Soviet Space Program


The Soviet space program is the rocketry and space exploration programs conducted by the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the Soviet Union or U.S.S.R.) from the 1930s until its dissolution in 1991.
Over its sixty-year history, this primarily classified military program was responsible for a number of pioneering accomplishments in space flight, including the first intercontinental ballistic missile (1957), first satellite (Sputnik-1), first animal in space (the dog Laika on Sputnik 2), first human in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1), first woman in space and Earth orbit (cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6), first spacewalk (cosmonaut Alexey Leonov on Voskhod 2), first Moon impact (Luna 2), first image of the far side of the moon (Luna 3) and unmanned lunar soft landing (Luna 9), first space rover, first space station, and first interplanetary probe.

The rocket and space program of the USSR, initially boosted by the assistance of captured scientists from the advanced German rocket program, was performed mainly by Soviet engineers and scientists after 1955, and was based on some unique Soviet and Imperial Russian theoretical developments, many derived by Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskii, sometimes known as the father of theoretical astronautics.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (17 September [O.S. 5 September] 1857 – 19 September 1935) was a Russian and Soviet rocket scientist and pioneer of the astronautic theory. Along with his followers, the German Hermann Oberth and the American Robert H. Goddard, he is considered to be one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics. His works later inspired leading Soviet rocket engineers such as Sergey Korolyov and Valentin Glushko and contributed to the success of the Soviet space program.

Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
Tsiolkovsky spent most of his life in a log house on the outskirts of Kaluga, about 200 km (120 mi) southwest of Moscow. A recluse by nature, he appeared strange and bizarre to his fellow townsfolk.
Although many called his ideas impractical, Tsiolkovsky influenced later rocket scientists throughout Europe, like Wernher von Braun. Russian search teams at Peenemünde found a German translation of a book by Tsiolkovsky of which "almost every page...was embellished by von Braun's comments and notes."

Wernher von Braun
Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German rocket scientist, aerospace engineer, space architect, and one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Nazi Germany during World War II.

Leading Russian rocket-engine designer Valentin Glushko and rocket designer Sergey Korolyov studied Tsiolkovsky's works as youths, and both sought to turn Tsiolkovsky's theories into reality. In particular, Korolyov saw traveling to Mars as the more important priority, until in 1964 he decided to compete with the American Project Apollo for the moon.
Tsiolovsky wrote a book called 'The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence' in 1928 in which he propounded a philosophy of panpsychism.
He believed humans would eventually colonize the Milky Way galaxy.

Sergei Korolev
Серге́й Па́влович Королёв (Sergei Pavlovich Korolev) was the head of the principal design group; his official title was "chief designer" (a standard title for similar positions in the USSR).

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (12 January [O.S. 30 December 1906] 1907 in Zhytomyr, Russian Empire – 14 January 1966 in Moscow, USSR) was the lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer in the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s. He is considered by many as the father of practical astronautics.

Although Korolev was trained as an aircraft designer, his greatest strengths proved to be in design integration, organization and strategic planning. Arrested for alleged mismanagement of funds (he spent the money on unsuccessful experiments with rocket devices), he was imprisoned in 1938 for almost six years, including some months in a Kolyma labour camp. Following his release, he became a recognized rocket designer and a key figure in the development of the Soviet ICBM program. He was then appointed to lead the Soviet space program, made Member of Soviet Academy of Sciences, overseeing the early successes of the Sputnik and Vostok projects. By the time he died unexpectedly in 1966, his plans to compete with the United States to be the first nation to land a man on the Moon had begun to be implemented.

Unlike its American competitor in the "space race", which had NASA as a single coordinating agency, the USSR's program was split among several competing design groups led by Korolyov, Mikhail Yangel, Valentin Glushko, and Vladimir Chelomei.
Because of the program's classified status, and for propaganda value, announcements of the outcomes of missions were delayed until success was certain, and failures were sometimes kept secret.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Ultimately, as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost in the 1980s, many facts about the space program were declassified.

Михаи́л Серге́евич Горбачёв (Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev - born 2 March 1931), is a former Soviet statesman, having served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, and as the first (and last) president of the Soviet Union from 1988 until its dissolution in 1991. He was the only general secretary in the history of the Soviet Union to have been born during the Communist rule.

Giant 'N-1' rocket
Notable setbacks included the deaths of Korolyov, Vladimir Komarov (in the Soyuz 1 crash), and Yuri Gagarin (on a routine fighter jet mission) between 1966 and 1968, and disastrous experiences with the huge 'N-1' rocket intended to power a manned lunar landing, and which exploded shortly after launch on each of four unmanned tests.
The Soviet Space Program was dissolved with the fall of the Soviet Union, with Russia and Ukraine becoming its immediate heirs.
Russia created the 'Russian Aviation and Space Agency', now known as the 'Russian Federal Space Agency' (ROSCOSMOS), while Ukraine created the National Space Agency of Ukraine (NSAU).

Prewar Research

The theory of space exploration was well established in the Russian Empire before the First World War from the writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who published pioneering papers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in 1929 even introduced the concept of the multistaged rocket.
Similarly the practical aspects were established by early experiments carried out by the reactive propulsion study group, GIRD in the 1920s and 1930s, where such pioneers as Sergey Korolyov—who dreamed of traveling to Mars—and German-Russian engineer Friedrich Zander worked.
On August 18, 1933, GIRD launched the first Soviet liquid-fueled rocket Gird-09, and on November 25, 1933, the first hybrid-fueled rocket GIRD-X.
In 1940-41 another advance in the reactive propulsion field was made: the development and serial production of the 'Katyusha' multiple rocket launcher.

German Influence

During the 1930s Soviet rocket technology was comparable to Germany's, but Joseph Stalin's 'Great Purge' severely damaged its progress.
Many leading engineers were killed, and Korolyov and others were imprisoned in the Gulag.
Although the 'Katyusha' was very effective on the Eastern Front during World War II, the advanced state of the German rocket program amazed Russian engineers who inspected its remains at Peenemünde and Mittelwerk after the end of the war in Europe.
Although the Americans had secretly moved most leading German scientists and 100 V-2 rockets to the United States in 'Operation Paperclip' the Russian program greatly benefited from captured German records and scientists, in particular drawings obtained from the V-2 production sites.
Under the direction of Dimitri Ustinov, Korolyov and others inspected the drawings.
Helped by rocket scientist Helmut Gröttrup and other captured Germans until the early 1950s, they built a replica of the 'V-2' called the 'R-1', although the weight of Soviet nuclear warheads required a more powerful booster.
Korolyov's OKB-1 design bureau was dedicated to the liquid-fueled cryogenic rockets he had been experimenting with in the late 1930s.
Ultimately, this work resulted in the design of the R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which was successfully tested in August 1957.

Sputnik and Vostok

The Soviet space program was tied to the USSR's 'Five-Year Plans' and from the start was reliant on support from the Soviet military.
Although he was "single-mindedly driven by the dream of space travel", Korolyov generally kept this a secret while working on military projects—especially, after the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb test in 1949, a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the United States—as many mocked the idea of launching satellites and manned spacecraft.
Nonetheless, the first Soviet rocket with animals aboard launched in July 1951; the two dogs were recovered alive after reaching 101 km in altitude.
Two months ahead of America's first such achievement, this and subsequent flights gave the Soviets valuable experience with space medicine.
Because of its global range and large payload of approximately five tons, the reliable R-7 was not only effective as a strategic delivery system for nuclear warheads, but also as an excellent basis for a space vehicle.
The United States' announcement in July 1955 of its plan to launch a satellite during the 'International Geophysical Year' greatly benefited Korolyov in persuading Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to support his plans in January 1956, in order to surpass the Americans.
Plans were approved for Earth-orbiting satellites (Sputnik) to gain knowledge of space, and for unmanned military reconnaissance satellites, Zenit.
Further planned developments called for a manned Earth orbit flight by 1964 and an unmanned lunar mission at an earlier date.
After the first 'Sputnik' proved to be a successful propaganda coup, Korolyov—now known publicly only as the mysterious "Chief Designer of Rocket-Space Systems"—was charged to accelerate the manned program, the design of which was combined with the 'Zenit' program to produce the 'Vostok' spacecraft.
Still influenced by Tsiolkovsky—who had chosen Mars as the most important goal for space travel—in the early 1960s the Russian program under Korolyov created substantial plans for manned trips to Mars as early as 1968 to 1970.
With closed-loop life support systems and electrical rocket engines, and launched from large orbiting space stations, these plans were much more ambitious than America's goal of landing on the moon.

First Manned Spaceflight

Yuri Gagarin
First Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, on his Return to Earth 1962
Mikhail Khmelko
The first manned spaceflight took place on April 12, 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made one orbit around the Earth aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft, launched by the Soviet space program.
Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. Both spacecraft were launched by Vostok 3KA launch vehicles.
Alexei Leonov made the first spacewalk when he left Voskhod 2 on March 8, 1965.
Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to do so on July 25, 1984.

Funding and Support

Despite the Soviet space program's achievements, it was "neither a high priority nor a central tool of Soviet state policy." Khrushchev had decided that the Soviet military's funding would focus on the 'Strategic Rocket Forces' ICBMs', and the space program "rode its coattails". While the West believed that Khrushchev personally ordered each new space mission for propaganda purposes, and the Soviet leader did have an unusually close relationship with Korolyov and other chief designers, he "was more concerned about money and missiles than he was about cosmonauts and the cosmos...He was never particularly interested in competing with Apollo."
While the government and the Communist Party used the program's successes as propaganda tools after they occurred, systematic plans for missions based on political reasons were rare, one exception being Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, on 'Vostok 6' in 1963.
Missions were planned based on rocket availability or ad hoc reasons, rather than scientific purposes.
For example, the government in February 1962 abruptly ordered an ambitious mission involving two 'Vostoks' simultaneously in orbit launched "in ten days time" to obscure John Glenn's Mercury-Atlas 6 that month; the program could not do so with Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 until August.

Internal competition

Unlike the American Space program, which had 'NASA' as a single coordinating structure directed by its Administrator, James Webb through most of the 1960s, the USSR's program was split between several competing design groups.
Despite the remarkable successes of the Sputniks between 1957 and 1961 and Vostoks between 1961 and 1964, after 1958 Korolyov's OKB-1 design bureau faced increasing competition from his rival chief designers, Mikhail Yangel, Valentin Glushko, and Vladimir Chelomei.
Korolyov planned to move forward with the 'Soyuz' craft and 'N-1' heavy booster that would be the basis of a permanent manned space station and manned exploration of the Moon. However, Ustinov directed him to focus on near-Earth missions using the very reliable 'Voskhod' spacecraft, a modified Vostok, as well as on interplanetary unmanned missions to nearby planets Venus and Mars.
Yangel had been Korolyov's assistant but with the support of the military he was given his own design bureau in 1954 to work primarily on the military space program.
This had the stronger rocket engine design team including the use of hypergolic fuels but following the Nedelin catastrophe in 1960 Yangel was directed to concentrate on ICBM development.
He also continued to develop his own heavy booster designs similar to Korolyov's 'N-1' both for military applications and for cargo flights into space to build future space stations.
Glushko was the chief rocket engine designer but he had a personal friction with Korolyov and refused to develop the large single chamber cryogenic engines that Korolyov needed to build heavy boosters.
Chelomei benefited from the patronage of Khrushchev and in 1960 was given the plum jobs of developing a rocket to send a manned craft around the moon and a manned military space station.
With limited space experience, his development was slow.
The 'Apollo' program's progress alarmed the chief designers, who each advocated for his own programs as response.
Multiple, overlapping designs received approval, and new proposals threatened already approved projects.
Due to Korolyov's "singular persistence", in August 1964 —more than three years after the United States declared its intentions— the Soviet Union finally decided to compete for the moon.
It set the goal of a lunar landing in 1967 —the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution— or 1968.
At one stage in the early 1960s the Soviet space program was actively developing 30 projects for launchers and spacecraft.
With the fall of Krushchev in 1964, Korolyov was given complete control of the manned space program.

After Korolyov

Korolyov died in January 1966 following a routine operation that uncovered colon cancer and from complications from heart disease and severe hemorrhaging.
Kerim Kerimov, who was formerly an architect of 'Vostok 1', was appointed Chairman of the 'State Commission on Piloted Flights' and headed it for the next 25 years (1966–1991).
He supervised every stage of development and operation of both manned space complexes as well as unmanned interplanetary stations for the former Soviet Union.
One of Kerimov's greatest achievements was the launch of 'Mir' in 1986.
Leadership of the 'OKB-1' design bureau was given to Vasili Mishin, who had the task of sending a man around the Moon in 1967 and landing a man on it in 1968.
Mishin lacked Korolyov's political authority and still faced competition from other chief designers.
Under pressure Mishin approved the launch of the 'Soyuz 1' flight in 1967, even though the craft had never been successfully tested on an unmanned flight.
The mission launched with known design problems and ended with the vehicle crashing to the ground, killing Vladimir Komarov.
This was the first in-flight fatality.
Following this disaster and under new pressures, Mishin developed a drinking problem.
The Soviets were narrowly beaten in sending the first manned flight around the Moon in 1968 by 'Apollo 8', but Mishin pressed ahead with development of the problematic super heavy 'N1' rocket in the hope that the Americans would have a setback, leaving enough time to make the 'N-1' workable, and land a man on the moon first.

Soviet 'N-1' Rocket
The N-1 was a heavy lift rocket intended to deliver payloads beyond low Earth orbit, acting as the Soviet counterpart to the NASA Saturn V rocket. This heavy lift booster had the capability of lifting very heavy loads into orbit, designed with manned extra-orbital travel in mind. Development work started on the N-1 in 1959. Its first stage is the most powerful rocket stage ever built.
The N1-L3 version was developed to compete with the United States Apollo Saturn V to land a man on the Moon. The basic N1 launch vehicle had three stages, which was to carry the L3 lunar payload into low Earth orbit. The L3 contained an Earth departure stage and a lunar landing assist stage, in addition to the single-cosmonaut LK Lander spacecraft, and a two-cosmonaut Soyuz 7K-LOK lunar orbital spacecraft.
N1-L3 was under-funded and under-tested, and started development in October 1965, almost four years after the Saturn V. The project was badly derailed by the death of its chief designer Sergei Korolev in 1966. Each of the four attempts to launch an N1 failed; during the second launch attempt the N1 rocket crashed back onto its launch pad shortly after liftoff and detonated, resulting in the largest artificial non-nuclear explosion in human history, equivalent to the detonation of approximately 7,000 tons of TNT.
The N1 program was suspended in 1974, and in 1976 was officially cancelled.
Along with the rest of the Soviet manned Moon programs, the N1 was kept secret almost until the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991; information about the N1 was first published in 1989.

There was a success with the joint flight of Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 in January 1969 that tested the rendezvous, docking and crew transfer techniques that would be used for the landing, and the 'LK Lander' was tested successfully in earth orbit.
But after four unmanned test launches of the 'N-1' ended in failure, the heavy booster was abandoned and with it any chance of the Soviets landing men on the moon in a single launch.
Besides the manned landings, abandoned Soviet moon program included a building the multipurpose moonbase 'Zvezda', first detailed such project with developed mock-ups of expedition vehicles and surface modules.
Later proposed new moon manned program "Vulkan-LEK" were not adopted on economic reasons.
Following this setback, Chelomei convinced Ustinov to approve a program in 1970 to advance his 'Almaz' military space station as a means of beating the US's announced 'Skylab'.
Mishin remained in control of the project that became 'Salyut', but the decision backed by Mishin to fly a three-man crew without pressure suits rather than a two-man crew with suits to 'Salyut 1' in 1971 proved fatal when the re-entry capsule depressurized killing the crew on their return to Earth.
Mishin was removed from many projects, with Chelomei regaining control of 'Salyut'.
After working with 'NASA' on the 'Apollo Soyuz Test Project', the Soviet leadership decided a new management approach was needed and in 1974 the 'N-1' was cancelled and Mishin dismissed.
A single design bureau was created 'NPO Energia' with Glushko as chief designer.
Despite the failure of manned lunar programs, USSR achieved a significant success with two historical firsts, the automatic 'Lunokhod' and the Luna sample return missions.
Also, the Mars probe program was continued with some small success, while the explorations of Venus and then of the Halley comet by 'Venera' and 'Vega' probe programs was more effective.


The Soviet space program produced the Space Shuttle 'Buran' based on the 3rd in history super heavy 'Energia' launcher.
'Energia' would be used as the base for a manned Mars mission.
'Buran' was intended to operate in support of large space based military platforms as a response first to the US 'Space Shuttle' and then the 'Strategic Defense Initiative'.
By the time the system was operational, in 1988, strategic arms reduction treaties and the end of the Cold War made 'Buran' redundant.
On November 15, 1988, the 'Buran' orbiter and its 'Energia' rocket were launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and after three hours and two orbits, glided to a landing a few miles from its launch pad.
Several vehicles were built, but only the one flew an unmanned test flight; it was found too expensive to operate as a civilian launcher.

Incidents, Failures, and Setbacks

The Soviet space program has experienced a number of fatal incidents and failures.
The so-called Nedelin catastrophe in 1960 was a disastrous explosion of a fueled rocket being tested on launchpad, killing many technical personnel, aerospace engineers, and technicians working on the project at the time of the explosion.
The first cosmonaut fatality during training occurred on March 23, 1961 when Valentin Bondarenko died in a fire within a low pressure, high oxygen atmosphere.
The 'Voskhod' program was canceled after two manned flights owing to the change of Soviet leadership and nearly fatal 'close calls' during the second mission.
Had the planned further flights gone ahead they could have given the Soviet space program further 'firsts', including a long duration flight of 20 days, a spacewalk by a woman and an untethered spacewalk.
The deaths of Korolyov, Komarov (in the 'Soyuz 1' crash) and Gagarin (the first human in space who was on a routine fighter jet mission) within two years of each other understandably had substantial negative impact on the Soviet program.
The Soviets continued striving for the first lunar mission with the huge 'N-1' rocket, which exploded on each of four unmanned tests shortly after launch.
On April 5, 1975, the second stage of a 'Soyuz' rocket carrying 2 cosmonauts to the 'Salyut 4' space station malfunctioned, resulting in the first manned launch abort.
The cosmonauts were carried several thousand miles downrange and became worried that they would land in China, which the Soviet Union was then having difficult relations with.
The capsule hit a mountain, sliding down a slope and almost slid off a cliff; fortunately the parachute lines snagged on trees and kept this from happening.
As it was, the two suffered severe injuries and the commander, Lazerev, never flew again.
On March 18, 1980 a 'Vostok' rocket exploded on its launch pad during a fueling operation, killing 48 people.
In August 1981, 'Kosmos 434', which had been launched in 1971, was about to re-enter.
To allay fears that the spacecraft carried nuclear materials, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR assured the Australian government on August 26, 1981 that the satellite was "an experimental lunar cabin".
This was one of the first admissions by the Soviet Union that it had ever engaged in a manned lunar spaceflight program.
In September 1983, a 'Soyuz' rocket being launched to carry cosmonauts to the 'Salyut 7' space station exploded on the pad, causing the 'Soyuz' capsule's abort system to engage, saving the two cosmonauts on board.
In addition to these, there have been several unconfirmed accounts of Lost Cosmonauts whose deaths were allegedly covered up by the Soviet Union.