The Russian plan to put men on the moon was similar to that of the United States except, to save weight, the lunar landing module was to carry one person instead of two and there were no docking devices, meaning that cosmonauts who passed from the moon orbiter to the landing module had to so with a space walk.

One hurdle the Russians had to overcome was that Baikonur was far to the north and the gateway to the moon was through the Southern Hemisphere, which meant tricky maneuvering was necessary to get the moon vehicles in place. To familiarize themselves with southern sky, cosmonauts were sent to Somalia, where they laid on their backs in the desert at night, memorized the southern constellation, which they were required to draw on a map the next day from memory. To practice lunar landing, cosmonauts maneuvered a helicopter over a landing area, turned off the engines and brought the helicopter down manually.

The Russian developed a program to send a man to the moon using the N-1 rocket, a massive booster with 30 engines that had to operate with perfect synchronicity or the rocket crashed. The N-1 was the most powerful rocket ever made. It had a thrust of 5,200 tons and was powerful enough to place 166 tons in low orbit.

The Soviet moon program was abandoned because the superheavy booster developed for the project failed four times during attempted launches. During its first unmanned test in 1969, the N-1 rose steadily for 68 seconds before vibrations broke a fuel pipe, shutting down all the engines. The rocket crashed 34 miles away. During a second test six months later, the rocket exploded in a massive fireball after a bolt was sucked into one of the engines. The third and forth tests also resulted in explosions.

Russian Moon Program and the United States

The American moon program was prompted in part by spy satellite photographs of excavations at Baikonaur for a huge, new launching pad and a desire to beat the Russians at something.

Kennedy contacted Khrushchev about the possibility of collaborating on a lunar project. Khrushchev turned down the proposal partly because he was concerned about the United States discovering weaknesses in the Soviet missile program (early Soviet ballistic missiles were limited because they took a long time to fuel and could be destroyed in their silos before they were launched).

The live television broadcast of the first American moon landing in July 1969 was blacked out in the Soviet Union. It was a minor stories on television news and in the newspapers. After the successful American moon landing the Soviets abandoned all their efforts to send men to the moon.

Other Soviet Space Projects

The Soviets built the Buran ("Snowstorm") space shuttle. Designed to carry cargo to the Mir space station, it weighed 105 tons and was 36 meters long and 25 meters wide. It had a payload of 30 tons and was designed to carry a crew of 10 for 10 days. About a dozen Burans were built.

An unmanned Buran was launched on November 15, 1988, made two orbits and landed successfully three hours later. It never flew again. Funding was cut off after the break up of the Soviet Union. One of them has been turned into a tourist flight simulator set up in Gorky Park in Moscow.

On February 3, 1966, the Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 landed on the moon and transmitted photographs back to earth. In 1970 the Soviet Union "soft landed" an unmanned vehicle on the moon. In December 1971, the Soviet Union sent a 4.6-ton spacecrafts in orbit around Mars. A capsule was sent to the surface of the planet. the instruments inside were damaged on impact. It was the first object to reach the surface of Mars.

The Vega Halley's Comet probe dropped a sphere on Venus by balloon on the way to the comet in the mid 1980s. A joint Soviet-French mission in 1985 dropped two unmanned helium balloons into the atmosphere of Venus to measure winds.

In 1997, a crippled Mars probe, carrying four canister of radioactive plutonium, never made it out of earth's orbit and crashed into the Pacific near Chile when the rocket that carried it failed not long after it was lunched. The plan was for the probe to penetrate the Mars surface. It and the spacecraft that carried it to Mars weighed six tons.

Soviet Space Stations

Space stations have been the hallmark of the Soviet and Russian space programs. The idea of a space station was devised by Soviet scientists in 1961. The first space station, Salyut 1, was launched in April 1971 and later occupied by crews. The station was plagued by problems. The first crew, arriving in the Soyuz 10 spacecraft, tried to enter but was unable to do so because of docking problems. The second crew, on Soyuz 11, lived aboard the space station for three weeks but died during the return when air escaped from their craft. Three other Salyut stations launches never reached orbit.

Salyut 3,4, and 5 stayed aloft during a period between 1973 and 1977. They supported five crews who conducted a number of military, and scientific experiments. Salyut 6 received 16 crews between 1977 and 1982. The longest stay was 185 days. The station was resupplied with unmanned freighter craft capable of carrying 20 tons.

Salyut 7 stayed aloft from 1982 to 1991. It was visited by 10 crews supplied by 25-ton freighter crafts. The longest stay was 237 days. The space station was abandoned in 1986. The Soviet had plans to launch a space station intended to be used solely for military purposes but the plan never got off the ground.


Mir was the world's first space station intended to be “permanent”. Its 20.4-ton core module was launched on February 20, 1986. Orbiting more than 320 kilometers (200 miles) above the earth's surface, it had six docking ports, as opposed to two as was the case with Salyut 6 and Salyut 7. Mir means both "world" and "peace" in Russian.

With the exception of brief period between 1986 and 1989, cosmonauts lived in Mir continuously until it was abandoned in 1999. Astronauts from 15 countries, including the United States, lived on Mir, which was originally planned to stay on operation for only five years.

Mir consisted of a central base module, with main living quarters, connected to five modules that were about six meters (19 feet) in length. They were connected by tubular passageways that astronauts had to pass through in single file. Mir weighed 143 tons, including 11.5 tons of scientific gear.

The modules were: 1) the Kvant module for astrophysics experiments, which was added in 1987 after some garbage was removed from the docking area with a space walk; 2) Kvant 2, equipped for biological research, which was added in 1989; 3) the Kristall module which was added in 1990; 4) the Spektr module, which contained 1,600 pounds of U.S. remote sensing equipment and was added in May 1995; and 5) Piroda, with more remote sensing equipment and the last science module, was added in April 1996.

In June 1995, the U.S. space shuttle docked with Mir for the first time, producing a spacecraft weighing 225 tons, the largest ever at that time.

Life on Mir

The central base module of Mir, with the main living quarters, was about the size of city bus. It had green carpeting on the 50-square-foot floor and lights in the ceiling for psychological bearing, even though theoretically there was no up or down in weightless space. Oxygen was supplied by generators that used electricity to breakdown water into its component elements: hydrogen and oxygen. In the old days "candles" made from oxygen compounds were used.

The cosmonauts socialized and ate their meals in the central base module. At the far end was the command center. Sleeping quarters and a 400-book library were in the middle. Bundles of cables were visible everywhere and controls panels and equipment filled up precious space.

New arrivals were welcomed with a kiss and a gift of salt and vodka. Day and night each lasted only 45 minutes as Mir circled the earth at 17,885mph and spent half the time in earth’s shadow. Background noise included the hums, and shutters of fans and pumps and other equipment. Wall-mounted radiators kept the inside warm.

Cosmonauts spent two hours on an exercise bicycle to combat the effects of zero gravity in their muscles. For fun they rode around on the ship's vacuum cleaner. They were only allowed one shower every ten days, a process that took an entire day. Mostly, they rubbed themselves down with a damp towel of stay clean.

One visitor compared living in Mir to "a very dirty and grimy camping trip in an old car." The cosmonauts, astronauts and visitors usually dressed in shorts and T-shirts. To stay entertained Cosmonauts talked to their families and famous Russian personalities on two way radios.⇕

Thermostabilized food served on Mir included Polish-style perch, jellied perch, spiced perch, moisture prunes and Vostock cookies. Pieces of food and saliva that escaped had to be tracked down and put in a plastic bag.

Women, Americans and Longevity Records on Mir

Dr. Valeriy Polyakov stayed in space a record 679 days—241 on the first Mir from August 1988 and April 1989, and 437 days and 18 hours on the second Mir and Soyuz TM-18 from January 8, 1994 to March 22, 1995. This was longest space flight ever. Polyakov feigned aliments to test Russian mission control's ability to deal with unexpected problems. Polyakov calculated he orbited earth 10,864 times. One objective of his mission was to determine if long distance space travel to Mars was feasible.

Cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev spent a total of 742 days on Mir. In 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was stranded on Mir for six extra months because there was no money to pay for a ship to retrieve him and Russia and the Ukraine argued over his replacement. Sergei Vasilyevic stayed in space for 714 days during three missions.

In March 1995, physician Norman Thagard became the first U.S. astronaut to enter orbit on a Russian rocket. Others were delivered by the Space Shuttle. Some American astronauts were upset by the sloppy conditions aboard Mir. One was particularly peeved when he found some of his belonging stored in a unused toilet. His whining briefly chilled the relationship between American and Russian space officials.

Female American astronaut Shannon Lucus spent six months (188 days, a world record for a woman at the time) on Mir. She broke the record of 169 days set by cosmonaut Yelena Kondakova. Before Lucus arrived Mir was cleaned up. "We know women like to clean," a deputy cosmonaut commander said in his explanation of why the place was particularly spiffy when she arrived. Every time the cosmonauts left the space station for a space walk they told Lucus, "You're in charge, but don't touch the controls." A Russian woman cosmonaut said, "You don’t have to do laundry there. You don't have to cook there. So I think that for a woman, being in space is kind of a vacation."

As far as anyone knows no one had sex on Mir. Some animals did though. The sex life of the cosmonauts was limited mainly to dreaming and thinking. An experiment on earth in a Mir simulator with a Canadian woman and a Russian man ended with the man suddenly sticking his tongue down the woman's throat in a vodka-fueled New Year's party. Afterward Russia psychologist proclaimed the experiment, designed to check compatibility in long missions, was a success.

Troubles on Mir

In 1994, the two main computer's went down, causing Mir to lose orientation with the sun and drift in space. The oxygen circulation system broke down and the cosmonauts had to wave their hands in front of their faces to keep themselves from breathing in carbon dioxide while they coolly fixed the problem and restored power. In 1997, cosmonaut Alexander Serebov almost drifted off into space when his tether came loose during a spacewalk. He managed to grab hold of the station and pull himself inside.

On one mission Russian cosmonauts bundled up in fur lined space suits to repair a crippled spacecraft, the inside of which was so cold their breath froze. Since the thermometers only went down to 0 degrees C they determined how cold it was by spitting on the windows and timing how long it took to freeze.⇕

In July 1997, one cosmonaut complained of an irregular heartbeat and another accidently disconnected the cable to a computer that controlled orientation towards the sun, causing the craft to start spinning out of control. Power was restored and the ship was righted after power was brought in with wires from another mode.l In August 1997, the main computer failed and the only working oxygen generator on Mir clogged. The three astronauts on board had to burn "candles" of oxygen compounds to produce breathable air until the problems were fixed.

Several times Mir dipped dangerously close to the Earth’s upper atmosphere and spacecrafts had to be launched to boost it back into orbit. One group of cosmonauts in the Mir space station were told they would have to stay in space for 39 days while the rocket that was supposed to bring them home was completed. On another occasion a Russian relief crew lost radio contact with the station and had to dock manually. The time the toilet tanks overflowed was no picnic.

On February 23, 1997, a fire broke out on MIR that filled the space station with smoke and was difficult to put out. American astronaut Jerry Linenger was aboard at the time. He wrote: "The auxiliary oxygen generator was shooting out a blowtorch of flame. Like a Forth of July Roman candle, it spewed white-hot metallic droplets on the walls." The fire burned out of control for 14 minutes and smoke blocked the escape route. After others method to put it out failed, the fire was extinguished with a wet towel and fire extinguisher. The fire extinguisher alone couldn't put out of the fire.

In March and April 1997, the primary oxygen generator failed and leaks in the cooling system sent temperatures soaring to dangerous levels and caused the air-purification system to fail. On June 25, 1997, an unmanned supply drone collided with Mir at five times the normal speed, during practice docking, puncturing the Spektr research vessel and causing considerable damage to a solar panel. As air leaked out of the station, the crew prepared to abandon the station for the Soyuz space craft but in the end decided to seal off Spektr from the rest of the station. In the process of sealing of the leaking Spektr, cables are disconnected, cutting Mir's electric supply in half. An oxygen generator had to be shut down to conserve energy. The was lab brought back to life in August after a new hatch was delivered and installed with a dangerous internal space walk.

Efforts to Save Mir

After the break up of the Soviet Union, the Russian government decided it was too expensive to keep Mir going. American billionaire Walter Anderson and his friend, Sikh multimillionaire Baboo Kathuria attempted to save Mir by starting a new company call MirCorp and promising to invest $200 million a year and lease out Mir as part of project they hoped would make a profit through ventures like space tourism and satellite assembly and repair.

Mircorp financed one mission but was collapsed after it failed to come through with all the money promised. Finally a decision was made to pull the plug because Mir was draining funds necessary for Russia to fulfill its commitment to the International Space Station. A Russian film director suggested shooting a film on Mir. The proposed plot: a cosmonaut refuses to leave Mir and says that he wants to live the rest of his life on the spacecrafts. A beautiful female cosmonaut is sent to Mir to lure him back. The Russian Space Agency reportedly gave the idea serious thought.

There were plans to launch a 51-year-old American waste-disposal tycoon into space and put him on Mir for $100 million. The deal eventually fell through partly because the tycoon was more than 100 pounds overweight and he failed to pay the cash up front. He did show up a the training center and lasted a week before the mission was canceled.

Mir is Abandoned

Mir was abandoned on August 28, 1999 after 13 years of operation. It carried 70 different people (some visited more than once bring the total number of crew member to 104), hosted 46 expeditions (23 of them international programs), survived 1,600 breakdowns, and provided a platform for 23,000 scientific and technological experiments.

Mir left outer space on March 23, 2001. It was nudged out of orbit over Egypt by a cargo spacecraft and broke up into bits that were scattered over the South Pacific Ocean near Fiji. Nobody was hit by any debris, which may have included chunks as large as a car. It had orbited the earth 79,000 times (lasting twice as long as expected). A cosmonaut who witnessed it being nudged to its demise was asked how he felt, “How else would a person feel when his house burns down in front of his eyes.”

After 15 years in space Mir had air leaks chemical corrosion and metal fatigue and the triple-layered glass windows were clouded by collisions with micrometeorites. Even so, according to studies published in TASS, Mir could have stayed in orbit to 2003 or 2005. Mir was shut down primarily for financial reasons. It cost an estimated $250 million a year to keep aloft, more than the cash-strapped Russian government could afford.

Russia and the International Space Station

The first Russian component of the International Space Station (ISS) was the Zarya (“Star”) module, which was built in Russia with American financing and launched in November 1998. The 21-ton module was finally attached to the ISS in 2001. It was originally supposed to be launched in April 1998.

The 43-foot-long Zvezda is basically Mir with high tech upgrades. Built at a cost of $350 million, its one of the most essential pieces of equipment on ISS. It keeps the station level and maintains it proper altitude, controls all the electrical and computer systems and provides living quarters for the first astronauts.

When finished the ISS weighed more than a million pounds and was powered by solar panels that cover the area of two football fields. The ISS project is a bit of a humiliation for the Russians. They don’t like the fact that the Americans called the shots and they are doing stuff they already did with Mir.

In September 1999, NASA purchased half of Russia's 8,000 hours on the ISS for $60 million. Russia had approached Japan and Europe to see if they were interested in purchasing the time. Russia was also behind schedule and there were doubts whether it would be able to fulfill its commitment to build other modules for the space station.

After the space shuttle Columbia burned up during re-entry in February 2003, Russian Soyuz spacecraft were required to deliver stuff to the ISS. Both manned Soyuz and an unmanned Progress 51 spacecrafts made runs to the ISS. The unmanned cargo ships could carry 2.5 tons of food, water and equipment. Once it had to make an emergency Christmas day delivery because the crew on board on the ISS had run short of food because the pervious crew—an American and a Russian—ate more than their allotted share of food. As the Times of London put it, “in space no one can hear you raid the fridge.” If the cargo ship had not successfully docked with the ISS, the crew aboard the ISS would have had to return to earth.

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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