Soviet space program

From Academic Kids

From World War II until its breakup, the Soviet Union undertook projects to build rockets, craft, and instruments for war and exploration of space.

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Soviet Soyuz rockets like the one pictured above were the first reliable means to transport objects into Earth orbit.

The Soviet space program was shrouded in secrecy. The leader of the Soviet space program, Sergey Korolev was known only as the "chief designer" during his life. Announcements of success were delayed until success was certain, and failures were kept secret. Only through glasnost have many facts about the program become public knowledge.

 weighed less than 90  and orbited the  for less than three months. Its launch began the space race.
Sputnik 1 weighed less than 90 kg and orbited the Earth for less than three months. Its launch began the space race.


The theory of space exploration was well established in the USSR before the Second World War by the writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky but as with the American programme it was founded on the advances made by Werner Von Braun in Germany during the War. The USSR captured the V2 production sites and several hundred technicians along with several rockets. Under the direction of Dimitri Ustinov the designer and engineer Sergei Korolev inspected the rockets and aided by the German prisoners built a replica the R-1. The weight of the Soviet Nuclear Warhead required a much more powerful booster. Also Korolev was dedicated to the use of liquid fuelled cryogenic rockets. This resulted in the design of the R-7 ICBM which though not effective as a strategic weapon was an excellent basis for a space launch vehicle.

The Soviet space program was tied into the USSR's five year plans and from the start was reliant on support from the Military. In January 1956 plans were approved for earth orbiting satelittes to gain knowledge of the space environment Sputnik and unmanned military reconaissance satellites Zenit, with development work for a manned earth orbiting flight by 1964 and a lunar mission at an earlier date. Following the global propaganda success of the first Sputnik Korolev was charged to accelerate the manned program the design of which was combined with the Zenit program to produce Vostok.


Two days after the United States announced its intention to launch a satellite, on July 31, 1956, the Soviet Union announced its intention to do the same. Sputnik 1 became the first satellite with its launch October 4, 1957. It stunned citizens the world over.

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Laika became the first living being in orbit on Sputnik 2
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This image was recorded by astronauts as the Space Shuttle Atlantis approached the Russian space station prior to docking during the STS-76 mission. Sporting spindly appendages and solar panels, Mir is orbiting about 350 kilometers above New Zealand's South Island and the city of Nelson near Cook Strait.

The Soviet space program led the space race from 1957 through 1967:

Internal Competition

Unlike the American Space programme which had NASA as a coordinating structure the USSR's programme was hampered by there being competing design bureau lead by Korolev, Mikhail Yangle, Valentin Glushko and Vladimir Chelomei. Following the successes of Sputnik and Vostok Korolev's OKB-1 design bureau was in the ascent and 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 but Ustinov directed him to cheaply pull off more "firsts" using a modified Vostok, Voskhod as well as ambitious interplanetary unmanned missions to demonstrate leadership over the US. Yangle had been Korolev's assistant but with the support of the military was given his own design bureau in 1954. This had the stronger rocket engine design team including the use of hypergolic fuels but following the Nedelin catastrophe in 1960 Yangle was directed to concentrate on ICBM development though he continued to develop his own heavy booster designs in competition with Korolev's N-1. Glushko was the chief rocket engine designer but shared a personal hatred with Korolev and refused to develop the large single chamber cryogenic engines that Korolev needed to beat the US to the moon. Chelomei benefited from the patronage of Kruschev 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 but with limited experience development proved slow. At one stage in the early 1960s the Soviet space program was actively developing 30 projects for launchers and spacecraft. With the fall of Kruschev in 1964 Korolev was given complete control of the manned space programme but by that stage 2 years had been lost.

After Korolev

Korolev died following a botched operation to remove a cancerous tumor in January 1966 and leadership of the OKB-1 design bureau was given to Vasili Mishin who had the uneviable task of sending a man around the moon in 1967 and landing a man on it in 1968. Mishin lacked Korolev's political authority and still faced competition from the other chief designers. Under pressure Mishin approved the launch of the ambitous Soyuz 1 flight in 1967 eventhough the craft had never been successfully tested on an un-manned flight. The mission launched with known design problems and ended a troubled flight by crashing to the ground killing Vladimir Komarov in the first in-flight fatality. Following this disaster and under new pressures Mishin developed a drink problem. The Soviets were narrowly beaten to sending the first manned flight around the moon in 1968 by Apollo 8 and Mishin pressed ahead with the N-1 despite major design flaws in the hope that the Americans would have a set back. There was a success with the joint flight of Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 in January 1969 that tested the rendevous, docking and crew transfer techniques that would be used for the landing but the failures of the N-1 unmanned test flights meant that the US inevitably beat the Soviets to the moon.

Following this set back Chelomei convinced Ustinov to approve a crash 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 the experience of 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 was dismissed. A single design bureau was created NPO Energia with Glushko as Chief Designer.


The Soviet and Russian space programs have been consistently dogged by a lack of funding which has complicated efforts from the moon mission to cooperation on the International Space Station.

The Soviet space program was tied to the central planning of the USSR's five year plans. This made it difficult for the Chief Designers to respond in 1961 to the US launching a crash programme for a manned lunar landing as the next five year plan would not start until 1964. Centralised planning and the concentration on production targets also made it difficult for middle management and engineers to highlight defects in equipment leading to poor quality control.

The Soviet space program produced the first fatality on March 23, 1961 when Valentin Bondarenko died in a fire within a low pressure, high oxygen atmosphere.

The Voskhod program was cancelled after two manned flights due to the change of Soviet leadership and the near fatality of 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 Korolev, Komarov (in the Soyuz 1 crash) and Gagarin within two years of each other demoralised many within the Soviet program.

The Soviet leadership did not commit to a single approach to winning the Space Race. In 1964 there were three different design teams working on the issue of a manned flight to the moon.

The Soviets continued striving for the first lunar mission with the huge N-1 moon rocket which exploded on each of four unmanned tests. Americans won the race to the moon with Apollo 11.

On March 18, 1980 a Vostok rocket exploded on its launch pad during a fueling operation killing 48 people.

The Soviet space program produced the Space Shuttle Buran based on the Energia launcher. Energia would be used as the base for a manned Mars mission. Buran was intended operate in support of large space based millitary 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 meant that Buran was redundant. Several vehicles were built, but only one flew an unmanned test flight; it was found too expensive to operate as a civillian launcher.

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Buran-Energia on the launch pad at Baikonur

See also the complete list of space disasters.


The Soviet space program undertook a number of projects:


See also

External links

pt:Programa espacial soviético


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