Russian Space Flight - Part Two

>> Monday, June 8, 2009

Now, when I did a similar series on US Spaceflight, I concentrated on human spaceflight, largely because it was what I knew best but also because so much of it is already part of our culture: Hubble photos, Viking data, earth science satellites, Voyager pictures, Mars rovers, weather satellites, cell phones, etc. But, aside from Sputnik, what do you know about Russian unmanned space?

Probably not much. Yet Russia (with our without including the Ukraine - and I'm using Soviet and Russian interchangeably) has launched more rockets into space than any other country. Period. And, as I noted yesterday, they have a sizable number of successes and firsts and an enviable launch success rate.

Naturally, there were Sputniks (and, yes, there was more than one). Sputnik provided the first live creature in space (a dog, Laika) who was also the first space casualty (who died unpleasantly). This was followed by a string of other science and satellites, including more animals (this time planned to be recovered and recovered successfully), dogs and more, in fact several trips before Yuri Gagarin's historic flight. But Yuri will have to wait until tomorrow.

They pioneered the Molniya orbits for communication satellites since geostationary orbits are not helpful for much of their high lattitude geography. These are so clever! By staggering them carefully they can get full coverage with highly elliptical orbits.

Luna program. They were the first to land a spacecraft on the moon, flyby the moon, impact the moon, send samples autonomously from the moon (and I don't believe the US ever did so except via astronaut) and had lunar rovers more than twenty years before we ever put one on Mars. One rover has traveled further than any exterrestrial rover has ever gone, nearly twice as far as our three Martian rovers (combined) had gone in five years.

With their Mars program, they managed to deliver the first Mars orbiter, the first probe to impact Mars and the first probe to "soft land" on Mars, though those achievements, rushed as they were (as both US and Russian efforts were) were not entirely successful. The soft landed probe, Mars 6, failed almost on contact and what it did send was garbled. Computer chip failures (probably a result of the high radiation environment) were endemic to the Mars probes.

Then there was the Venera and Vega programs. These included a number of atmospheric probes and even landers on Venus (though the horrific heat severely limited their lifetimes - they survived longer than planned). They include the first orbiter, probe and impactor on Venus. And, the first to successfully soft land on Venus. There were also two probes sent on to flyby Halley's comet.

Truth is, even a cursory glance through Russian spaceflight shows a great deal of creativity, innovation, even genius. They have set the bar high for autonomous everything and still do more with autonomous rendezvous than we have ever done. They are experts (and their expertise is hard won). Of course, one can't look at the early programs without also being struck by the large number of failures - some tragic as I'll go into in a later post. But I'm also impressed about their determination to change their reliability in the 1970's with extensive testing and their success as a result. Politics were also a frightful mess. And geography. In fact, they had a number of challenges and they did an incredible job.

Tomorrow, Russian human spaceflight.


  • Bob Johnson

    Great idea about your Russian Space Flight series, Russians were and are highly underrated in this area. I have an excellent book, forgot to return it to my High School Library,lol.

    "Soviet Space Exploration, The First Decade" Copyright 1968.

    I was watching carefully every move they made back then, I found it interesting how they were so opposite us in almost everything, but especially land as opposed to water landings.

  • Stephanie B

    I'm going to be talking about it tonight, but that's kind of a key element here.

    Because of the ice and dearth of good rivers, they don't have the access to water transport we do. With what I was reading about their N1 rocket, it occurred to me that that single fact, that they could take large chunks by barge, might have been the difference that let us beat them to the moon (with people). They couldn't have complete rocket components show up at the launch facility intact, but only in pieces, a recipe (when you have 30 rockets in one stage) for disaster.

  • LOBO

    Lack of water transport is no excuse. Halloo? Hover Dam? The idea of letting the environment limit your science and industry is strictly short-sighted Pinko laziness.

    You gotta get in there and let Mother Nature know who the boss is.

  • Stephanie B

    I maintain that the likelihood for failure of a damn vs. a rocket are not interchangeable. The real "function" of a damn is to be massive. A rocket is comparatively complex. Being able to test things in place is always a challenge, made worse in qualifying hardware, dissassembling it, transporting and reassembling it. Scary!

    Of course, they had other serious problems, too, including chronic underfunding and frightening mismanagement.

    (By the way, I live in Houston and was physically there when Hurricane Ike wandered over. I know who the boss and it ain't us.)

  • LOBO

    Haha! I typoed "Hover" Dam. Dams that 'hover' are considerably less effective.

    And as far as the Russian Space Program? Two words: Yakov Smirnoff.



  • Stephanie B

    Thank heavens I know you have a sense of humor, LOBO.

  • Aron Sora

    In a way, I feel Russian won the space race to the moon. Sure, we put a moon up there, but the goal of the race was to prove tech. superiority and they did that long before us. I wonder why they never sent a bot up there to plant a flag. It's a cheap way to get a ton of public attention.

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