Russian Space Flight - Part Three

>> Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I said yesterday that we don’t appreciate, in many ways, the Russian space program. Perhaps this will help put it in perspective.

Total launches (US) since 1950: 1538
Total launches (USSR/Russia/Ukraine): 3014

(By the way, Russia and the US are responsible for more than 90% of the space launches worldwide, 4552/5022) The Russian launchers have one of the best launch success rates in the world (the best if we don’t count Iran’s single launch). That’s a sizeable achievement.

Many people might be disturbed that I keep stressing Russia’s strengths and achievements, as if that somehow reflected poorly on us. I’m not sure how to answer that. How do their achievements tarnish our own? They couldn’t have done what they’ve done without some serious technical smarts. We’re fools indeed if we refuse to learn from their achievements or failures because they “lost” the space race.

So, today, I want to talk about the Russian human spaceflight programs.

Most of you probably know that the first human in space was Yuri Gagarin, launched on Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. He orbited in his automatic spacecraft (manual control was disabled, though he was given codes – in an envelope – to unlock it). The Russians (in fact everyone) didn’t know what low gravity would do to the crewmember and the designers played it “safe.” Also, since they were afraid the landing would be too rough for people to survive, Gagarin actually ejected during return and landed separately from his spherical capsule (see above). It was nearly a month later that Alan Shepard successfully flew his suborbital flight into space and nine months before John Glenn orbited the earth.

Vostok Program – Months after Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, Ghermann Titov spent more than a day in space in Vostok 2, suffered space sickness and even slept (and was also the youngest person ever to fly in space at 25 years old). Look at that baby face. (I wonder if looks were a criteria for the Soviet Cosmonaut program). As with all Vostok missions, he ejected from the capsule before landing. Vostok 3 and 4 were flown simultaneously (a first they repeated many times). And, in 1963, the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, flew on Vostok 6 (again simultaneously with Vostok 5). Russia would not send another woman into space for 19 years, and Sally Ride wouldn’t make into space until 1983.

There were only two flights flown for the Voskhod program, using the same hardware basically as Vostok with some adaptations to allow for multiple crew and to allow them to land with the capsule (ejection, in fact, was no longer an option). The program was geared for firsts only: the first multi-human flight for Voshkod 1 was also the first flight without space suits. Cramped and uncomfortable, Krushchev was removed from the head of government during the flight and the flight was truncated. Voshkod 2 boasted the first “EVA” though Alexai Leonov didn’t leave the inflatable airlock (and was nearly stranded outside, subject to the bends and severely overheated in his spacesuit – very exciting for a 12 minute EVA).

Since 1967, the workhorse of the Russian human spaceflight program has been Soyuz, originally planned to be the Soviet path to the moon. It didn’t turn out that way, and it provided several casualties. I'll explain why it failed tomorrow. But it also highlights some of the strengths of the Russian methods and designs. You can find a list of Russian/Soviet human launches here.

The Soyuz program started with the tragic loss of Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz 1 in 1967. (For a precursor to the discussion tomorrow on what killed the Russian moon shot and an example of frightening mismanagement, check this chronology from Encyclopedia Astronautica) The flight was fraught with failures and problems. Repeated unmanned test flights had failed dramatically and quality inspectors had noted more than 100 design faults to their program management, but they were overruled in the interest of schedule (a lesson that space programs have sadly overlooked several times). With limited power, no stabilization, limited manual control, the choice was made to abort the mission, but multiple parachute failures precluded slowing and the spacecraft impacted explosively. Komarov was lost, the first human space casualty. This tragedy, the rework that followed, and the repeated failures of the N1 rocket effectively scuttled Russia’s moon shot (but I’ll talk more about that later).

Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 were flights to test capabilities key that would become key to Russia’s future space strength, space stations. Soyuz 4 and 5 docked on orbit and transferred crew from one vessel to another, though, without a connecting tunnel, this transfer had to be done via EVA. Soyuz 6, 7 and 8 all flew simultaneously (the planned docking/rendezvous failed). Soyuz 9 flew for more than 17 days. Soyuz 11 was the first successful docking with a nascent space station, Salyut 1, and performed experiments there for 23 days. Unfortunately, the mission ended in tragedy as a ventilation valve opened while still in space and depressurized the spacecraft. Future missions were designed with suited crew as a result.

Most of Soyuz’ flights since have been in support of space station work or to perform science. No more cosmonauts have been lost in space since Soyuz 11 in 1971. Soyuz has flown to Salyut, then Mir, then the ISS and still provide lifeboat capability for the ISS. The Salyut, in general, provided a platform for longer-term activities, but wasn’t really suited for long-term occupation though Salyut 6 and 7 both included extended stays. Mir, however, was designed to be continually occupied and was inhabited, with only a few short interruption, from 1987 to 2000 when it was abandoned. The ISS has been inhabited since 2000, a joint effort of both Russia and the US. There has been at least one Russian in space almost continually since 1987.

One of the key lessons examining Russian missions is how effective their designs have been, not because things haven’t gone wrong, but because the seriously bad things happening have been survivable. Soyuz has had multiple ballistic reentries, which are much harder than nominal, but no fatalities as a result. They’ve had repeated problems with service module/reentry capsule separation, but the spherical reentry capsule has minimized the effect of these failures. Retrorockets have failed to fire and parachutes malfunctioned (both happened on Soyuz 5, landing so hard that Cosmonaut Volynov broke his teeth. Far off course, he then trudged several kilometers to find shelter, waiting for rescue.) and the crew has survived. They have landed far off course. Soyuz 23 crashed through the ice on a frozen lake and waited on the bottom, without heaters, for hours, but the crew survived.

For more information on failures and near misses in spaceflight (all nations), there is a very impressive list here.


  • Bob Johnson

    Again super interesting stuff Stephanie, fyi your here link took me to the Soyuz 23 wikipedia page

  • Stephanie B

    Thanks, Bob. Fixed it, I think.

  • Bob Johnson

    Yep, cool link.

  • Phyl

    These are such great posts, and I'm loving all the information in them.

    I agree with your point that acknowledging someone else's accomplishments doesn't diminish us in any way. It's not rational to think that the only way I can be "good" is if everyone else is "bad." But that's a widespread attitude these days -- I think it's the dominant attitude in North American culture.

    I remember when I was a kid, being taught to think all the Soviet accomplishments were somehow flawed, while those of the U.S. were almost perfect. Sad, huh? Yet I remember being impressed, even so, when the Venus landings happened.

    I'm really loving learning about all this stuff.

  • Aron Sora

    I miss skylab, some corp. wanted to buy it (I heard about this on The Space Show) and make a space hotel but the Russians deorbited it. That was such a huge loss to the space economy.

  • Stephanie B

    The Russians didn't deorbit Skylab (which was the US' beastie); they deorbited Mir (and it wouldn't have been a very nice hotel, though I'm sure people would have paid to go).

    Skylab deorbited itself.

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