Change of Trade: Carrier Missile “Rokot”

If to look into the matter deeply and seriously, the military and civil space sectors do not differ much from each other. Originally, the whole global space industry has grown from military research related to design of first ballistic missiles.

The first missile that overcame the Karman line and entered space was a German “Fau-2” when being on tests for flight altitude. Actually, the Soviet missile “Sputnik” that was used to place space satellite PS-1 into orbit was just intercontinental ballistic missile 8K71 (P-7).

And further on, the military and scientific space programs have been developed in parallel, similar carriers and achievements were employed. In 1980s, there was an actual issue raised related to disposal of ballistic missiles due to their completed service life. On the one hand, these missiles are expensive, and on the other hand, to dispose of them is quite costly as well. Even if missiles are simply eliminated by way of launching them from a launch site this will require substantial investments into preparation and management of launches.

Russia’s signing START-II treaty banning the use of ballistic missiles with multiple warheads added to the problem (as a result, the treaty did not come into force, however it had heightened concerns over the need for disposal of a great number of missiles).

Birth of “Rokot”

Then specialists suggested an idea to turn ballistic missiles into space carriers. At the first glance, this idea is very simple and sound. If there is a missile capable of carrying payload, why not make use of it and get money for that? In addition, Khrunichev State Space Research and Production Center was the first to undertake this redesign, the organization that was highly experienced and respectful in the space market.

For the missile diversification project, it was decided to select ballistic missile RS-18 (SS-19 “Stylet” according to NATO classification). Even then it became clear that it would be impossible to just change payload from military equipment to a space vehicle. The third stage – booster stage “Briz” was added to the missile for placing it into orbit. In this modified version the carrier missile was named “Rokot”. In addition to modifications of the missile itself it was needed to modify its launch pad at Plesetsk launch site.

The result was a missile with starting weight equal to 107,500 kg, capable of carrying up to 2,150 kg of payload into circular orbit at an altitude of 200 km and inclination of 63°. This is not too much, but as a light-weight carrier the missile could work. Moreover, due to its booster stage it was possible to place satellites into required orbits in case of a multiple launch or provide placing space vehicles according to their optimal energy trajectories.


Since the first launch on November 20, 1990, only 32 launches have been performed over thirty years. This is not too much. Why did it happen? First of all, the total scope of work required to make all modifications for space vehicles launching turned out to be much greater than was estimated during initial design stage and took much more time. As a result, it was not possible to create missile “for a launch” in the shortest terms by just installing payload right to a military carrier. The waiting time in line for clients turned out to be approximately the same as for “civil” missiles.

The second reason was relatively inconvenient location of Plesetsk launch site. It is situated far to the north of many world’s launch sites and hence can launch space vehicles into orbits with a greater inclination. That is why some commercial customers had to look for other launching sites. It might as well be said that despite all efforts taken by the sellers and launch managers (Khrunichev SRPSC), co-operation with the military has its own specifics: for most commercial clients it is not so comfortable as it might be with a civil launch site.

Besides, at present there is a very high competition within the light weight carrier missiles class in the global market. There are too many different carriers, but the number of vehicles is limited and in addition it became possible to have a package launch on medium class carrier missiles, when several dozens of different satellites are placed into orbits in one launch.

With hope to continue

As a result, it has become clear that there are no “practically free” carriers: even combat missiles themselves did not fit by several parameters. First of all, multiple modifications and modernizations were needed in control system design. Temperature and vibration loads posed a separate problem. A missile combat gear is much less fragile load than complex civil satellites.

In the 1990s, the possibility to launch a space vehicle by a Russian missile, which only yesterday had been taken out of combat duty, was considered to be exotic but possibly an interesting and promising solution, but nowadays the political situation washed away all romantic veil.

The “Rokot” program will continue to exist because the Ministry of Defense is interested in ballistic missiles diversification and will support the required state order level. Whether “Rokot” has a chance in taking a serious market share, is open to discussion. So far there is no mass demand observed in the world for light-class carriers. The last launch of “Rokot” was performed on November, 20 on behalf of the Ministry of Defense. One or two launches are scheduled for 2019 and they are for the military too.

Anyway, the idea of turning ballistic missiles into commercial space carriers still remains and continues to be researched. Nowadays, the main efforts are put in to modify heavy double-stage missiles R-36 “Voevoda” for civil needs. At present there are over fifty of such missiles still in military service. But this is altogether another project.

Michael Kotov

©New defence order. Strategy  №1 (60) 2020

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