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Technological continuity and change in the Russian space program

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Soyuz MS-17/Expedition 64 takes off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 14, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/GCTC/Andrey Shelepin.)

This month, two crewed Soyuz spacecraft have carried astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station. On Wednesday, October 14, a Soyuz rocket took off from Kazakhstan carrying one American astronaut, Kate Rubins, and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. The Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station later that day. The next week, another Soyuz spacecraft carried the previous station crew back to Earth for a landing on the Kazakhstan steppe.

I watched both the launch and the landing on NASA TV, and they got me thinking about technological continuity in the Russian space program. Here it was 2020, and I was watching the flight of a spacecraft design, the Soyuz, which first flew more than a half-century earlier in 1967. The Soyuz booster has three stages; the first two stages, the conical strap-on boosters and the core stage, are based on the R-7 ICBM, which made its first test flight in 1967 and launched Sputnik 1 in October of that year. The rocket thus represents an unbroken technological link to the very beginning of the Space Age.

Compare this to NASA. NASA’s Apollo spacecraft, which made its first crewed flight in 1968, was retired in 1975 to be replaced by the Space Shuttle, a completely new design. The Shuttle, in turn, was retired in 2011. NASA is now going back to the capsule format of Apollo but with an entirely new spacecraft, Orion, currently scheduled to fly its first crewed mission sometime in 2023. Meanwhile the Russians have been flying one version or another of the Soyuz this whole time.

It is possible to over-emphasize continuity in Russian spaceflight, as the Russians have made their share of technological leaps as well. As Asif Siddiqi notes in Challenge to Apollo, both the R-7 booster and the Soyuz were themselves technological leaps. The R-7 was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, bigger and more powerful than anything built before it. The Soyuz, too, was bigger and much more versatile than the spacecraft that preceded it, Vostok and Voskhod. The Russians also expended great amounts of money and human effort on other programs that would also have been technological leaps if they had succeeded or gone into operation, like the N-1 moon rocket (canceled after four unsuccessful test flights) and the Energiya booster (abandoned during the fall of the Soviet Union).

I should also note that the Soyuz of 2020 is different in many ways from the Soyuz of 1967. While the external appearance has changed little in the past fifty years, Russian engineers have made big changes under the hood. The early Soyuz were unreliable and dangerous, leading to numerous failed missions and two flights that ended in tragedy. But over the past 53 years, the Soyuz has been redesigned for greater reliability and safety.

I think it’s interesting how the Russians are comfortable with perfecting a proven design, rather than throwing away the old in favor of something new, as we like to do in the United States. True, the Soyuz rocket is ungainly and uses low-energy propellants (kerosene and liquid oxygen), and the Soyuz spacecraft is clunky and cramped. Yet both are now very reliable, having had their kinks worked out in more than fifty years’ worth of flights. NASA never could have said the same about the Space Shuttle.

NASA poster of the Apollo moon missions

Apollo 11 and the past of space travel

Fifty years ago this month, men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. They came in peace for all mankind.

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 has gotten a lot of publicity, more than I remember the thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries getting. There seem to be two dominant ways that companies and institutions are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. One is marketing collectibles. Estes, the model rocket manufacturer, has reissued classic kits of rockets from Mercury to Apollo. LEGO has released large and detailed sets of the Saturn V and Lunar Module.

The other dominant way to commemorate Apollo 11 has been to use the anniversary as an occasion to discuss the future of space travel. The cover of National Geographic this month declares, “A new era of space travel is here,” and USA Today last week carried the headline: “Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 made the world a bigger place. NASA is ready to go back.”

In some respects, this preoccupation with the future is understandable because space travel has long been imagined as futuristic. Spaceflight was envisioned in science fiction long before it became a reality. Even after people had begun to fly into space, true believers in space travel continued to dream big and kept claiming that the next big thing was just around the corner: inexpensive access to low Earth orbit with reusable spaceplanes, permanent moon bases, and nuclear rockets flying to Mars and beyond.

None of these things have come to pass. The Space Shuttle, though reusable, proved to be expensive to maintain and risky to fly. Moon bases have never been built, and nuclear rocket propulsion remains science fiction. (In a May 25, 1961 speech, just after famously calling for the United States to commit to a moon landing by the end of the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy exhorted Congress to appropriate funds to accelerate the development of the ROVER nuclear rocket—but who remembers that?)

There is a real irony about the future-looking coverage of the moon landing anniversary: space travel belongs to the past as much as to the future. Both National Geographic and USA Today put photos of the Apollo program on their covers, to introduce their articles about the future of space travel. The graphic designers at National Geographic even went so far as to frame the Apollo 8 earthrise photo they used with film sprocket holes—further emphasizing Apollo program’s belonging to the past, because the vast majority of photography in the 2010s is shot digitally rather than on film.

It was literally a half-century ago that men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. We can certainly look forward to further human exploits in space (although considering that we still have no moonbases and nuclear rockets, I won’t hold my breath). But an imaginary future in space should not distract us from the real past. Apollo 11 flew a long time ago, taking off from and landing on a world that was very different than it is today.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Bharat ke Mangal ki Yatra (India’s Mars Journey)

On the morning of September 24, 2014 (India time), the Mangalyaan-1 space probe entered into orbit of Mars. Mangalyaan-1 was designed and built in India, financed by Indian taxpayers, and launched on an Indian PSLV rocket from Shriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Over the course of a month, the probe orbited the Earth, progressively climbing to higher orbits before using Earth’s gravity to slingshot it toward Mars. When Mangalyaan finally reached Mars almost eleven months later, it became the first probe built in Asia to reach the Red Planet. This was also the first time that any nation successfully sent a probe to Mars on their first attempt.

The Indian media was abuzz over this distinctive national accomplishment. Commentators praised the engineers and scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for reaching Mars cheaply and efficiently, but still flawlessly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed the goings-on at mission control in Bangalore, and then delivered a televised speech to a crowd of ISRO engineers. His speech, delivered partly in English and partly in Hindi, represents the rhetoric surrounding Mangalyaan’s successful arrival at Mars (sorry, no subtitles):

PM Modi emphasized that the probe was built “indigenously and upon Indian effort, spreading from Bangalore to Bhubaneshwar, and Faridabad to Rajkot”—for less than the cost of a Hollywood movie. The rhetoric of indigeneity and technological self-reliance is more than fifty years old. It was first articulated in the Third Five-Year Plan (issued in 1961), which stated that “India’s economy must not only expand rapidly, but must, at the same time, become self-reliant and self-generating.”

This proved to be an elusive goal. Certain industries became fully indigenous, but other remained out of India’s grasp. India’s military-industrial complex has so far failed to satisfy the nation’s needs, and India became, and remains, the world’s largest arms importer. Where India has succeeded in indigenization is in high-tech, big-science fields. India makes its own nuclear reactors and space probes, but still has to import more mundane equipment such as passenger jets.

Itty Abraham argues in The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb that when India became a nuclear power in 1974, it was too late to matter.1 In other words, by 1974 the ability to detonate a nuclear warhead no longer entitled a nation to membership in the elite club of the most technologically-sophisticated nations. Sadly, this seems to be the case for India’s space accomplishments as well. In his speech at ISRO, PM Modi declared, “With this particular success, ISRO joins an elite group of only three other agencies worldwide to have successfully reached the Red Planet.” True as this may be, the world seems not to have taken much notice. Although the Indian media was thrilled by Mangalyaan’s arrival at Mars, the American media, at least, has remained unmoved. Mangalyaan was not even mentioned in today’s issue of the New York Times.

  1. Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy, and the Postcolonial State (London: Zed Books, 1998), 166. []

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