Fifty Years of the Russian Soyuz Spacecraft

Posted on Thu, December 1, 2016

How a Cold War Spacecraft Became an International Workhorse

It is a remarkable fact that one of the two operational spacecraft that can carry humans into Earth orbit is celebrating its 50th birthday—the other is the Chinese Shenzhou craft. This week, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft turned 50 years old.

On November 28, 1966, the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) launched an anonymous spacecraft, Kosmos 133, into orbit from its launch facility in the Kazakh Republic. This was the first test mission of a spacecraft that was originally conceived as a craft that would carry cosmonauts around the Moon. Later, it was incorporated into the secret Soviet plans to compete with the United States and to land men on the Moon. After five years of planning and designing, this was the first flight of the craft and part of the elaborate, yet segmented planning that was supposed to challenge the American Apollo mission. Because it was a test flight, without any passengers, the name of the craft was not used and was camouflaged as part of a long series of undesignated flights that had included military satellites, test flight, and launch failures.

The Soyuz spacecraft was significant for the U.S.S.R.’s program of human spaceflight because it was designed to have maneuvering capability. A spacecraft needs this capability in order to change orbits and rendezvous and dock with other craft. The Soviet Vostok and Vokhod craft did not have this capability. The American Gemini spacecraft did. The goal of this first Soyuz/Kosmos 133 mission was to test the craft’s ability to follow commands from the ground and participate in a rendezvous maneuver with another, similar craft that was to be launched the next day.

Kosmos 133 was to be the passive vehicle, receptive to another, later launch that was to send another craft into orbit in order to complete a rendezvous and docking. However, the launch did not proceed as anticipated and even when the expectations were scaled back to only include the non-maneuvering operations of the craft the mission failed. Upon reentry, the crew module, where cosmonauts would have been inside the spacecraft, was destroyed because the craft returned to Earth along the wrong path. This was not a very auspicious beginning for what has become the workhorse of human spaceflight capsules. Neither was it the only disaster in Soyuz flights.

The maiden voyage of the first occupied, or piloted, Soyuz in April 1967 was no less disastrous. Five months after the defiled Kosmos 133 mission, the Soviets launched veteran cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov on board the first named Soyuz flight. This mission was as trouble-ridden as the November flight. The craft failed to enter the correct obit, it did not deploy its solar panels properly and its communications systems behaved sporadically. Even after dealing with these life-threatening issues, a final failure of the main parachute killed Komarov. The speed of the impact of the crash ignited the soft-landing engines, burning the craft upon landing.

The experience of these horrific test missions notwithstanding, the U.S.S.R. continued to work out the bugs of the Soyuz spacecraft until the first successful test mission of Soyuz 3, in October 1968. The craft initially fulfilled its mission for a series of successful rendezvous and docking exercises during the end of the 1960s. During the beginning of the 1970s, the Soyuz became the only craft used to ferry cosmonauts to two series of Soviet space stations. It was the beginning of what would become routine trips to orbiting space stations, with only one fatal accident of Soyuz 11 in 1971—an open valve suffocated the returning crew from the first successful space station mission.

Russian Soyuz spacecraft

Picture of Soyuz MS-2 on its launch pad during a super Moon. 

Over the course of the last 40 years, the Soyuz spacecraft has retained its name with numerous refinements and updates. It was a Soyuz that docked with the American Apollo spacecraft for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in July 1975. Soyuz docked with the space station Mir and was a participant with the initial Shuttle-Mir docking projects. From the beginning, it was designated as the emergency rescue craft from the International Space Station. Improvements in navigation, docking, and piloting have marked five generations of Soyuz spacecraft up to the current Soyuz-MS, which has been operational since June 2016.

There are two Soyuz spacecraft on view at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The model of the Soyuz docked with an Apollo command and service module has been on display at the Museum since our building opened in 1976. There is also a landing module, the only part that returns to Earth after a mission from the Soyuz TM-10, which carried Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama back to Earth from his mission to the space station Mir in 1990.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

A model of the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous on display in our Space Race gallery in Washington, DC.  

Soyuz TM-10

In this landing module, Soyuz TM 10, cosmonauts Gennadi Manakov and Gennadi Strekalov returned to Earth in December 1990 after a four-month stay on space station Mir. 

The current version of the Soyuz, the MS version, is likely to be the last variation of the Soyuz to launch. As the only current access to the International Space Station since the close out of the American Space Shuttle Program, the crews on board are always multinational. And the spacecraft is far more comfortable and modern that those that Soviet cosmonauts flew over 40 years ago. But still, in the field of aerospace, where often the new is valued over the old, it is impressive that this spacecraft, with its exterior appearance that has changed little for 50 years, continues to fly. Happy Birthday to the workhorse of human spaceflight! 

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