Rockets of Today

OREL (Орел) — Russia

Orel (sometimes spelled Oryol) means eagle. Until 2019 it was going to be named Federation (Федерация), but they dropped that name. It’s a direct rival to the Orion, which Russian media claims will be far cheaper than a Dragon 2. It was originally going to be a joint effort with the ESA, but that fell through. I don’t know if it’s even far enough along to include on the list.

They would put it on an Angara 5 (the heavy version) for space station trips, and they also want to send it toward the moon on that rocket. Or rather, that was the plan, but now they’re saying that Angara may never be human-rated, and the rocket to put the Orel on would be the Irtysh (a.k.a. Soyuz 5) instead... though it would have to be a heavied version to lift this big capsule anywhere further than low orbit, and that may only be ready five years after the capsule is. Quite a few people have suspected that this was just a paper spacecraft which would never fly, but they seem pretty serious about it. It has now been in the works for over a decade, and like most new Russian projects, was still running into many delays even before international sanctions kicked in. Also, they currently have no plan for how to recover the cosmonauts if it has to ditch into the Pacific after a failed launch... they could end up bobbing around in the water for days before anyone reaches them.

Normal landings would be on dirt, like the Soyuz. They originally had plans for a sophisticated landing system that could use smart braking rockets to guide it to a gentle touchdown as it descends under its chutes, and then deploy legs to stabilize it on the ground, but their ambitions had to be scaled way back as funds were too tight. Hopefully they’ll still manage to land with less of a whack than the Soyuz subjects people to.

Current plans are to seat four; the interior volume is about eleven cubic meters, and the exterior is 17 or 18, which means that it’s noticeably larger than its rivals. In animations, they actually show it having a separate bathroom, with a door! Apparently they really do mean this to accommodate long flights. As far as we know, this is a facility that none of the American space capsules plans to offer. The Orion will have a compact toilet, and additionally a unisex “relief tube” of the sort long used in Russian craft... which itself is a lot better than the adhesive-rimmed plastic bags the Apollo astronauts had to use. The Starliner, being intended for shorter flights, won’t have an actual toilet... what it will offer, I have not found any specifics on. The Dragon 2 does have a toilet, which is described as similar to the Shuttle’s. It’s in the wall between the side hatch and the nose, in the open area that the passengers’ feet point into when they’re seated. No door, only a curtain, like the Shuttle (which didn’t even have a curtain until they started flying female astronauts... though as ISS crew have learned, sometimes a door or curtain is important for more than privacy, as it helps limit the scope of cleanup if stuff gets away from you). The Orion’s toilet is supposedly quite advanced, being improved over the ones on the station and on the shuttle, and NASA hopes to standardize on it for any future space vehicles and habitats they build. They flew one to the space station for testing in the fall of 2020. The Shenzhou replacement also has a real toilet... and for some reason, a foldaway dining table, which is an idea that NASA tried and abandoned back in the time of Skylab, along with their zero gee shower, as neither were worth the trouble.

The Orel would use a short service module for near-Earth flights and might use a stretched version for the Moon and beyond. It might or might not optionally have an orbital module stuck on top. One has been shown in some drawings — a cylinder substantially larger in volume than the capsule. This may be an obsolete early proposal, or it may be something they’d use for long trips but not short ones. They claim the capsule will weigh 9.5 tons dry, and 17 fully loaded when using the short service module, with the long one pushing it over 21 tons. That’s quite a bit less than the comparable Orion, making me wonder what they’re skimping on. And that in turn makes me wonder what the Dragon 2 is lacking, as it weighs even less. Does Orion have better radiation shielding? Not as far as I know; the current plan for solar storms on the Orion is to sound an alarm and have the crew put on protective vests.

I mentioned that they had ambitions to send Orels to the moon with Angara 5 launches. Well, after closer examination of that goal, they decided that it wouldn’t quite work. To support the kind of robust lunar exploration they want to attempt, the Orel might have to be put atop the giant Yenisei lifter, which would be overpowered and would bust the budget. But they came up with a solution: lighten the Orel by five tons and call it Orlenok (Орленок), which means eaglet. You might also see it spelled Orlyonok. This would have only two seats. No details yet on this version — it isn’t really designed yet. In fact, the whole idea is pretty much just paper speculation.