Soyuz 50 years on

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On 23 April 1967, six years after Yuri Gagarin had became the first man to go into space, a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft was launched carrying cosmonaut Vladimir Komorov. It completed 18 orbits and then returned to Earth.

Mission patch for the first Soyuz mission

Sadly, during its reentry the parachute failed to open properly and the spacecraft was destroyed when it hit the Earth at high speed and burst into flames – killing Komorov and giving him the unfortunate distinction of being the first person to die in space flight.

Despite this initial setback, the Soyuz spacecraft was successfully flown back into space the following year, when cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoy, a decorated World War 2 hero, completed 81 orbits and landed safely.

A Soviet 10 kopek stamp showing  Georgy Beregovoy. The Soyuz rocket is in the background – image from Wikimedia commons

Since Beregovoy’s mission, Soyuz has been launched into space a further 131 times, and has proved to be a great success, outliving the much more expensive and more technologically advanced Space Shuttle. It has established itself to be a reliable and safe way of getting into Earth orbit.  In fact, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, it has been the only way of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This is a fact worth bearing in mind given the somewhat tense relationship between Russia and the West.

The spacecraft

The Soyuz spacecraft was designed in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. The chief designer was a man called Sergei Korolev (1907-1966), who was the driving force behind many of the early successes in the Soviet space programme.

Korolev in 1956 – image from Wikimedia Commons

Korolev had a chequered career. In 1938 he fell foul of the authorities and was arrested by the Soviet secret police, tried and sentenced to death. The sentence was reduced to imprisonment and he spent number of months in a Soviet gulag – a hard labour camp – in a remote part of Siberia. Conditions were extremely harsh and many prisoners died from cold, disease and sheer exhaustion.  Towards the end of the Second World War he was rehabilitated by the Soviet government and later rose up the ranks in the 1950s to head the space programme. He died in Jan 1966 at the age of 59, his final years plagued by ill health caused by his time in the gulag. The 1950s and 1960s were during the Cold War and the Soviet space programme was kept under intense secrecy and, unlike his American counterparts,  Korolev was unknown outside a small elite. His achievements were only made public after his death.

 

The Soyuz spacecraft, shown above, consists of three modules:

  • The first part of the spacecraft is the service module (labelled A). This contains the main engines, fuel, oxygen, computers, communications equipment and the solar panels used to generate electricity
  • The reentry capsule (labelled B) is shaped like a hemisphere and is the only part of the spacecraft which returns to Earth. The cosmonauts enter the capsule just before reentry. It is very cramped and is only designed for the crew to stay in for a short period of time. It does not, for instance, have a toilet.
  • The spherical-shaped orbital module (labelled C) is where the crew live during a mission, although all Soyuz missions at the moment are to and from the International Space Station.

At launch the spacecraft sits on top of a 45 metre (150 feet) tall Soyuz rocket. The solar panels are folded away, and are unfolded when the spacecraft is in orbit.

Image from Wikimedia commons

As mentioned above, conditions in the reentry capsule are very cramped. It carries a crew of three squeezed into only 2.5 cubic metres of usable space. This is the volume of a cube measuring 1.36 by 1.36 by 1.36 metres. These cramped conditions meant that, in the early Soyuz spaceflights, the cosmonauts couldn’t wear bulky spacesuits and the associated life support equipment. This unfortunately lead to the deaths of the cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971 who suffocated when a faulty valve caused all the air to escape from their capsule. Had they been wearing spacesuits they would have survived. After this accident Soyuz was redesigned to carry two cosmonauts, both wearing spacesuits, although this was later increased to three. The redesigned spacecraft was known as the Soyuz Ferry because its mission was to transport cosmonauts to and from the Salyut space station.

Over the last 50 years Soyuz has gone through several further updates and the latest version, known as Soyuz MS, was first launched in July 2016. The upgrades are mainly to computers, electronics and navigational systems and the internal layout of the spacecraft. The fundamental design hasn’t changed since Kamorov’s first flight back in 1967.

A cheap and reliable way of getting into space.

Since the accident in 1971 there have been no fatalities aboard a Soyuz and the spacecraft has proven itself to be a relatively cheap and reliable way of getting people to and from the International Space Station (ISS). In 2011 the cost of a flying a Space Shuttle mission to the ISS worked out at about $500 million in today’s money (NASA 2011). In contrast, the cost of using the older Soviet-era Soyuz technology worked out more than eight times cheaper at the equivalent of $60 million per mission (Wade 2016).

The table below shows the number of missions flown by the Apollo, Soyuz, Space Shuttle and Shenzou spacecraft. Only manned missions are included. So, although the Shenzou spacecraft has gone into orbit 11 times only 6 of these missions had humans aboard.

The table below lists the launch dates of the next four Soyuz missions:

Data from http://spaceflight101.com/iss/iss-calendar/

When Soyuz MS-07 is launched in the coming October, it will have flown more manned missions than the Space Shuttle.

The Future

NASA pays Russia $70 million per seat for each astronaut who flies in Soyuz (Wall 2013). This figure, which is roughly the same as the per seat cost of the Space Shuttle ($500 million for a crew of seven) enables the Russian space agency to make a significant profit.

However, NASA won’t be entirely reliant on buying seats on Soyuz for much longer. Rather than itself building a new craft to fly crew to and from the ISS, NASA administers a US-government funded programme called Commercial Crew Development (CCDev). After a lengthy evaluation process NASA announced on 16 September 2014 that Boeing and SpaceX had received contracts to provide crewed launch services to the ISS.

At the moment there is no confirmed date when these companies will send their spacecraft to the ISS. The SpaceX website states that the first crewed flight by their Dragon V2 spacecraft will be in the second quarter of 2018, although this date seems somewhat ambitious given that the spacecraft has not yet flown and that an unmanned test flight is only due to be carried out in November 2017.

DragonV2

 The Dragon V2 spacecraft – image from NASA 

In the longer term Soyuz is due to be replaced in 2023 by a new spacecraft called Federation.  The design of Federation is still at the early stages but it will be capable of both low Earth orbit missions such as ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS and also missions deeper into space, such as orbiting the Moon (Nowakowski 2016).

Artist’s concept of the Federation spacecraft. image from  Roscosmos

 

Notes

1 The total of 133 spaceflights includes all Soyuz missions which were launched with humans on board, whether or not the spacecraft went into orbit. The number of spaceflights by each version of the spacecraft are as follows:

  • First generation Soyuz  launched 10 times between Apr 1967 and Jun 1971.
  • Soyuz Ferry launched 30 times between Sep 1973 and May 1981. This number includes one launch where the spacecraft failed to get into orbit.
  • Soyuz T launched 14 times between Jun 1980 and Mar 1986.  This figure excludes an attempted launch where the rocket exploded just before it should have taken off and from which the cosmonauts safely escaped.
  • Soyuz TM launched 33 times between Feb 1987 and April 2002.
  • Soyuz TMA launched 22 times between Oct 2002 and Nov 2011.
  • Soyuz TMA-M launched 20 times between Oct 2010 and Mar 2016.
  • The latest incarnation of the spacecraft, Soyuz MS, was first launched in July 2016 and has been launched 4 times so far.

2 After the last spaceflight to the Moon, there were 4 further Apollo spaceflights:

  • 3 to the Skylab space station in 1973 and 1974.
  • 1 joint mission with the Soviet Union known as Apollo-Soyuz in 1975.

3 The total of 135 Space Shuttle missions includes the ill fated Challenger mission in 1986 when the spacecraft broke apart 73 seconds after take off.

References

NASA (2011) How much does it cost to launch a Space Shuttle?, Available at:http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shuttle_faq.html#1 (Accessed: 9 Apr 2017).

Nowakowski, T (2016) Russia runs first tests of its next-generation “Federation” manned spacecraft, Available at: http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/roscosmos/russia-runs-first-tests-of-its-next-generation-federation-manned-spacecraft/ (Accessed: 26 April 2017).

Wade, M. (2016) Cost, Price, and the Whole Darn Thing, Available at:http://www.astronautix.com/c/costpriceanholedarnthing.html (Accessed: 10 Apr 2017).

Wall, M (2013) NASA to pay $70 Million a seat to fly astronauts on Russian spacecraft,Available at: http://www.space.com/20897-nasa-russia-astronaut-launches-2017.html(Accessed: 25 April 2016).