12. Cosmonauts: The Soviets in Space
by Gus Posey, The Museum of Flight
In 1915, two years before Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, the United States Congress formed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would eventually become the more familiar National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Although delayed somewhat by the ongoing civil war, the Russian response was both predictable and sensible. In 1918, Byloye (The Past) magazine published a description of a manned rocket originally designed by Nikolai Kibalchich, an explosives expert who penned the design while awaiting execution for his role in the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. The early design is generally regarded as one of the first credible ideas for a manned spacecraft.
In 1919, Nikolai Tikhomirov, a chemical engineer, proposed the creation of a government-supervised development laboratory that would specialize in rocket-powered artillery. The lab, initially named for Tikhomirov, soon became the Gas Dynamics Laboratory, or GDL. In 1927, less than a year after Goddard’s first flight, the world’s first exhibition of technology designed for exploring other worlds opened in Moscow. Three years later, another Russian rocket pioneer, Valentin Glushko, developed Russia’s first liquid-fueled rocket engine, the ORM-1.
During the 1930s, space technology in the Soviet Union was accelerated by the tests of a number of rocket-propelled missiles and gliders. The RP-318, Russia’s first rocketpowered aircraft, was essentially a modified glider equipped with Glushko’s ORM-65 engine. The man responsible was an aeronautical engineer named Sergei Korolev. Before the airplane’s first flight, however, the paranoiadriven purges of Joseph Stalin led to Korolev’s incarceration, along with that of many other engineers including Glushko. After months of bleak transit aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, Korolev was put aboard a prison vessel at Magadan.
Soon after, the unfortunate engineer was forced to work for a year in the gold mines at Kolmya, one of the Gulag’s most dreaded destinations.
As the Soviets mobilized for their war with Germany, Stalin finally realized that many of the engineers he had jailed represented a formidable asset, and would greatly assist in the development of new Russian weapons. Working through a system of prison design bureaus known as sharashkas, Korolev was identified and employed by the famous aircraft designer Sergei Tupolev, also imprisoned by Stalin. Following the war, Korolev was released from prison and put in charge of the development of a long-range ballistic missile.
In 1953, Korolev received approval for the development of the R-7 missile, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Four years later, on October 4, 1957, Korolev’s R-7 carried Sputnik 1 into orbit, initiating a new period of dramatic development in space technology, especially in the United States: a game of brinksmanship that would come to be known as the Space Race.
This important first was quickly followed by a string of Soviet successes. On November 3, a month after Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2 was launched, carrying a small dog named Laika. While technical issues meant an unfortunate end for the animal, the flight demonstrated that a living creature could endure the stresses of a launch into space, and function normally in a weightless environment. On August 19, 1960, two dogs, Belka and Strelka, traveled to orbit and returned safely to Earth, the first animals to do so. Using a prototype of the Vostok spacecraft (also known as Sputnik 5), the successful flight demonstrated a significant launch capability well beyond that of the United States’ best efforts.
The apparently unstoppable momentum of the Soviet team was arrested on October 24, 1960, when 92 people were killed at the Baikonur launch site in Tyuratam during preparations for the launch of the R-16 rocket. Under pressure from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, officials at the site were forced to work at a pace that did not allow for unexpected developments. Additionally, the highly corrosive fuel that powered the rocket could not be removed once loaded, requiring some creative solutions that ultimately proved deadly. The horrific scene that followed the rocket’s monstrous explosion was not described accurately for decades, its details cloaked in Soviet secrecy.
Only six months later, the Soviets would make history again, achieving one of the major milestones of manned spaceflight. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin traveled into orbit aboard a Vostok spacecraft, becoming the first human in space. On June 16, 1963, the Soviets increased their scientific and political lead by launching the first woman into orbit, a cosmonaut named Valentina Tereshkova.
In America, as the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs continued to develop, the gap was finally beginning to narrow. However, the Soviet achievements during this period remain impressive. In 1964, a Voskhod spacecraft brought the first three-member crew into space; in 1965, a similar craft afforded cosmonaut Alexei Leonov a unique and spectacular view during mankind’s first space walk.
The successful American mission to the moon on July 20, 1969, proved to be an emphatic demonstration of the United States’ abilities in space. With the race to the moon completed, the Soviets began to move in a different direction. In 1970, the Venera 7 lander transmitted information from the surface of Venus. The following year, Salyut 1, the first orbital space station, was launched. Tragically, all three cosmonauts aboard were killed during their return to Earth.
On July 17, 1975, the Soviets and the Americans began to collaborate in space. Despite intense political differences, the successful docking of an Apollo spacecraft with a Soyuz ship made a compelling case for international cooperation, a point of view that superseded the ideological war raging on Earth.
In 1986, the core module of the Russian space station Mir was launched. Five years later, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved in the face of a communist coup in Moscow. In 1993, an independent Russia joined the International Space Station program, contributing a vast body of space station experience and some significant orbital hardware. In 1995, the space shuttle Atlantis docked at the Mir station for the first time. On March 23, 2001, Mir was deorbited after 15 years circling the Earth.
Today, the Russian space program continues to service the International Space Station with its highly reliable Soyuz spacecraft. The ability to launch humans into orbit at a relatively low cost has even given a boost to the growing industry of space tourism. Relying on years of experience, vast scientific knowledge and a robust, if sometimes artless, engineering sense, the Russian space program has left an indelible mark on human history.