioreactors built in the basement and new employees, dreamers who played with toy satellites as kids.