In the history of spaceflight, only one nation has made contributions that rival or supersede those of the Soviet Union or Russia. While the Soviets are credited with making the historic firsts that launched the “Space Age“, the contributions made by Russian scientists predate this period considerably. In terms of theory, the history of Russian space exploration goes back to the 19th century.
However, as with the United States, the practice of sending missions to space did not begin until after World War II. It was at this time, during the fabled “Space Race” between the east and the west, that the Soviet Union conducted several pioneering missions in robotic and crewed spaceflight. These contributions have continued since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ensuring Russia’s continued role as a superpower in space.
The theory of rocketry and astronautics owes a tremendous debt to Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), who is alternately considered to be the “father of spaceflight” and/or one of the founding fathers of rocketry. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he wrote about 90 pioneering papers on the subjects of rocket science and aerospace engineering.
These included his famous “rocket equation” that describes the motion of vehicles that create thrust by expelling part of its mass with high velocity. Konstantin proposed this equation in 1903 in a seminal paper titled “Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Reaction Devices.” While similar theories were arrived at independently prior to this, it is his mathematical formula that arguably had the greatest impact on the development of rocket science.
In 1929, Tsiolokovsky published his paper where he proposed the concept of a multistage rocket booster for the very first time. His other papers included designs for rockets with steering thrusters, space stations, and airlocks, closed-cycle systems that could provide food and oxygen for space colonies. He also proposed the concept of a space elevator in 1895, a compression structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Tsiolkovsky’s research became the basis of practical experiments conducted by Russian/Soviet rocket pioneers like Sergey Korolev and Freidrich Zander. In 1931, this work was formalized with the creation of the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD) – a Soviet research bureau intended to advance the science of rocketry.
In 1933, GIRD was incorporated into the Reaction-Engine Scientific Research Institute (RNII). That same year, they launched the first Soviet liquid-fueled rocket (GIRD-09, in August), and the first hybrid-fueled rocket (GIRD-X, in November). During 1940-41, during World War II, GIRD was responsible for the development of the Katyusha rocket launcher, an artillery system that played a key role in Red Army operations.
In 1945, the German government unconditionally surrendered to the Allies and Germany was partitioned between East and West. With the Red Army’s occupation of East Germany, the Soviet Union came into possession of several German rocket scientists as well as materials and prototypes pertaining to the German rocketry program.
In particular, the Soviets benefitted from the capture of the V-2 production sites at Mittelwerk and scientists and workers recruited from the Institut Nordhausen in Bleicherode. In 1946, the Soviets launched Operation Osoaviakhim and forcibly relocated 2,200 German specialists and their families to the Soviet Union to work on the postwar Soviet rocket program.
This led to the formation of the OKB-1 design bureau, which Korolev became a leading figure in with the assistance of German rocket scientist Helmut Gröttrup. The first task of OKB was to create a replica of the V-2 rocket, which they designated as the R-1. This rocket was successfully launched for the first time in October of 1948.
The OKB was then tasked with coming up with designs that incorporated more powerful rocket boosters capable of carrying greater payloads and reaching greater distances (i.e. nuclear warheads). These efforts eventually resulted in the development of the R-7 Semyorka rocket by 1957, which was originally intended to be the Soviet Union’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Ironically, the rocket became obsolete as an ICBM before it even launched, but would become the workhorse of the Soviet space program – sending the first satellites and cosmonauts to space. Also in 1957, the Soviets achieved two historic firsts, including the launch of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik-1) and the first animal (Laika the dog, part of Sputnik 2) to space.
The success of the Sputnik program, as well as competition from the United States, led the Soviet government to accelerate its plans for a crewed mission. This resulted in the Vostok program, which officially ran from 1961 to 1963 and consisted of six missions. These included the launch of the first man to space on April 12th, 1961 (Vostok-1) and the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova, Vostok 6) on June 16th, 1963.
The Apollo Era
Having beaten the American space program into space with Sputnik and Vostok, the Soviets began refocusing their efforts in the mid-to-late 1960s towards the development of larger boosters and spacecraft capable of carrying multiple crewmembers. This mirrored what their counterparts at NASA were doing with the Gemini program.
This was realized with the Voskhod program, which ran from 1964 to 1966 and relied on the more-powerful Molinya rocket and a redesigned Vostok spacecraft capable of a crew of two to three cosmonauts. However, the program only resulted in two one-day flights with human cosmonauts were mounted (in 1964 and 1965) and a twenty-two flight involving two dogs (1966).
After that point, Voskhod was superseded by the Soyuz program, which aimed to develop spacecraft and launch vehicles capable of reaching the Moon. This program was initiated in 1963 in response to NASA’s Apollo program and led to the development of the three-stage N1 rocket (designed to compete with NASA’s Saturn V) and the Soyuz spacecraft.
A total of ten crewed missions were mounted as part of this program between 1967 and 1971, but no crewed missions were attempted to the Moon. In addition, the development of the N1 was complicated by the death of Korolev in 1966 and the Soviets ultimately ceded the “Race to the Moon” at this point due to budget restrictions and a lack of political commitment.
While the Soviets never made it beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with their crewed spacecraft, their space program was instrumental in the exploration of other planetary bodies using robotic spacecraft. The most notable were arguably the Luna, Zond, and Lunakohd programs, which sent several orbiters, landers, and the first rovers to the Moon between 1958 and 1976.
Of particular significance were the Luna 3, 9 and 16 missions, which were the first robotic missions to photograph the far side of the Moon, make a soft landing on the Moon, and conduct the first robotic sample-return mission from the Moon. Then there was Lunokhod 1, which was the first rover to land on the Moon or any other celestial body.
Between 1961 and 1999, the Soviets and (after 1978) the Russian Academy of Sciences sent multiple probes to Venus as part of their Venera and Vega programs. Notably, the Venera 4 orbiter and lander provided the first on-site analysis of another planet’s atmosphere. This was followed by the Venera 7 lander making the first soft landing on another planet and transmitted data back to Earth.
Between 1960 and 1969, the Soviet space program also explored Mars as part of their program of the same name. The most successful mission was the Mars 3 orbiter and lander, which achieved the first soft landing on Mars in 1971 and also collected vital data on the composition and physical properties of Mars’ surface, atmosphere, and magnetic field.
Salyut and Mir
In 1974, the Soviets once again shifted their priorities, this time toward the development of strategies and technologies that would enable a long-term human presence in space. This had already begun with the Salyut program, which managed to deploy four crewed scientific research space stations and two crewed military reconnaissance space stations between 1971 and 1986.
The first (Salyut 1) was deployed in October of 1971, followed by the first rendezvous and docking maneuver between a spacecraft and space station by April (Soyuz 10). Despite some failures that occurred in between, the Soviets managed to deploy Salyut 4 and three more stations (some of which were Almaz military reconnaissance stations) that would remain in orbit for periods of between one and nine years/
The experience and expertise that resulted from this program helped pave the way for the deployment of Mir (Russian for “Peace”), which began with the Core Module being launched to space in 1986. This space station was originally intended to be an improved model of the Salyut space stations but evolved into a more complicated design with several modules and docking ports for spacecraft (like the new Progress cargo ships).
Between 1987 and 1996, six more modules were incorporated into the Core, including the Kvant-1 and Kvant-2 in 1987 and 1989 (respectively), Kristall in 1990, Spektr and the docking module in 1995, and Priroda in 1996. Over the next 15 years, Mir would be visited by a total of 28 long-duration crews from many different nations and space agencies – including the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.
Throughout the 1980s, the Soviets also attempted to develop a reusable space plane to compete with NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. This resulted in the Buran (“Snowstorm”) space shuttle (which was virtually identical to the Space Shuttle’s orbital vehicle) and the Energia heavy launch rocket. Unfortunately, the program was canceled with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 after having achieved only a single flight.
Post-Soviet Era and 21st Century
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet Space Program was disbanded and replaced by the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities. Between 1991-1998, Roscosmos suffered severe budget cuts due to the severe economic downturn and was forced to turn to the private sector to secure funding. By 2000, the situation began to turn around thanks to international cooperation and the International Space Station (ISS).
The agreement to create the ISS had been struck in 1993, with Roscosmos, NASA, the ESA, JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) as the original signatories. This project brought together the Russian plans for the Mir-2 station with NASA’s Space Station Freedom project and would rely on Russian Soyuz rockets launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to provide regular cargo and crew deliveries to the ISS.
Russia’s experiences with the Salyut program and Mir were also indispensable to the construction of the ISS, which includes several Russian-made and Russian-launched modules. This includes the Zarya (“Sunrise” in Russian) Control Module, the Zvezda Service Module (“Star”), the Pirs Docking Compartment (“Pier”), and the Mini-Research Module I and II – aka. the Rassvet (“Dawn”) and Poisk (“Research”) modules.
These modules together make up the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) of the ISS, which is operated by Roscosmos. After 2005, an improving economic situation led to boosted funding and renewed interest in both robotic and crewed spaceflight. This allowed Roscosmos to finally finish work on the Angara rocket, a next-generation replacement for the aging Soyuz design that spent a total of 22 years in development.
With the retiring of the Space Shuttle in 2011, Roscosmos became the sole means through which NASA and other space agencies could send astronauts to the ISS. This cooperate arrangement continues, despite the tense situation that has existed since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and will continue until the US has restored domestic launch capability.
We have written many great articles about the Soviet and Russian space programs here at Universe Today. Feel free to peruse them using the list below:
- Luna Program
- Lunokhod Program
- Mars Probe Program
- Phobos Program
- Proton Satellite Program
- Sputnik Program
- Vega Program
- Venera Program
- Zond Program
- Wikipedia – Roscosmos
- NASA – Women in Space
- NASA – Animals in Space
- Wikipedia – Soviet Space Program
- RAF Museum – The Soviet Space Program
- Space.com – Roscosmos: Russia’s Space Agency
- NASA – Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age
- Russian SpaceWeb – Origin of the Vostok Spacecraft
- Russian SpaceWeb – The 20th Century: the Space Age