Soviet Space Program
Soviet Space Program
The Sputnik In August 1957 the Soviet Union carried out the first successful test of the R7 Semyorka, the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICB). The R7 was the culmination of research and development based upon the Nazi party’s V2 rockets, which had been launched at Allied nations during the Second World War. The first of these, the R1, was a replica of the V2, built by German prisoners under the guidance of Sergey Korolyov. Korolyov was a rocket engineer who was soon able to improve the original German design. The R2 was able to travel twice as far as the R1 and by the time of the R7, the rockets had an almost global range, making them the ideal choice for a space launch vehicle. The Space Race had begun.
Just two months after the Semyorka had been tested, Korolyov succeeded in putting the first man made object into orbit around the Earth. This Satellite was called Sputnik. It was followed a month later by Sputnik II, which carried the first space traveller, Laika the dog. Their launch was a major propaganda success over the United States and soon Korolyov was charged with building upon the Soviet Union’s achievements in space.
The Vostok programme ran from 1960 to 1963 and aimed to send a man into space for the very first time. This goal was achieved on 12th April 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit planet Earth. Gagarin had been chosen from a group of 20 cosmonauts selected for the Soviet space program. His backup for the mission was Gherman Titov, who went on to become the second man in space aboard Vostok 2. The spacecraft used for the programme had originally been designed as spy satellites for the Soviet military and were therefore very cramped inside. They were made up of two separate sections, the descent module and the instrument module. These were designed to separate upon re-entry, with the descent module bringing the crew safely Â back into Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike American spacecraft, which descended to Earth with their crew onboard, Soviet cosmonauts ejected from their capsules at about 23,000 ft, using their own parachutes to land separately.
Gagarin’s flight lasted less than two hours, but was another great success for the Soviet Union. During his stay in space Gagarin was promoted to the rank of Major and became an instant celebrity upon his return to Earth. However, his historic flight did not pass by without its problems. Upon re-entry the two sections of the spacecraft had failed to separate properly causing the spacecraft to gyrate alarmingly. This worrying situation continued for 10 minutes until the bundle of wires connecting the two sections burnt through, releasing the descent module. Many Soviet officials did not expect Gagarin to return alive and some conspiracy theorists believe that there may have been previous attempts to send a Russian into space which ended with the deaths of the cosmonauts involved. Gagarin’s own spacecraft included enough provisions for a 10 day mission just in case the retrofire engines failed and Gagarin was left to wait for his orbit to decay naturally. However, the retrofire engines worked perfectly and 1 hour, 48 minutes after launch Gagarin ejected from Vostok 1, landing safely in a farmer’s field in Russia’s Saratov region. Four months later, in August 1961, Gherman Titov piloted Vostok 2 into space for over a day to test the effects of weightlessness on the human body. As he passed over America Titov broadcast a ‘hello’ message to the American people, who would not send a man into space until the following year. Despite experiencing similar re-entry problems to Gagarin’s mission, Vostok 2 was followed by 4 further missions, culminating in Vostok 6 in June 1963. Seven further flights had been planned, but were later incorporated into the Voshkod programme, with its own goal of achieving yet more Soviet ‘firsts’ in space.
The Voskhod programme
The Voskhod programme was the Soviet Union’s second human spaceflight project and developed out of the earlier Vostok programme. Only two manned flights were made as part of the project which aimed to achieve Soviet milestones in space, particularly the launch of the first multi-person crew. This was achieved by Voskhod 1, which became the first spaceflight to carry more than one person into orbit, beating the American’s Gemini programme to yet another first. However, the Voskhod programme is best remembered for the flight of Voskhod 2, when Aleksei Leonov became the first man to carry out a spacewalk or EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity). The spacecraft used as part of the Voskhod programme were heavily based upon the earlier Vostok variety. However, the ejection seat was removed to make way for two more cosmonauts and a solid fuel retrorocket was added to the descent module. This booster provided a smoother landing for the descent module which would now carry the crew all the way back to Earth. Further changes were made to the Voskhod spacecraft for Leonov’s historic mission, namely the inclusion of the Volga inflatable airlock. This was only extended once Voskhod 2 was in orbit and it was discarded once Leonov was back inside the spacecraft. It was controlled from inside the Voskhod capsule by the mission’s commander, Pavel Belyayev.
Leonov’s historic spacewalk lasted less than 12 minutes, but it was long enough to beat the Americans to yet another first in space. It had taken the cosmonaut 18 months of intense training to prepare for the EVA for which he wore a special backpack, supplying him with oxygen. However, his mission very nearly ended in disaster when his space suit inflated in the vacuum of space, making it very difficult for him to move. This meant that Leonov was unable to take any photographs of his spacecraft and was also unable to recover the camera that had been filming his spacewalk. By far the most alarming problem, however, was the realisation that Leonov could no longer fit inside the inflatable airlock. The cosmonaut had actually been given a suicide pill for use in just such an event, but was able to solve the problem by venting some of the suit’s pressure and squeezing back into the spacecraft. Voskhod 2 was the final mission in the Voskhod program. A change of leadership in Russia saw the focus of the space program shift towards the moon. Leonov’s ability to maintain a cool head during emergency situations had been noted and in 1968 he was selected to command a circumlunar flight. However, with the success of Apollo 8, which successfully orbited the moon in December 1968, this flight was cancelled. Leonov was switched to another important mission, the attempt to land a Soviet cosmonaut on the moon.
First woman in space
On June 16, 1963, aboard Vostok 6, Soviet Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman to travel into space. After 48 orbits and 71 hours, she returned to earth, having spent more time in space than all U.S. astronauts combined to that date. Tereshkova was chosen to take part in the second dual flight in the Vostok program, involving spacecrafts Vostok 5 and Vostok 6. On June 14, 1963, Vostok 5 was launched into space with cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky aboard. With Bykovsky still orbiting the earth, Tereshkova was launched into space on June 16 aboard Vostok 6. The two spacecrafts had different orbits but at one point came within three miles of each other, allowing the two cosmonauts to exchange brief communications. Tereshkova’s spacecraft was guided by an automatic control system, and she never took manual control. On June 19, after just under three days in space, Vostok 6 reentered the atmosphere, and Tereshkova successfully parachuted to earth after ejecting at 20,000 feet. Bykovsky and Vostok 5 landed safely a few hours later.
The Soyuz Programme
The Soyuz spacecraft was designed as part of the Soviet Union’s attempts to land a cosmonaut on the Moon. The programme can be traced back to the early 1960s, although the first launch of an unmanned Soyuz capsule did not take place until 1966, after the successes of the Vostok and Voskhod programmes. It was in this year that two separate cosmonaut training groups were created. One of these, led by Aleksei Leonov, would train towards the landing mission, whilst the other would learn how to control the Soyuz spacecraft. This second group was led by Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov.
N1 rockets at Baikonur Cosmondrome Komarov himself was selected for the first manned launch of a Soyuz capsule and on April 23rd 1967 Soyuz 1 blasted off from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. During its flight the spacecraft experienced problems with its automatic stabilisation system and orientation detectors, whilst a faulty solar panel also caused power shortages. Despite these problems it should have been possible to return Colonel Komarov safely to Earth, but after the spacecraft’s main parachute failed to open, Soyuz 1 crashed at a speed of nearly 400mph, killing the cosmonaut on impact. Before attempting another manned mission the Russians carried out a series of unmanned launches, using Soyuz capsules, as part of the Zond program. The first of these, Zond 4, was launched in March 1968. This was followed by Zond 5 in September 1968 which carried the first animals, a group of turtles, on a return flight around the Moon. The success of this flight was followed a month later by the launch of Soyuz 3 with Georgi Beregovoi on board. Further manned launches in both 1968 and 1969 tested key elements of the proposed moon landing, cosmonauts for the mission were selected, including Aleksei Leonov, but the 18 month delay had seriously hindered Soviet progress. Further problems were encountered with the N1, the massive rocket designed by Sergei Korolyov to send Soviet cosmonauts to the Moon. The first of these was tested on February 21st 1969, but exploded just 69 seconds after lift off. This was followed by three further test flights, all of which ended in disaster. The worst of these occurred on July 03rd 1969, less than two weeks before the launch of Apollo 11, when a loose bolt caused the largest explosion in the history of rocketry, destroying both the N1 rocket and the surrounding launch complex.
Within a month, the crew of Apollo 11 had successfully landed on the moon, and America had effectively won the Space race. The Soyuz program continued, but the Russian Space Program switched its focus to the development of the Salyut space stations, achieving a number of further milestones in space exploration. Although plans for a Russian moon landing continued into the 1970s, they were eventually cancelled altogether in 1974.
The first ever space station, Salyut 1 was launched on April 19, 1971. It was an 18,500 kilogram cylinder, 12 meters long by 4.1 meters at its widest. It contained 3 compartments; a small working/living area, a large working/living area and an airlock transfer and docking component. It was designed to be used manned or unmanned and had only one dock to receive another spacecraft.
Primarily built to study the effects of long-term space flight on humans, the station also was used for studying the same effects on growing plants as well as meteorological research. It also included a spectogram telescope, Orioin 1 and gamma ray telescope Anna III for astronomical studies.
Salyut 1’s first crew launched aboard Soyuz 10 on April 22, 1971. This crew included Vladimir Shatalov, Alexei Yeliseyev and Nikolai Rukavishnikov. When they reached the station and attempted to dock on April 24, the hatch would not open. After making a second attempt, the mission was cancelled and the crew returned home. Problems occurred during reentry and the ship’s air supply became toxic. Nikolai Rukavishnikov passed out, but he and the other two men recovered fully.
The next Salyut crew, scheduled to launch aboard Soyuz 11 was Valery Kubasov, Alexei Leonov and Pyotr Kolodin. Prior to launch, though, Kubasov was suspected of having contracted tuberculosis, which caused the Soviet Space authorities to replace this crew with their backups, Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev, who launched on June 6, 1971.
After the docking problems that Soyuz 10 experienced, the Soyuz 11 crew used automated systems to maneuver within 100 meters of the station, then hand-docked their ship.
Problems continued to plague the mission. The primary instrument aboard the station, the Orion telescope would not function because its cover failed to jettison. The cramped working conditions as well as a personality clash between the commander Dobrovolskiy (a rookie) and the veteran Volkov made it very difficult to conduct the experiments planned for the mission. After a small fire occurred, it was decided to cut the mission short and depart after 24 days, instead of the planned 30. Despite this, the mission was still considered a success at this time.
Shortly after Soyuz 11 undocked and made an initial retro fire, communication was lost with the crew far earlier than normal. The capsule descended and was recovered on June 29, 1971 23:17 GMT. When the hatch was opened it was discovered that the crew was dead.
After an investigation, it was determined that a valve which was not supposed to open until an altitude of 4 km was reached had been jerked open during the undocking maneuver, causing the cosmonauts oxygen to bleed out into space. The crew tried to crank the valve closed, but did not have time. Due to space limitations, they were not wearing space suits. Official Soviet documentation says:
“At approximately 723 seconds after retrofire, the 12 Soyuz pyro cartridges fired simultaneously instead of sequentially to separate the two modules …. the force of the discharge caused the internal mechanism of the pressure equalization valve to release a seal that was usually discarded pyrotechnically much later to adjust the cabin pressure automatically. When the valve opened at a height of 168 kilometers the gradual but steady loss of pressure was fatal to the crew within about 30 seconds. By 935 seconds after retrofire, the cabin pressure had dropped to zero……. …only through analysis of telemetry records of the attitude control system thruster firings that had been made to counteract the force of the escaping gases and through the pyrotechnic powder traces found in the throat of the pressure equalization valve were Soviet specialists able to determine that the valve had malfunctioned and had been the sole cause of the deaths.”
The USSR did not attempt to send any other crews to Salyut 1, which was later deorbited and allowed to burn up on reentry. It was more than two years before another manned mission was attempted. Later crews were limited to two men, to allow room for the required space suits during take-off and landing.
Soyuz (Apollo Soyuz Test Project)
In the early 1970’s, several Soyuz spacecraft were modified to support the international Apollo-Soyuz Test Program.
Soyuz normally used a probe and drogue docking system. For this mission, a new docking system, known as APAS-75 was used. APAS (Androgynous Peripheral Assembly System), allowed either spacecraft to be the active partner in docking maneuvers.
Like the Soyuz Ferry, a two-cosmonaut crew would be carried. Solar arrays were added to extend the orbital duration of the spacecraft.
Several test missions including the un-manned Cosmos 638 and Cosmos 672, and the manned Soyuz 16 mission, were flown in 1974.
In July 1975, Soyuz 19 rendezvoused and docked with an Apollo spacecraft. The Soyuz was crewed by cosmonauts Alexei Leonov, and Valeri Kubasov.
A backup spacecraft, known as Soyuz 22, flew an independent mission in 1976. Replacing the APAS docking apparatus with a camera system allowed the crew to conduct Earth observations.
ASTM Soyuz on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photos: Richard Kruse, 2009)
Soyuz Spacecraft Detail Shots
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) Docking Module
Introduced in the mid-1980’s, Soyuz-TM would become the primary crew transport vehicle for the Mir space station. Later missions would fly to the International Space Station.
Soyuz-TM replaced the Igla rendezvous system, used on previous Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, with the more capable Kurs system. With an ability to remain docked to a space station for six months, the Soyuz-TM was ideal for supporting long duration missions.
Soyuz-TM 1, an unmanned test flight, occurred in May 1986. The first manned mission, Soyuz-TM-2, was launched to the Mir space station in February 1987. The last mission, Soyuz-TM 34, was launched in April 2002.
Soyuz TM-10 Descent Module
Soyuz TM-10 descent module on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photos: Richard Kruse, 2008)
21 Aug, 2013
Soviet Space Program
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