Do Russians have means of launching a manned mission to the Moon? Do they have an engine with sufficient thrust and stability needed (RD-170 has bigger thrust than the F-1 engine, if I read the data properly), and a suitable launch vehicle to pull off such a feat?

Can perhaps Proton or Energia rockets be somehow modified for the purpose of launching a manned spacecraft to TLI and do they have a spacecraft capable of landing a manned mission on the Moon's surface and later lifting it off for a likely LOR approach?


4 Answers 4


When it comes to rockets, engine power is important, but so is quantity. I asked a question to that effect (Quality vs. Quantity for Rocket Engines) and got a really good answer. For a moon shot, having one super-powerful engine is all well and good, but so is having six or so smaller engines. There are the plusses and minuses of both configurations (again, see Geoffc's answer). So just because a single engine X is more powerful than another single engine Y doesn't mean that a rocket with X is better than a rocket with Y, if there are more of Y.

So if engines don't have a direct bearing, what does? Configuration of the rocket. Energia/Energiya/Энергия used strap-on boosters to supplement its main engines. The advantage of that is that, in theory, you could make modifications to add on more boosters. You also might be able to avoid the pogo problem if they were separated enough, and you have redundancy built in if the boosters are independent. Then you have Energia's second stage, which could be another smaller rocket (Polyus) or the space shuttle Buran. Polyus was really used as a one-time test, and would not have been used in later Energia launches if the system had proliferated, so there is plenty of room for modification there. In fact, there were more versions of Energia on the drawing board at the time the program ended, which were very powerful. In short: Energia would have required a lot of modifications to reach the moon, but it could certainly be modified to be more powerful with more boosters and a better upper stage configuration (a necessity to reach the moon).

The Proton family of rockets is slightly harder to analyze, partly because they are so varied, but mostly because they were originally designed as ICBMs. They use four stages to get their payloads to orbit. The first stage contains six engines (RD-275s), while the other stages use 3, 1, and 1 engines (different types). While I'm hesitant to say that Proton would be harder to modify simply because Energia's strap-ons are relatively convenient, but I will say that it would require partially (if not fully) redesigning the first stage. While the upper stages can vary, the lower stage does not.

To summarize: Energia, in its prime, would have been easier to modify than the Proton; unfortunately, it was retired decades ago. It strap-on booster design would have been convenient because in an expanded system, boosters could have been added and removed as necessary. Both systems, however, would have required extensive modification to reach the moon, and Russia overall does not appear to have that capability. I hope this helps.

By the way, some comparisons between Energia, Proton, and the American Saturn V:

First stage: E (4 boosters, 4-nozzle RD-170); P (6 RD-275); S (5 F-1)

Payload to LEO: E (220,000 lb); P (46,000 lb); S (260,000 lb)

Total launches: E (2); P (397+); S (13, with more in the extended Saturn family)





  • $\begingroup$ You might find this yesterday's news article relevant. What's perhaps missing from your answer is Roscosmos' plans to establish a new Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport in the Russian far East and that the new Angara family of rockets is supposed to serve as the new medium to heavy lifting capacity workhorse. There's also been rumours that they plan to restart work on Energia rockets as super-heavy lifters. Together with Soyuz, that would be a whole range then. ;) $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ @TildallWave Wow. Think Vostochny could replace Baikonur? Wikipedia uses "reduce" the use of Baikonur, implying that Russia will still be dependent on Kazakhstan $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ No, I doubt it. It's not meant as a replacement to Baikonur but it could provide that if needs be nonetheless. From what I hear they're now throwing sufficient funds into it that the work on the new spaceport is steadily progressing (they officially broke ground in 2011 with a slow start but Anatoly Zak of RussianSpaceWeb reported increased budget for FY 2013 - 2014, I need to find that article). Some other rumors also had it that work was somewhat expedited since the Crimea crisis and EU/US sanctions against Russia, which would be consistent with reported increase in budget for it. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the great answers. So, Russians will be able for a manned mission after Angara is brought into service? $\endgroup$
    – mark.g
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Also related: Roscosmos Says Nyet To Space Adventures' Moon Plan. As for Angara and manned flight, there's a proposed Angara 5P. That's Khrunichev, if some of the S.P. Korolev branches is to follow suit with some update to their Energia launcher is unknown, but not excluded with Russia's appetites for human rated HLLV. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 17:20

While HDE 226868's answer was an excellent summation of the challenges in trying to up-rate the Energia or Proton launchers, I think the answer to the actual question implied in the title, "Russian manned Moon landing capability today" is: No.

No nation today has an operational launch vehicle (aka, rocket stack) to get humans even to lunar orbit, much less a landing on the Moon with return. The largest rocket, in terms of payload to lunar injection, is the Delta IV Heavy, which has roughly 1/4th the payload capacity of the Saturn V, which was the rocket used for the Apollo lunar missions.

Russia is currently developing the Angara family of rockets, but the initial heavy lift version - the Angara A5 - will have nearly the same capacity as the Delta IV, meaning in the range of 25 - 30 metric tons to LEO, and a fraction of that to TLI (trans-lunar injection).

Sometime next year, SpaceX plans to launch their first Falcon Heavy, which will (according to SpaceX) have the capability to take 53 metric tons to LEO, or 16 metric tons to TLI (per Wikipedia's page on Falcon Heavy). But even that will be roughly 1/2 the payload of a Saturn V, and any lunar mission based on Falcon Heavy would require multiple launches.

So, the answer is, "No". Could Russia develop the capability given time and money? Sure, probably. But today? Nobody has it.

  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget that NASA will have the orion capsule launching later this near, and SLS sometime next year (or the year after that) which is designed for lunar and mars missions. $\endgroup$
    – CBredlow
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ @CBredlow - The Orion capsule is just - a capsule (plus SM). It will be launching on a Delta IV Heavy. The Orion CSM weighs some 21 metric tons, which is more than the Delta IV Heavy can put into lunar orbit (unless or until something like the proposed ACES is built as an upper stage, and even that would require in-orbit refueling). SLS block I isn't built yet, and isn't expected to launch until, at best, 2017. And that will be the Block I configuration (~75 metric tons to LEO). Meaning, probably 2018. $\endgroup$
    – Kirkaiya
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 23:43

Remember also that the launcher is only one part of a complete manned moon landing and return program -- an important part, to be sure.

For a manned moon mission, Russia would still have to develop one or more stages for translunar injection, lunar orbit insertion, and transearth (return) injection, as well as a manned lander; while Soyuz is a proven design with the necessary time endurance, it has nowhere near the maneuvering delta-v or thrust of the Apollo service module.


To be technical, your title and inline questions are different.

Do Russians have means of launching a manned mission to the Moon? Do they have an engine with sufficient thrust and stability needed (RD-170 has bigger thrust than the F-1 engine, if I read the data properly), and a suitable launch vehicle to pull off such a feat?

Sort of yes, but not immediately. Presumably the Energiya booster designs are still lying around somewhere and could be thrown back into production. Energiya was designed to be flexible so it could lift different payloads to orbit, not just Buran (Soviet Space Shuttle). Its first launch put a huge 80-ton Polyus sputnik in orbit. Its second launch put the even huger craft (Buran shuttle) into orbit.

For reference, Energiya can put about 100 tons in low earth orbit. Saturn V could do 120. In the 1960's, Soviets had a Moonshot program that needed 95 tons in LEO (it was a small lander only landing 1 cosmonaut on the Moon), so the Energiya is technically big enough.

Russia manned Moon landing capability today ... and do they have a spacecraft capable of landing a manned mission on the Moon's surface and later lifting it off for a likely LOR approach?

Right. The mission as a whole needs a lander, and other stuff along the way too. Now, there was a lander (LK) which they tested 4 times unmanned in Earth orbit, but that was back in the late 60's and early 70's. It would presumably take much longer to dust off those designs and test them again, because the lander is in many ways a much more complicated piece of work than a launch rocket. It needs 3-axis control, guidance radars, endurance, life support, restartable and throttlable engines, and a rendezvous and dock capability with its "mothership", the L-3.

I recommend checking out the Soviet Moonshot programs for lots more info.

BTW, LOR as America did it is not the only possibility. Another way is assembling a lunar mission in Earth orbit, much like assembling a space station, and then sending it off to the Moon. The completed stack could still do LOR at the Moon. This could conceivably be done with the Proton rocket today, and the final manned launch is done with Soyuz which rendezvous with the lunar assembly. All options have their advantages and disadvantages, however. This idea doesn't need a huge booster, but requires a lot more launches into precise orbits. If one launch goes wrong, the whole mission would be ruined.

To sum up, launch capability is a maybe---depends on how fast they could resurrect the Energiya---but landing capability is a longer way off.

If you wanna talk other lunar missions, like a manned circumlunar, that could be done relatively quickly by rendezvousing a Soyuz and a 20-ton booster from a Proton.


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