The Soviet Space Program was one of great achievements of the Soviet Union. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviets clearly had the edge over the Americans in the space race. Within a 43 month period, they launched the first satellites, the first dog in space, the first spacecraft to reach the moon and the first man in space. [Source: Bill Keller, New York Times Magazine]

At the program’s peak in 1985 the Soviet Union's three cosmodromes launched a 100 rockets a year—five times the U.S. average. The Soviets spent about the same amount of money—$22 billion—as the U.S., a figure twice as much of a percentage their GNP as the U.S.’s. The Soviet program was so advanced it could transport water and food to the space stations with radio-controlled, unmanned supply ships. [Source: Thomas Canby, National Geographic, October 1986[⇕]

Space travel was close to the heart of ordinary Soviet citizens. Svetlana Boym wrote in Discover magazine: “Soviet children in the 1960s did not dream of becoming doctors and lawyers; they dreamed of becoming cosmonauts...Every fairy tale we read in our early childhood spoke to us about space travel...”Would you like to have a million rubles? No!” sang a chorus of Soviet children playing jump rope. “Would you like to go the moon? Yes.”

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian math teacher, published Exploring Space with Reactive Devices, the first great study of rocketry in 1903. Tsiolkovsky developed the basic formulas for space travel: a rocket going 15,000mph will hold suborbital flight long enough to land halfway around the world, one traveling 17,000mph will end up in orbit and one traveling 25,000 can break free of the earth's gravity and travel to the moon. His papers were largely ignored until the 1920s when they were discovery by some German scientists fascinated with rocketry.

Soviet Space Program, the Military and Secrecy

The Soviet space program was excessively secretive. Members of the program worked in secret cities and their works were unpublished. Their identities of the top rocket designers were state secrets.

The Soviet space program was run within the Defense Ministry, which was primarily interested in using rockets to loft nuclear warheads. In contrast, in the United States, the civilian and military space programs were largely independent of one another.

The same engineers, factories and launch pads were used for both civilian space flights and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Rockets were usually designed first with military interests in mind and then adapted for civilian use.

The rocket that carried the first man in space was an adaption of a rocket designed to carry military satellites. The idea of a space station was first hatched as part of a plan to launch an orbiting nuclear battle station.

Sergey Korolev

Sergey Pavlovich Korolev was the chief designer of the Soviet space program. Regarded as more influential than Werner von Braun, the father of the American space program, he designed the rocket that lift Sputnik and the first man in space as well as the first ballistic missile.

Korolev was arrested during a Stalinist purge of intellectuals. He spent a year chopping down trees in the freezing cold after he was beaten up and forced to confess to trumped up charges of conspiring to assist German rocket designers. The experience caused him to lose his teeth and suffer permanent heart damage. His talent as a rocket designer was discovered at a prison aerospace-deign facility run by the secret police, where he spent six years designing rockets and planes for Soviet World War II effort.

Korolev developed the first generation of Soviet rockets based in part on blueprints of German V-2 rockets seized at the end of World War II. His early rockets were so successful they are still in use today. His biggest mistake was the N-1 rocket. Korolev's identity was kept secret until after his death in 1966.

Baikonaur Cosmodrome

Baikonur in the Tyuratam desert near the Aral Sea in present-day Kazakhstan has been the primary launching facility for the Soviet and Russian space programs. Inaugurated in 1955, it was located in bleak steppe far enough away from populated areas so that if a mishap occurred no one from the general population would get hurt. The location was so secret that few people knew where it was. Even the name was intended to throw people off. Baikonur was the name of town 320 kilometers (200 miles) from the actual launch site. The location was kept secret from the U.S. until it was spotted by a U-2 spy plane in 1957. There are some other Russian rocket launching facilities. Plesetsk launch facility in northwest Russia specializes in launching military satellites.

Billed as "the Biggest Cosmodrome in the World," Baikonaur is where Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin and all of the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s space mission were launched. It is a huge complex, a city really. At its peak in the 1980s it was home to 150,000 people, 52 launching plazas, 34 scientific laboratories and 10 factories. It had its own agricultural system and embraced six towns. There were movie theaters, one of the best hospitals in the Soviet Union, 13 schools, specialized music schools, three palaces of culture, a palace of Young Pioneers, resort and beaches built on an artificial lake.

Rockets used in the Russian space program are transported to the Baikonaur by train from production facilities in different locations around the Soviet Union. The Soyuz TM-28 two-stage booster used to launch manned missions to the MIR space station was mounted on a special erector transporter strongback pushed by a diesel locomotive. Huge towers with rows and rows of lights were used in night launches.

Soviet and Russian spacecraft landed on earth, usually near Arkalyj Kazakhstan, rather than in the ocean as was the case with early American spacecraft. To land a space capsules on land: a parachute slowed the descent to earth. When the spacecraft was a meter off the ground an antenna-like probe signaled retro-rockets to fire, preventing the craft from hitting the earth too hard. Ground crews quickly arrived at the scene and tilted the craft upright and physically pulled the cosmonauts out of the capsule.⇕

Soviet Rockets and Spacecrafts

The Soviets used RD-110 missile engines in the 1940s and 50s but had to abandon them due to rough combustion and stress design problems. The breakthrough necessary to luanch the Space Age came with RD-105 engines, used on the R-7 rockets that lifted Sputnik into space. Variations of the RD -105 are still used in the Soyuz spacecraft.

Zond, Venera, Mars, Vega and Phobos interplanetary probes as well as manned Salyut, Kvant and Kristall modules were launched with Proton rockets. Used more than 200 times since 1965, the rocket had a 96 percent success rate. The Photon rocket contained six single-chamber RD-253-14D14 engines fueled with nitrogen tetroxide in a closed-cycle, staged combustion system that increased thrust and engine efficiency with after-burning oxidizer gas. RD-253 engines have operated without failure since 1996.

The first cosmonauts were sent into space in Vostok spacecrafts. These were modified into Voskhod, which in turned was changed into the more sophisticated two compartment Soyuz. Soyuz are the world’s longest serving manned space craft. Over the years the Soyuz has been modified and is still in use ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

Cosmonaut Training and Customs

Russian (and Soviet) crew members are called cosmonauts. NASA crew members from the United States are called astronauts. Crew members from Europe, Canada and Japan are also called astronauts. Cosmonauts trained for their missions in Star City outside of Moscow. About 20 percent of the trainees were women. In addition to Soviet citizens from 11 other nations trained there for missions they went on as of the mid 1980s. Trainees were ejected by MIG aircraft in flight, spun violently in a centrifuge, subjected to intense heat for 24 hours while wearing a space suit and did two stints in isolation chambers.⇕

Before climbing aboard their Soyuz rocket, Russian cosmonauts have traditionally urinated on barbed wire and a truck tire. According to some this custom started with Yuri Gagarin. For good luck Russian cosmonauts carry with them a tuft of grass, the traditional symbol of a safe return to earth. Family members are generally not present at launches because it is considered bad luck. After landing in Kazakhstan, the cosmonauts were presented with an apple, a Kazakh symbol. ⇕

After returning from space, one cosmonaut said he wished he could have opened the door and gone out into space forever. "One should treat this in a Russian way: just have some patience to live through a couple of uncomfortable minutes as our cosmonauts do," an American astronaut said after altering a space suit that was too small for him.

Cosmonauts Who Stayed in Space a Long Time

As of the mid 1980s, Soviet cosmonauts had logged more than twice the flight time in space as their American counterparts. Several cosmonauts spent more than a year in Soviet space stations. The goal was to stay aloft for three years, the time needed to complete a mission to Mars. ⇕

Mike Wall wrote in Most consecutive days in space: Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov spent nearly 438 consecutive days aboard the Mir space station, from January 1994 to March 1995. He therefore holds the record for longest single human spaceflight — and perhaps set another one for wobbliest legs when he finally touched down. [Source: Mike Wall,, April 5, 2016]

Most total time spent in space: Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka holds this record, with a little more than 878 days accrued over five spaceflights. That's almost two and a half years (2 years 4 months 3 weeks 5 days) spent zipping around the Earth at about 17,500 mph (28,164 kph).

The legs of cosmonauts who have stayed aloft for more than a couple of months are usually too weak to walk when they return to earth. Even the weight of lying in bed is uncomfortable. As with U.S. astronauts about half of Russian cosmonauts suffer from motion sickness. Experience has shown that performance starts to decline after five months in space and even working on a treadmill for two hours a day fails to keep muscles from becoming atrophied. Cosmonauts are welcomed with wheel chairs when they come back to earth. The loss of gravity has one plus. It makes the cosmonauts an inch or two taller.⇕

Long-flight training is conducted in a mock space station and special long-flight simulators. Trainees are observed on how they deal physically and psychologically with being a confined space for a long time.

Russian-Soviet Space Records

Mike Wall wrote in Youngest person in space: Cosmonaut Gherman Titov was a month shy of his 26th birthday when he launched into orbit aboard the Soviet spacecraft Vostok 2 in August 1961. He was the second person to orbit the Earth, performing 17 loops around our planet during his 25-hour flight. Titov was also the first person to sleep in space, and reportedly the first to suffer from "space sickness" (motion sickness in space). [Source: Mike Wall,, April 5, 2016]

Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev made 16 spacewalks over the course of five missions in the 1980s and 1990s.Solovyev spent more than 82 hours outside his spacecraft on those excursions — another record.

The Soviets repeatedly beat the Americans with new space maneuvers. In August 1962, two manned space capsules were in space in the same time. The two space craft passed within three miles of one other and appeared on American tracking equipment as maneuvering together. The Soviets also achieved the first rendezvous.

The Soviets lofted three men for 16 orbits month before American launched the first two-man Gemini space craft. Informed that the Americans were preparing to send two men into space, the Soviets quickly modified a Vostok space craft to carry three by eliminating the ejection seats and space suits.


Early Cosmonaut Trainees That Failed to Make the Grade

James Oberg wrote in his book “Uncovering Soviet Disasters”: “The "Sochi Six," the Russian equivalent of our "original seven" Mercury astronauts. They were the top of the first class of twenty space pioneers, the best and the boldest of their nation, the ones destined to ride the first manned missions.” A picture of them “was taken at the Black Sea resort called Sochi in May 1961, a few weeks after Yuriy Gagarin's history-making flight. [Source: “Uncovering Soviet Disasters” by James Oberg, Random House, New York, 1988,Page 156-176 *-*]

“Of the twenty men chosen for space training in March 1960, a prime group of six finalists had later been selected for the first mission... One of the original six, a man named Anatoliy Kartashov, had already been grounded after experiencing skinbleeding during a centrifuge run. A second "sixer," Valentin Varlamov, was dropped after injuring his neck in a stupid diving mishap (he died several years later of an unrelated medical problem). Their replacements became some of the first men in space. *-*

“Another of the twenty cosmonaut trainees (the one named Mars Rafikov) had left later for personal reasons (because he was the only non-Slavic cosmonaut ever selected, his motivation is subject to speculation). The last casualty, Dmitriy Zaikin, was grounded in 1968 for medical reasons (ulcers) after serving on a backup crew.” *-*

“A 1977 book of Georgiy Shonin, a pioneer cosmonaut, first disclosed the existence of eight "dropouts" in the first cosmonaut class...Shonin’s book (and several other later books by cosmonauts) gave sketchy accounts of their departures from the cosmonaut programs, which purportedly involved medical, academic, and disciplinary problems, clearly indicating that all eight had left the program alive.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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