The biggest reason that NASA—as well as other western space agencies—has not attempted a solar sail flight is that the cost of launching even a small spacecraft is so high that they are unwilling to carry out a mission with very modest goals. To justify the expense, they design missions that have more ambitious goals – which, of course, make them even costlier and riskier. Thus they find themselves in a circular dilemma: They cannot risk trying new technology before it is proven, and they can’t afford to prove it.
With Cosmos 1, we cut through this circular reasoning by finding a very low-costlaunch vehicle that allowed us to develop a very modest mission. We will usea submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) taken out of the Russian ICBM inventory.This specific rocket is known by its American military designation, SS-N-18,but the Russians have named it the Volna (Wave).
The SS-N-18 is one of the missiles cited in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty(START), signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991. The treatyrequires a reduction in the number of weapons, which practically means that ballisticmissiles must be destroyed or converted.
One way of conversion is to use them for space launches, and the Russians arehighly motivated to sell these rockets for civilian use. The team consistingof the Lavochkin Association, which built the spacecraft, and the Makeev RocketDesign Bureau, which built the launch vehicle, made our Cosmos 1 project possibleby offering us the low-cost Volna launch.
Submarine-based missile launches are inherently inexpensive, as long as theydon’t include paying for extended submarine operations and its supportinginfrastructure. In our case, this means we launch just off shore, near the submarinebase in the Murmansk region on the Barents Sea. Generally, one would rather launcha spacecraft into Earth orbit from a point near the equator. In these lower latitudesthe launch vehicle gets an extra boost from the Earth’s rotational speed,allowing for a heavier payload. But paying for the submarine to cruise to tropicalwaters would be expensive, and in our case we will get plenty of performancefrom our near-polar launch.
The launch infrastructure is part of the Russian military—specifically,the Navy. If space launches with Russian naval rockets ever become a big commercialbusiness, a separate civil infrastructure might be set up. So far, however, veryfew such missiles have been used for civilian launches. In fact, the rocket weuse was, before its designation for our mission, part of the operational inventoryof the Russian Navy.
It is poignant to realize that the same missile now being used by our commerciallyfunded American venture once had its multiple nuclear warheads ready and targetedat the west coast of the United States. If we think of the missiles as swords,we then may think of our solar sail rocket as a plowshare preparing the “soil” ofspace for new seeds of exploration.
For 25 years, The Planetary Society has worked on internationally cooperativeprojects and built productive relationships around the world. Some of the closestrelationships were forged with members of the Russian space program, with whomwe conducted Mars rover and balloon tests, and attempted to fly the PlanetarySociety’s “Visions of Mars” CD to the Red Planet on the failedMars 96 mission. By combining our interest in solar sailing with their interestin developing low cost access to space, the Society was uniquely positioned tocarry out this project. (The third key element was of course the presence ofa private sponsor willing to provide the main part of the funding – thatwas Cosmos Studios).
We continue to break new ground. Approval for launch required coordination amongboth military and civilian agencies, as well as completion of all spacecraftreadiness testing by the Lavochkin Association and the Russian Space ResearchInstitute (IKI). All conditions came together in mid-April, and now, in May,Cosmos 1 is heading to its undersea launching area, on its way to making historyin space.
Our thoughts right now are focused on our technical goals and making this missiona success. Still, we remember that there may be other, equally important storiesin this first flight of a solar-sail powered spacecraft. Not the least of theseis the story of the hopes of our Planetary Society, which were placed in thenose-cone of the once-Soviet rocket that had packed nuclear warheads for a verydifferent purpose.