A Soviet-era space shuttle launch concept, long buried in the annals of aerospace history, has been unearthed and visually recreated by the YouTube channel “Hazegrayart.”
This innovative proposal, known as the Alexeyev/Sukhoi Albatros, was initially conceived in 1974 by aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi and hydrofoil specialist Rostislav Alexeyev. It aimed to propel a space shuttle into the cosmos utilizing a hydrofoiling barge, a carrier aircraft, and a unique launch system. While it never materialized, this imaginative design offers a glimpse into the audacious ideas of the past.
The Alexeyev/Sukhoi Albatros was an ambitious three-stage shuttle launch system designed to propel a space shuttle into the heavens without the need for traditional launch infrastructure like a launchpad or runway. The system featured fully recoverable and reusable components, showcasing an innovative approach to space travel.
The foundation of this concept was a massive 70-meter (229-foot), 2,000-tonne hydrofoiling barge named the “Albatros Momentum Block.” The 91-meter (298-foot) Albatros Carrier Aircraft was positioned atop this barge, boasting a remarkable weight of 1,250 tonnes when fully fueled. This aircraft was equipped with a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen rocket capable of generating a staggering 7.84 million kilonewtons (1,762,500 pounds-force) of thrust.
Sitting on the back of the carrier aircraft was the relatively compact 49-meter (160-foot) Albatros Raketoplan space shuttle, weighing a modest 320 tonnes when fully fueled. The shuttle’s rocket produced 1.96 million kilonewtons (440,620 pounds-force) of thrust.
The launch procedure was designed to be a multi-stage event. The second-stage carrier aircraft would ignite its rockets, replenishing its fuel from a 180-tonne reserve on the barge. This action would accelerate the hydrofoiling barge to the critical hydrofoiling speed, significantly reducing drag. Within two minutes of rocket ignition, the barge would reach a launch speed of approximately 180 kilometers per hour (112 miles per hour).
At this point, the carrier aircraft would generate enough lift under its wings for takeoff. It would then propel the shuttle to a high altitude before separating, allowing it to continue its journey to orbit under its rocket power. Meanwhile, the carrier aircraft would return to Earth for a safe landing.
Despite its innovative design, this audacious concept never received the necessary approval. The hydrofoiling aspect of the plan introduced complications, as high-speed hydrofoiling, exceeding about 113 kilometers per hour (70 miles per hour), led to a phenomenon known as cavitation. Cavitation involves the formation of vapor pockets in the water due to low pressure over the hydrofoil wings, resulting in subsequent collapses and shockwaves. These conditions can lead to damage and fatigue of hydrofoils, which is far from ideal when transporting valuable space shuttles and launch vehicles.