Sputnik To Mir A Brief History Of The SovietRussian Space Program

Sputnik To Mir: A Brief History Of The Soviet/Russian Space Program

Perhaps some of the most influential figures of the 20th century have not been eloquent politicians or powerful dictators. Indeed, they are scientists in search of technology to deliver humankind to the stars. In the Soviet Union, one name was synonymous with space exploration: Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. The father of the Soviet space program would go on to make these space records: first dog in orbit (Sputnik 2); first large scientific satellite (Sputnik 3); first man; first woman; first extra–vehicular walk; first craft to impact the Moon; first to orbit the Moon and photograph its back side; and finally, first to impact Venus. He would later design and launch the Soviet Union’s first communications satellite and first spy satellite, although not ahead of the US in these two feats.

During the time of the purges, Korolev spent time in the gulag system for alleged disloyalty to Stalin. He was later rescued by an old friend, the airplane designer Tupolev, whose sharaga was assigned to the design of rocket–assisted aircraft. It is possible that he put out a call for specialists, like Korolev, who could help him. In any case, Korolev was assigned to Tupolev’s sharaga and spent the war years working in various sharagas in Moscow and—when the Germans threatened that city—Omsk and Kazan.

Beginning in April 1945, the Soviets began to recover V–2 hardware, launch facilities, blueprints, and as many engineers and technicians as could be found. Because all of the launch and production facilities were in Soviet-controlled East Germany, the potential haul was huge. According to a CIA report, the institute, plus other rocket and guidance–related facilities in other parts of Germany, eventually numbered some 5,000 Germans. Korolev, on his return from Germany, was made chief designer of the R–1 missile, the Russian clone of the V–2.

In 1948, the visionary Mikhail Tikhonravov had made the case to Korolev for the development of an earth–orbiting satellite. Initially, he was unable to get support for the concept, and his presentation to a meeting of the Academy of Artillery Sciences was met with skepticism. “The topic is interesting…but we cannot include your report,” was the official reaction, according to Korolev’s biographer, Yarolslav Golovanov. Towards the end of 1953, though, having redesigned the R–7 rocket to carry a heavier payload, Korolev drafted a decree for the Central Committee of the Communist Party which included the possibility of using the vehicle to launch a satellite. Korolev’s deputy, Vassily Mishin, stated that the designer had to propose a Sputnik launch as part of the test program of the ICBM program, in order to get it approved by a group strongly influenced by the military. This group plagued Korolev throughout his career through their opposition to almost any space exploration initiative which might detract from weapons development. Thus, Korolev’s proposal was so delicately phrased that it merely referred to a “…new article which permits speaking about the possibility of designing an artificial Earth satellite within the next few years. By a certain reduction of the weight of the payload it will be possible for the satellite to achieve the necessary velocity of 8,000 m/sec.” The launch itself, on October 4, 1957, jolted the world, and in particular the Americans, who had every reason to think that they would have been first to achieve such a success.

The concept of putting up a satellite had been known to the world’s space enthusiasts for many years. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Robert Goddard had both written of the feasibility of such a launch. Serious proposals to launch a spacecraft into Earth orbit had been discussed since the mid–1940s. It was not until July 29, 1955, that the Eisenhower Administration announced that the US would launch a satellite—Vanguard. It would blow up on the pad two months after Sputnik’s success. Later that year, at the Sixth Congress of the International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen, a delegation of Soviet scientists revealed at a press conference that the USSR might be in the game as well. Korolev would not be ready to put up his bird until after his R–7, in its fifth attempt, sent a dummy H–bomb some 6,000 km to Kamchatka, on August 21, 1957. With that success he made his move to beat the Americans with his Prostreishy Sputnik—simple satellite. He abandoned a plan to put up a big 1.3 ton scientific satellite (it would become Sputnik 3) because the instrument–designers were lagging. After bulldozing the development he produced in a month’s time a polished 83.6 kg sphere containing only a radio transmitter, batteries, and temperature measuring instruments. Clearly, his intention was to be the first.

For the next five years Korolev’s team was on a roll—the Sputniks were followed in 1958–59 by the Luna program. Luna 1 made the first moon flyby, Luna 2 was the first spacecraft to land on another celestial body, and Luna 3 saw the moon’s dark side for the first time. A model of Luna 3 was carried triumphantly by Anatoli Blagonravov and Leonid Sedov to Washington to present to American Rocket Society president John Stapp at the ARS Honors Night Dinner in 1959. During this time the US experienced failure seven times in their efforts to send Pioneer spacecraft to the Moon. The early 1960s brought the demise of the first five Rangers, developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Members of Korolev’s team labeled the ill-fated lunar exploration vehicles “American Kamikazes.” Rangers 6, 7 and 8 would, however, both reach the moon and return thousands of striking photos in 1964–65.

Korolev’s luck with Mars and Venus was poor. From 1960 to 1965 he experienced 13 successive failed missions before Venera 3, launched March 16, 1965. It became the first spacecraft to land on another planetary body. In the meantime, JPL was getting into high gear with the first Venus flyby, completed by Mariner 2 in 1962. The first close–up photographs of another planet came with Mariner 4 in 1964.

The early 1960s were still glory days for Korolev. He made headlines again on April 12, 1961, by sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Shortly after Gagarin’s launch John F. Kennedy took action that would prove to end the Russian’s domination of space. On May 25, 1961, the young President asked Congress to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” In August a Korolev-built craft orbited cosmonaut Gherman Titov 17 times.

Korolev’s vision was far from through, however. After John Glenn became the first American in space in February 1962, Korolev anticipated the US successes sure to come with the two-man Gemini program. He thus devised the idea of putting not two, but three cosmonauts in orbit in what the West believed was a new, multi–man spacecraft. It was, however, Korolev’s “circus act,” as his deputy Mishin describes it. He had simply, or not so simply, redesigned the Vostok spacecraft that had orbited Gagarin and others. He then enclosed three cosmonauts without space suits, and without a launch–escape system, into a craft he named Voskhod. The same spacecraft would, in March 1965, achieve another first—a spacewalk by Alexei Leonov, three months ahead of the first US Extra-Vehicular Activity by the late astronaut Ed White in Gemini 4.

Surely, Korolev must have realized that time was running out on his victory skein. He was working hard on the Soyuz spacecraft, which would have carried cosmonauts to the moon. He had finally gained a measure of support for his scheme to put cosmonauts around the moon, and—in a different scenario—land one of them on the lunar surface. But he lacked the full backing, and funding, that was so generously awarded by the US Congress to the Apollo program. He had no rocket engine comparable to the huge F–1 engine, five of which would lift the Saturn V complex off the pad. He had no liquid hydrogen engine, which was crucial to the performance of the upper stages of Apollo/Saturn.

He even had to deal with competition from rival designers—Valentin Glushko, a rocket engine designer who had defected from Korolev’s team to join Vladimir Chelomei. Another team was headed by his former colleague, Mikhail Yangel. Glushko had refused to design the oxygen–kerosene engines that Korolev preferred and so another engine firm, experienced mostly with aircraft engines, had to be relied on. His subsequent design called for 24 engines in the first stage, which was later expanded to 30 when it became clear that the vehicle would be unable to lift the huge lunar payload. With constant opposition from the tunnel–visioned military, preoccupied with weapons, he never got the funds to static test his engines as a system, and this failure would prove fatal.

Still, before 1964 there were many on the Korolev team who felt they had a chance to beat the Americans. Boris Gubanov, a designer, said, “It was then the prevailing opinion in the USSR that the US would never get such a powerful development (Saturn V/Apollo) going. The engines were too large. The launch vehicle was too big and the use of liquid hydrogen too complex. It was a major mistake for Korolev to underestimate the US. It wasn’t until 1964–65 that this mistake was realized.” At the end of 1965 the pressure from Korolev’s crushing agenda of space projects was mounting just as his relationships with his funding sources were deteriorating. Scheduling an operation, therefore, was hardly opportune. But the Chief Designer was drained physically, and perhaps a hospital stay, even including minor surgery, would be therapeutic.

Incredibly, up to this time Sergei Pavlovich Korolev had been known to the Soviet public only through the press as the “Chief Designer.” Now, finally, it was time to reveal who he was. Insiders, of course, knew. But the glory and plaudits which had gone to the cosmonauts— and to American space heroes like Werner von Braun, whom he had long admired, although not openly, had never reached him in his lifetime. Now they would. Today there are many Korolev monuments and streets, and even the town where his design bureau stands has been given his name. Ironically, it is this design bureau, today named Rocket Space Corporation Energia, named for Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, which has the lead Russian role in assembling, in cooperation with the US, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan, the International Space Station. After his death the monumental job of continuing the competition to beat the US to the moon fell to Vassily Mishin. There are those who feel that the Soviet failure to win can be blamed on Mishin, but most knowledgeable engineers consider him a scapegoat. The US program was too technologically superior in engine design, spacecraft sophistication, computer capability and electronic microminiaturization, to name just some of the factors going for them. Twenty–four billion US dollars and a fully cooperative Congress were others.

Until the end of the 1960s Soviet engineers concentrated more on flight test than development and qualification testing to achieve production systems. But the poor reliability of first generation military systems, and the loss of the moon race to the Americans due to the unreliability of the systems, resulted in major reforms in the early 1970s. The result was that by the 1980s the Soviets were putting even more emphasis on pre-flight ground qualification and development test than the Americans.

The 1970s saw the rise and fall of the United States’ Skylab program. The orbiting space station was fashioned out of an old Saturn rocket fuselage, eventually re-entering the atmosphere that same decade. It crashed into the heart of the Australian Outback. The now infamous Mir Space Station was the Soviet response to the latest American achievement. It would serve as the focus of Russian space involvement prior to the International Space Station project. Much of the coverage of the demise of the Mir space station was misty-eyed and nostalgic. Commentators used Mir’s decline as a metaphor for Russia’s fall. This lamentation is misguided. Instead, we should say “Good riddance!” The station’s decommissioning is a sign not of Russia’s decline, but of her liberation. An offshoot–like the entire Soviet space program–of the Soviet ballistic missile project, Mir was designed exclusively to serve the military-industrial complex that for decades had looted and beggared Russia. In 1998, Yevgeny Primakov, then the foreign minister, revealed that the Soviet Union was spending 70 percent of its gross domestic product on “defense and defense-related projects.”

When Mir was launched in 1986, 35 percent of Soviet hospitals did not have hot water and 30 percent lacked indoor toilets. The country’s infant mortality rate was higher than that of Barbados. Half of Soviet schools had no central heating or running water. People spent between 40 and 60 hours a month in lines, and ration coupons were needed to buy 400 grams of sausage a month. It has been famously said of Peter the Great that he had forged a rich state of the impoverished people. Mir was a symbol of such a state.

Can North Korea afford its missiles when its people starve? Can China afford to increase its defense budget by 8 percent annually? Can Vietnam afford the fourth-largest army in the world, or could Cuba afford an expeditionary force in Angola in the 1980s? It was not the absence of money that killed Mir but the transition to a political system in which the rulers must account for their spending to a democratically elected parliament, a free press, an opposition and, ultimately, the voting public. The national goals changed accordingly. “A great power is not mountains of weapons and subjects with no rights,” Boris Yeltsin declared in 1997. “A great power is a self-reliant and talented people with initiative. The sole measure of the greatness of our motherland is the extent to which each citizen of Russia is free, healthy, educated and happy.” As president, Mr. Yeltsin cut defense spending to under 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product–and Mir was doomed long before its fiery descent. One hopes, fervently, that in a not-so-distant future a democratic Russia will be rich enough to restart its space program–as an embodiment of prosperity and free will, not of militarized tyranny preying on a terrorized nation.


Erickson, Lance. Dr. Erickson’s Homepage. 1999.

Pesavento, Peter. Two weeks that killed the Soviet dream. New Scientist. 18 Dec 1993.


United States. US Centennial Flight Commission. Early Soviet Human Spaceflight Program.


Wade, Mark. “Korolev.” Astronautix. 26 June 2002.

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