Astronomy - Soviet Space Programme

Soviet Space Programme

The theory of space exploration had a solid basis in the Russian Empire before the First World War with the writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who published pioneering papers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in 1929 introduced the concept of the multistage rocket.

Practical aspects built on early experiments carried out by members of the reactive propulsion study group, GIRD (founded in 1931).

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

On August 18, 1933, GIRD launched the first Soviet liquid-fuelled rocket Gird-09, and on November 25, 1933, the first hybrid-fuelled rocket GIRD-X.

In 1940-41 another advance in the reactive propulsion field took place: the development and serial production of the Katyusha multiple rocket launcher.

The Russian program greatly benefited from captured German records and scientists, in particular drawings obtained from the V-2 production sites.



They built a replica of the V-2 called the R-1, although the weight of Soviet nuclear warheads required a more powerful booster.

Sergey Korolev's OKB-1 design bureau was dedicated to the liquid-fuelled 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.

Sergey Korolev


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.

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

Persuading Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to support plans in January 1956, in order to surpass the Americans.

Plans were approved for Earth-orbiting satellites (Sputnik) to gain knowledge of space, and four 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, Korolev now known publicly only as the anonymous "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.

In the early 1960s the Russian program under Korolev created substantial plans for manned trips to Mars as early as 1968 to 1970.


The Soviet space program was secondary in military funding to the Strategic Rocket Forces' ICBMs.

While the West believed that Khrushchev personally ordered each new space mission for propaganda purposes.

Khruschev emphasized missiles rather than space exploration and was not very 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.

Valentina Tereshkova

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, Korolev was given complete control of the

Soyuz 1 was a manned spaceflight of the Soviet space program. Launched into orbit on 23 April 1967 carrying cosmonaut Colonel Vladimir Komarov, Soyuz 1 was the first crewed flight of the Soyuz spacecraft.

The mission plan was complex, involving a rendezvous with Soyuz 2 and an exchange of crew members before returning to Earth. However, the launch of Soyuz 2 was called off due to thunderstorms.

manned space program.

The flight was plagued with technical issues, and Komarov was killed when the descent module crashed into the ground due to a parachute failure.

This was the first in-flight fatality in the history of spaceflight.


Korolev died in January 1966 following a routine operation 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.

Kerim Kerimov


The Soviets were beaten in sending the first manned flight around the Moon in 1968 by Apollo 8.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine inherited the program.

Russia created the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, now known as the Roscosmos State Corporation, while Ukraine created the National Space Agency of Ukraine (NSAU).

The Soviet space program pioneered many aspects of space exploration

1957: First intercontinental ballistic missile and orbital launch vehicle, the R-7 Semyorka

1957: First satellite, Sputnik 1

1957: First animal in Earth orbit, the dog Laika on Sputnik 2

1959: First rocket ignition in Earth orbit, first man-made object to escape Earth's gravity, Luna 1

1959: First data communications, or telemetry, to and from outer space, Luna 1.

1959: First man-made object to pass near the Moon, first man-made object in Heliocentric orbit, Luna 1

1959: First probe to impact the Moon, Luna 2

1959: First images of the moon's far side, Luna 3

1960: First animals to safely return from Earth orbit, the dogs Belka and Strelka on Sputnik 5.

1961: First probe launched to Venus, Venera 1

1961: First person in space (International definition) and in Earth orbit, Yuri Gagarin on Vostok 1, Vostok programme

1961: First person to spend over 24 hours in space Gherman Titov, Vostok 2 (also first person to sleep in space).

1962: First dual manned spaceflight, Vostok 3 and Vostok 4

1962: First probe launched to Mars, Mars 1

1963: First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, Vostok 6

1964: First multi-person crew (3), Voskhod 1

1965: First extra-vehicular activity (EVA), by Aleksei Leonov, Voskhod 2

1965: First probe to hit another planet of the Solar system (Venus), Venera 3

1966: First probe to make a soft landing on and transmit from the surface of the moon, Luna 9

1966: First probe in lunar orbit, Luna 10

1967: First unmanned rendezvous and docking, Cosmos 186/Cosmos 188.

1968: First living beings to reach the Moon (circumlunar flights) and return unharmed to Earth, Russian tortoises on Zond 5

1969: First docking between two manned craft in Earth orbit and exchange of crews, Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5

1970: First soil samples automatically extracted and returned to Earth from another celestial body, Luna 16

1970: First robotic space rover, Lunokhod 1 on the Moon.

1970: First data received from the surface of another planet of the Solar system (Venus), Venera 7

1971: First space station, Salyut 1

1971: First probe to impact the surface of Mars, Mars 2

1971: First probe to land on Mars, Mars 3

1975: First probe to orbit Venus, to make soft landing on Venus, first photos from surface of Venus, Venera 9

1980: First Hispanic and Black person in space, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez on    Soyuz 38

1984: First woman to walk in space, Svetlana Savitskaya (Salyut 7 space station)

1986: First crew to visit two separate space stations (Mir and Salyut 7)

1986: First probes to deploy robotic balloons into Venus atmosphere and to return pictures of a comet during close flyby Vega 1, Vega 2

1986: First permanently manned space station, Mir, 1986–2001, with permanent presence on board (1989–1999)

1987: First crew to spend over one year in space, Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov on board of Soyuz TM-4 – Mir

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 fuelled 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 official 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 cancelled 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 Korolev, Komarov (in the Soyuz 1 crash) and first human in space Gagarin (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. The Americans won the race to land men on the moon with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.

In 1971, the Soyuz 11 mission resulted in the deaths of three cosmonauts when the crew capsule depressurized during preparations for re-entry.

This accident resulted in the only human deaths to occur in space (as opposed to high atmosphere).The crew members aboard Soyuz 11 were Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski, and Viktor Patsayev.

On April 5, 1975, Soyuz 7K-T No.39, 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 fuelling operation, killing 48 people.

In August 1981, Kosmos434, 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.