A year ago Russia's calls for international co-operation to develop its proposed Kliper spacecraft (see picture below) seemed fruitless and likely to end as another initiative from a space faring nation that would only ever appear as a graphic in a powerpoint presentation, but 2005 has seen the situation change dramatically.
Now its just days before the 3 billion a year European Space Agency (ESA) decides whether to take the plunge and back its development at its member state's ministerial budget meeting in Berlin on 5-6 December. The six crew vehicle is expected to orbit at 450km, carry up to 500kg of cargo as well as the crew, with a reusability level of 80 % and able to make at least 20 flights. Early on there were two versions, a capsule version and a wing version. Comments made by senior figures at Russia's Federal Space Agency (FSA) suggest that the winged version is preferred by the Russian government. With its 2012 in-operation date, it won't escape any space agency watchers that Russia would be getting its own mini-shuttle just two years after NASA retires its orbiter fleet.
The beginning of ESA's potential involvement seems to have begun in November 2004 when ESA and the FSA discussed co-operation on manned vehicle requirements. By that point Moscow based Rocket and Space Corporation Energia had proposed Kliper as a six crew reusable spacecraft to replace its exising Soyuz-TMA capsule that ferries International Space Station (ISS) crew back and forth.
Those talks led to the FSA offer of co-operation on a Soyuz replacement being reported in May. However ESA's interest in Kliper became apparent when in March it was revealed that a Kliper-like design was included in studies for the European agency's AREV project. By the end of May the first report of an ESA decision at its December ministerial meeting emerged. Then finally at the end of June details of ESA's involvement became public in Flight International magazine. The agency was to propose to its minsters that it spend two-years and 50 million ($61 million) on a participation study examining the vehicle's mission, its operational requirements, and its system design. Japan's space agency would also join the effort as a partner to ESA. Two months later renewed Russian confidence in Kliper's future led to a full scale mockup at the Russian MAKS air show in August. At the show Energia general director Nikolai Sevastianov spoke of offers to US and western European companies for contracts for interior and cockpit equipment.
Since then corroborated Russian leaks about discussions about launches from ESA's French Guiana spaceport and the type of booster for Kliper have emerged. As has the possiblity of lighter versions using space tugs to reach the ISS. And now rumours have started on the internet about how much the FSA intends to spend on Kliper between 2006 and 2015 under its new space programme; approved this year by the Russian government. According to unsubstantiated internet figures the FSA is expecting 10 billion rubles in government funding, with 50 million ($1.7 million) in 2006; 150 million in 2007; 0.5 billion in 2008; 0.9 billion in 2009; doubling to 1.8 billion roubles in 2010 and from 2011 to 2015, 6.6 billion roubles.
Whether these figures are correct or not there is a momentum gathering behind Kliper at ESA. Its been selected by the AREV study for further analysis, the vehicle's development has been incorporated into the agency's long term Aurora exploration plan and a majority of ESA states attended an agency meeting on 16 November where they could officially express an interest. The European alliance had to abandon its hopes for its first spaceplane, Hermes, almost 20 years ago. Now Russian aspirations to maintain its own manned space programme, especially amidst NASA's troubles, have given it the opportunity to benefit from fifty years of largely Soviet investment in human spaceflight. With Japan onboard to provide much needed further funding ESA's ministers would be foolish to turn their back on a project that could give the nascent European Space Programme a manned exploration capability within the next decade.