Russian Space Flight - Part Four

>> Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hey, I might just finish this series this week after all.

Over the last three days, I've been trying to give you a taste for the accomplishments in the Russian Space Program, how they took the world's first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (the R-7, adapted from German technology as, indeed, our own rocketry was) and made it the basis for most of their rockets to come (making it also the most reliable rocket in the world, with a success rate higher than 95% - 97.5% for production models). How they adjusted and adapted this basic design to perform effectively all of their space achievements (that I've described at length the past three posts). They did it in a frozen world, rich in minerals, but short on easy transport (minimal free water), chronically short on funds and with a confusing/complex bureaucracy that makes ours look simple. Clearly, when the space race started, they had the jump on us. So, how did they lose the race to the moon so decisively that they never sent people at all?

Why should we care? There are lessons there for us if we take the time to learn.

Russia's Moon Shot

If you checked that link I gave you yesterday on the events leading to and included in the Soyuz 1 disaster, you can get a good feel for the key problems:

  • Politics - too many chiefs, competing and constantly challenging the previous decisions. Bad for design, bad for testing, bad for moral. Too many interlocking responsibilities, especially if they're rivals, and you're asking for tasks to be done more often than required and some not at all.
  • Loss of a key leader: Korolyov, who spearheaded this endeavor and who had led the Soviet space program through the 1966, finding his way through this political morass with sound engineering, good leadership and careful diplomacy, died unexpectedly in 1966, leaving a heavy-handed deputy, Mishin, in his place.
  • Underfunding: program had been put into place when Kruschev was still in charge and the new powers that be didn't support it the same way. Lack of funding added to delays and schedule complications.
  • Schedule: In fighting and poor management led to considerable delays, weeks and months that quickly stacked up into years. Schedule pressure to do something to beat this or that accomplishment of the US led to frittering between conflicting priorities and, therefore, getting nothing done on time or well. The schedule was not technologically driven and it was unrealistic so that things delivered to meet it didn't work and everything else fell further behind. (Anyone who thinks that delivering "anything" on time is better than delivering something done right a little later just hasn't done the math) They lacked the absolute focus NASA was able to bring to the Apollo program. From being arguably ahead in the early sixties, they had fallen 3 or more years behind by the end of the decade.
  • Geography: unlike the US, large components could not be brought via barge, which severely limited the size of the components transportable. So what? Well, unless all of your build up and testing facilities are at the launch site (NASA's isn't either), that means that very large items must be tested, disassembled, transported, and reassembled at the launch facility with perhaps limited ability to validate the integrity of the reassembled components. With the Soyuz, which is relatively svelte, this is of limited importance. With the N-1, which had thirty individual engines in the first stage alone, it was a recipe for disaster.
  • Key disasters: Soyuz-1, four ugly test launch failures with N-1 killed an already spectacularly flawed program.
Just want to point out how little of this is technical. And that's the sad part. Our own failures, as well, despite the technical problems that are the actual cause, really trace down to cultural and managerial issues.

Now, before I end our Soviet space saga, I think I should touch on the Buran. Before joining NASA, I'd never even heard of it. When I got here, I was told that it was made entirely from our stolen plans only they added so much for ejection seats that it could never fly with people. Well, folks, that turned out to be nonsense.

Now, at a glance, there's no doubt in the world that the similarity is striking. But, looking beneath the skin, you get something else entirely. Forgoing our solid rocket boosters and hydrazine rockets (hydrazine, which is very toxic was eschewed by the Soviets early on, and they don't have the experience with solid rocket boosters we have), they also chose to avoid main engines so that Buran is launched on the back of a (planned to be anyway) reusable booster. But the booster is useful (and has been used) for other uses. The Buran, by forgoing main engines, had an increased capacity and a lower weight (as well as a better lift-to-drag ratio despite the apparent identicalness). It had ejection seats and the potential to have jet engines to help during reentry rather than just gliding. Here's the one and only launch (unmanned - it could fly and land itself) of the Buran.

It wasn't apparently technical issues that grounded the Buran, but funding and politics as it's developments coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union. And the plane they got out of that is too cool for words! For the record, we have plenty of Shuttle analogs and planned replacements that, well, haven't gone anywhere. Really.

Of course, that would be another post.


  • Anonymous

    There is other informations about the Buran space shuttle on this interesting website.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic articles. . . I am learning more and more each day. Thank you so much.

  • Stephanie B

    Excellent link, anonymous, thank you!

    I'm glad you've enjoyed them, Koe.

  • LOBO

    Big deal. How can you call yourself a "scientist" when there's no mention of Bigfoot on your site whatsoever?

    Don't get me wrong ... you've got potential. But you really need to get back to the fundamentals.

  • Stephanie B

    Now, see how people can misjudge each other, LOBO? Mentioning Bigfoot is how I know I'm NOT on a scientist's website.

  • Bob Johnson

    Very interesting, never heard of the Buran, sounds like some kind of religious document,lol. Love the one and only launch video, and the link anon left was cool too.

  • Relax Max

    I've just finished reading your very interesting posts on the Russian space program. I had been out of town when they began, but I am glad I am getting caught up. I had posted a couple just before I left town on vaguely the same subject, and wish I had waited and read yours first. :) But yours are scientific and mine just ramble, as usual, so I guess it evens out in the end.

    You had made a comment [there] about so many pilots losing their lives, over time, before their potential was realized, and I had mentioned that the great Yuri Gagarin should be counted among those who died too young. This was before I read all your information here. So very interesting.

    I am not one, btw, who really thought the accomplishments of the Russians somehow tarnished any of our own, but have always sort of held it against them that they got the money for a lot of the things they did out of the mouths of their own people. Literally. Ah, well. Different ages, different priorities.

  • Stephanie B

    It's a valid criticism, Relax Max, but I would argue that it's no less valid today with our economic crises and wars draining off our funds. The Soviet space programs were military, intended to preempt our using space as a weapon (and perhaps using it that way themselves - but it's too expensive to be practical as an effective weapon).

    And, while our huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons are unlikely to be of any use in the decades to come, what we learned about space exploration in those few years might be invaluable in the centuries to come.

    Still, first things first, feed the people.

  • Aron Sora

    I just finished watching this, they are lucky it go into the air. I mean, who launches without testing the space craft, unmanned. This is even worst since it's the Cold War which was just a huge PR battle. This must have mass Russia loss position in the space race. Just thinking of it from a PR view point, you can't make mistakes.

  • Stephanie B

    Aron, there were test flights before Soyuz 1 (Cosmos 133 and Cosmos 140 and another one that didn't technically launch before they inadvertently triggered the launch abort system and it destroyed the rocket when it aborted). However, they were also all failures.

    Remember, Apollo 1 was intended to be a manned first flight (and it had an equal number of serious problems that manifested during a ground test on earth - hence the fire). Also, the Shuttle's first real flight was also unmanned.

  • Stephanie B

    But I entirely agree with you when it comes to testing before you fly.

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