Rostislav Alexeyev built the latter part of his engineering career on ground effect, which is the demonstrable fact that a wing generates more lift and experiences less drag when it’s in close proximity to the ground than it does while high in the air. In general aircraft don’t take advantage of it when cruising because of the increased risk—the ground is right there—in the event of something going wrong, but Alexeyev was an expert on hydrofoil design and felt that the problem was sufficiently mitigated by flying over water to be worth attacking. Between the Khrushchev era and his death in 1980 he built his largest ekranoplan (“screen plane”), the so-called “Kaspian Monster” (KM: korabl maket, “test vehicle”) which met a watery fate in an accident not long after Alexeyev’s demise.
If you’re the sort of person who’s interested in Soviet crewed spaceflight you’re probably the sort of person who finds Russian ekranoplans and hydrofoils interesting too, but you may be wondering where the connection is between the two that would cause the latter to show up on a blog devoted to the former. The intersection of this particular Venn diagram is the Albatros, outlined in a remarkable letter to the British Interplanetary Society’s Spaceflight magazine, published in 1983.
Long-time readers will recall that the Soviet space program was in disarray for much of the early 1970s, with 1974 being the year of crisis. Vasili Mishin was replaced by Valentin Glushko as the man in charge, and officials higher than him forced a change in focus from Moon missions to a space shuttle and space stations. For a period of time everything was in the air, and as was endemic to the Soviet space effort various other empire builders tried to get themselves a piece of the pie.
The design bureau of OKB-51 lurked on the edges of the Russian space program right from the very beginning, but never managed to convert its expertise in high-performance aircraft into any concrete projects. In 1974 they teamed with Alexeyev’s Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau to make a claim on the shuttle project, as at the time it was not yet settled that the Soviets would emulate the American Space Shuttle closely to produce Energia/Buran (consider, for example, Glushko’s MTKVP, which also dates to the same time). Their proposal was named Albatros, and it’s, so long as the source, space historian and writer Neville Kidger, got his Cold War information right, the only triphibious spaceplane ever proposed, requiring both water and air to get into orbit and land for its return.
One can see what, perhaps, they were thinking: margins are punishing on space vehicles, and it takes only a little inefficiency to turn a potentially useful craft into something that lifts a uselessly small amount of mass to orbit. Using aircraft as airborne launchers has been mooted a few times, why not use a ground effect “aircraft” to squeeze a little more oomph into your package?
The result was a three-stage vehicle, the first of which would have been a roughly 1800-ton, 70-meter long, Alexeyev-built, hydrofoil—not a full-fledged ekranoplan, alas—that could be thought of as a maritime version of the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank. It would carry 200 tons of LOX and LH2 to feed the initial boost of the second stage’s motors.
Mounted on top of the hydrofoil, the estimated 210-ton second stage would use the first’s fuel to get up the whole arrangement up to 180 km/h over the course of 110 seconds, using the Caspian Sea (or the Aral or Lake Baikal) as a runway. Then it would disconnect and launch itself off the now-empty barge to consume its own propellants. This stage would be a high-speed reusable winged rocket plane/booster from Sukhoi that would lift the third stage—the actual spaceplane, also from Sukhoi—to a high altitude. There the latter would kick itself into orbit while the booster coasted into landing, possibly under pilot control; sources don’t say if the booster was to be manned, but with Sukhoi’s background it likely was.
The final stage was a tail-less rocket plane, about 80 tons in mass and 40 meters in length, so comparable to the American orbiter. It was estimated to have 30 tons of payload to LEO and a crew of two. It would have been larger than but was otherwise similar in appearance to some iterations of the Hermes shuttle, or to a lesser extent the later Russian/European Kliper. It was the most run-of-the-mill part of the whole vehicle, its design actually being closer to the American shuttle than the MTKVP. The air-based launcher was a radical approach, if not unique, but the underlying hydrofoil was the truly surprising suggestion.
It’s not difficult to see why the idea never went anywhere. Even putting aside the two partners’ inexperience with designing spacecraft, their proposed setup is ludicrous on its face, with tons of volatile propellant skimming over the water at triple-digit speeds, regardless of what its engineers might have actually calculated and put to paper. The likes of Dmitri Ustinov would have blanched if asked to sign off on it, as the country’s internal politics made Soviet decision makers inherently conservative. If they were eventually driven to insist on a close analog to the Shuttle over other proposals, one can only imagine what they thought about this one.