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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.

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Yuri Gagarin

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  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

ASTM Soyuz on display at the National Air and Space Museum. (Photos: Richard Kruse, 2009)

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Soyuz Spacecraft Detail Shots

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Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) Docking Module

Apollo-Soyuz Docking Module     Apollo-Soyuz Docking Module     Apollo-Soyuz Docking Module     Apollo-Soyuz Docking Module     Apollo-Soyuz 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)

Soyuz TM-10     Soyuz TM-10     Soyuz TM-10     Soyuz TM-10     Soyuz TM-10     Soyuz TM-10



Soviet Space Program

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