Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Russia has just raised the stakes in the space race, by going public with a reusable commercial nuclear powered launch vehicle which has been under development for the last decade.
Russia says it’s going to beat Elon Musk and SpaceX’s ‘old tech’ with a nuclear rocket
Mike Wehner @MikeWehner
November 14th, 2018 at 2:36 PM
Elon Musk and SpaceX won’t be leading the reusable rocket space race long, at least not if Russia has anything to say about it. Russia’s Keldysh Research Center has been working on a reusable rocket solution for nearly a decade now, and now it’s ramping up the hype with a new concept video showing how its spacecraft works.
Speaking with reporters, Vladimir Koshlakov explained that Elon Musk and SpaceX pose no real threat to the group’s plans. Musk, Koshlakov says, is relying on technology that will soon be antiquated, while Russia is looking towards shaping the future of spaceflight.
Using nuclear power in principle bypasses some of the problems plaguing reusable chemical rocket programmes; because of the far higher impulse of nuclear rockets, they can be built more robustly than reusable chemical rockets, which must be an exquisite compromise between weight and stress tolerance. The Russian plan calls for a reuse turnaround time of 48 hours.
The Russian plan for a nuclear powered launcher must be taken seriously. Russia has extensive experience with nuclear powered civilian vehicles, such as the Russian nuclear icebreaker fleet. Their nuclear powered cruise missile, a low flying stealth weapon with effectively unlimited range, sent shockwaves through the military community when President Putin revealed the new weapon last March.
A successful, low cost nuclear powered commercial launch vehicle would give Russia a dramatic lead in the race to commercialise space.
Cheaper access to space could also give the Russian military a substantial advantage over other countries, if they used that infrastructure to launch kinetic bombardment weapons into low Earth orbit.
A successful kinetic weapon programme could give an almost unassailable advantage to aggressors. A single special forces forward observer would have the capability to utterly destroy entire armoured columns, fleets of ships and large military bases within seconds of a kill decision, using a laser targeting device the size of a flashlight to direct the attack.