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Tale of a Winter’s Launch

I recently had an email chat with Paul Blase, the CTO of TransOrbital, and he kindly provided me permission to publish his description of a winter night’s launch in Baikonur. I’ve known him for many years because we’ve both been involved with the Artemis [Lunar Settlement] Project, and my company (Village Networking Ltd) is also a proud member of the Artemis Group of companies. However I will be the first to admit that a small Linux, internet and software consulting and development company in Belfast, which barely (and I do mean barely!) makes ends meet is not nearly so interesting as TransOrbital. I’ll leave the rest to Paul. I had just asked him about O-rings in Russian winter…

The Dnepr is silo-launched, so environmental problems are minimal. Being an ICBM, though, they can launch the thing into a blizzard if necessary. Fortunately the night was very clear. At the launch last week it was -30 C with a nice breeze from the North. I had very warm boots and an insulated coverall. Even so, we all spent a lot of time in the tea-and-coffee trailer. Perhaps 60 people there, including the Italian launch team and the Kosmotras and Baikonur reps. (The Saudi professor got sick and went home, the German and American teams went home after the payload capsule was sealed and didn’t stay for the launch). Rather neat: it was dark so that we couldn’t see the silo proper, even with the full moon. They announced “liftoff” (they don’t use a countdown, just tell us the time left at about 15 second intervals) and suddenly this light appeared about 50 ft in the air. The sound didn’t hit for 20 seconds (the viewing stand is 7 km from the silo); not loud enough for a Shuttle launch, but definitely a rocket going off. The light soared away to the East and the night was clear enough that we could see it for a good 2 minutes, and even see the first stage cutoff and separation. They need to work a bit on their anouncer’s patter – their updates were mostly along the lines of “all systems functioning well”. It hit orbit and deployed the payloads at 915 seconds after launch, at about 5 second intervals.

Paul Blase

6 comments to Tale of a Winter’s Launch

  • Julian Morrison


  • Julian Morrison

    Russian space tech: it’s made of old buckets and held together with galvanized nails, string, or in the case of more expensive and important parts, imported chewing gum. It’s fueled with potato vodka. You can launch it into the teeth of a screaming blizzard and it Just Works.

    American space tech: It has all mod cons, for the 1960s when it was designed. Every bolt is hand tooled at $800 a pop, the loo seat is gold plated, and yet there’s always something or other wrong with it. When it isn’t broken, it’s so persnickety they’ll abort the launch if the audience farts too loudly.

  • Julian Morrison

    European space tech: “ooh la la, ze fireworks, zey are beeyootiful”

  • Kevin Connors

    Very cool. Tell me, Dale: what engineering factors make an ICBM better able to handle inclement weather than a civilian LV?

  • Dale Amon

    Simplicity and hypergolic fuels are part of it. Military stuff is usually “overbuilt”. And one cannot ignore the fact the Russians have generations of experience of warfare in a hellishly cold weather.

    Here’s a bit of info I dug up on the LV for you:

    “The SS-18 ICBM is a large, two-stage, tandem, storable liquid-propellant missile capable of carrying several different warheads and developed to replace the SS-9. Housed in hard silos, the highly accurate fourth generation SS-18 ICBM is larger than the Peacekeeper, the most modern deployed US ICBM. The SS-18 opened a “window of vulnerability” of Minuteman silos by 1975, so that some analysts argued that few Minuteman could be expected to survive a Soviet attack by 1980. The SS-18 was deployed in modified SS-9 silos, and employed a cold-launch technique with the missile being ejected from the silo prior to main engine ignition.”

    excerpted from here

  • For further information, you can see the Kosmotras website at http://www.kosmotras.ru. That rocket is huge, for an ICBM. Up to 4 tons into LEO, depending on altitude. It’s not quite true about the buckets and bailing wire, they do have quite modern fabrication plants. However, the Russians do use a lot of heavy metal; where Western engineers would use composites or spend years getting grams off, the Russians make it heavy and just add bigger engines. For instance, we got a nice tour of the Zenit fabrication plant. The boosters are made up of sections of aluminum tubing, about 3 meters wide and 3 m long, welded together. They have a BIG milling machine that takes tubular blanks and machines a reinforcing “waffle” grid pattern on the inside, leaving a pretty thin wall.