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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.

By flying boat across India

In 1941, as war clouds loomed over southeast Asia, a Chicago News correspondent by the name of George Weller flew from Cairo to Singapore on assignment. In Singapore, Weller reported on the British Empire’s ineffectual preparations for an attack that was sure to come from Imperial Japan. When the attack did come, it was not from the sea—as the British expected and were prepared for—but through the jungles of Malaya. Weller reported on the Japanese forces’ astonishingly effective campaign down the Malayan Peninsula and the subsequent doomed defense of Singapore. He was there until almost the very end, when the remaining British Empire forces in Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942. The following year, he published his firsthand account of the fall of Malaya and Singapore, the engrossing Singapore Is Silent.

Japanese troops parading in Singapore after the fall of the city. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD]

Japanese troops parading in Singapore after the fall of the city. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.]

Something that I found particularly interesting in Singapore Is Silent was Weller’s account of his flight from Cairo to Singapore. The two cities are a little over 5,100 miles apart by the great-circle route, which runs mostly over the Indian Ocean and only crosses the southern part of peninsular India. A flight like this would be no big deal with a modern long-range airliner like a 787 (even thought it seems that there are currently no airlines offering direct service between Cairo and Singapore). But this was far beyond the range of the airliners of the day.

A Short Sunderland Mk V in military (RAF) service. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.]

A Short Sunderland Mk V in military (RAF) service. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.]

In Singapore Is Silent, Chicagonews (as Weller calls himself in the narrative) flies to Singapore aboard a Short Sunderland operated by British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The Sunderland was a flying boat, so it could only take off and land on water. The plane had a maximum range of 1,780 miles, which meant that it had to stop several times to refuel on its way to Singapore. BOAC routed its plane north of the great-circle route, sending it across northern India, where there were plenty of places to stop. Chicagonews’s route across India was this: Karachi (still a part of India at this point), Jaipur, Allahabad, “the narrow upper waters of the Ganges” (no city name specified), and Calcutta.

Karachi is on the coast and Allahabad and Calcutta are on the Ganges (Ganga) river system, but what about Jaipur? It is in arid Rajasthan, with no ocean or large river in sight.

Chicagonews’s plane touches down on “the Rajah’s lake near Jaipur,” where a motor launch takes the passengers to shore. This was clearly one of the artificial lakes around Jaipur. Although I have not been able to find a source to tell me which one it was, I think that it was most likely Jamwa Ramgarh, an irrigation reservoir 15 miles northeast of the city that was built in 1901. With a long axis of about 4½ miles, the lake would have been long enough for the takeoff run of a big flying boat.

Jamwa Ramgarh Tal, as pictured on a 1963 US Army Map Service map. The lake has been dry since 2000. Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.

Jamwa Ramgarh Tal, as pictured on a 1963 US Army Map Service map. The lake has been dry since 2000. [Source: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.]

The route crossing India by flying boat was a recent development. In the late thirties, Imperial Airways (BOAC’s predecessor) had taken its flying boats only as far as Karachi; for the crossing of India itself, passengers had transferred to landplanes and flown a route of Karachi–Jodhpur–Delhi–Allahabad–Calcutta. When Imperial Airways introduced flying boats for the crossing of India, the route was changed to Karachi–Rajsamand Lake (near Udaipur)–Gwalior–Allahabad–Calcutta.

The age of overseas travel by flying boats was brief. Long-distance routes like BOAC’s Cairo-Singapore were disrupted by Axis conquests during World War II. By the end of the war, land-based planes had become bigger, faster, and longer-ranged, so airliners could make overseas flights with fewer intermediate stops. For example, BOAC adopted the Boeing 377 in 1949, which had a range of 4,200 miles, more than twice the range of the Short Sunderland from just a decade earlier. The Boeing 707, which BOAC adopted in 1960, had a long enough range that it could fly all the way from Cairo to Singapore without making any stops at all in between.

The airport in Jaipur (now a strictly land-based airfield in Sanganer on the south side of the city) is no longer a stopover point for international flights. Long-range planes can simply bypass Jaipur on their way to bigger airports. Jaipur International Airport (JAI) does have direct flights to Dubai, but otherwise its traffic is domestic.

JAI terminal building

The modern terminal building at Jaipur International Airport.

Railroads between the Atlantic and the Pacific

“The commerce and general prosperity of both the Atlantic and Pacific shores of the American continent are so rapidly increasing as to call the attention of the civilized world to the great importance of Inter-Oceanic Railroads, extending without interruption from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

This is the opening line of “American Inter-Oceanic Railroads,” an article from the May 24, 1864 issue of the New York Daily Tribune. In 1864, during the American Civil War, the US government had recently commissioned the building of a transcontinental railroad to connect the Pacific coast states of California and Oregon to the states east of the Rocky Mountains.

The most immediate reason for building the US railroad was to connect the isolated, vulnerable, and valuable state of California, with its gold mines, to the rest of the country. But a longer-term reason, as the Tribune article appreciated, was to create a link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, thus enabling the United States to take part in the trade between the two great oceans. And the United States was not the only player in the game.

There was, in fact, one American interoceanic railroad already in operation by 1864: the Panama Railroad. When it opened in 1855, it crossed the Central American isthmus along a similar route to the future canal. The New York Daily Tribune article described four other railroad projects in some stage of planning that could compete with the United States’ transcontinental railroad; they were located in Nicaragua, the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina, Mexico, and British North America (Canada).

What became of these projects? Let’s take a look.

Canada

Construction of the first railway to link British Columbia with eastern Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway, began in 1881 and concluded in 1885. The Tribune article, written two decades earlier, only mentions the prospect of a trans-Canada railway in passing. The author of the article was more concerned about the political implications of railway projects in the republics of Spanish-speaking America.

The Andes

The Transandine Railway, the first railway across the great Andes Mountains of South America opened in 1910, almost fifty years after the New York Daily Tribune article mentioned the possibility of such a project. The rail route, which connected Buenos Aires, Argentina with Valparaíso, Chile, was actually a series of five separate rail lines, three Argentinian and two Chilean. The lines at lower elevation were built in broad gauge (5 ft 6 in), the same standard used in India, while the shorter lines near the summit of the Andes were built in the narrower meter gauge. The Chilean meter-gauge line crossed under the crest of the Andes at 10,969 feet in a three-kilometer tunnel, a remarkable engineering achievement. Although less impressive than the summit tunnel, the approaches on either side were actually harder to construct, especially on the Chilean side.

Map of the Transandine Railway between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Map of the Transandine Railway between Buenos Aires and Valparaíso. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Diagram of the summit tunnel on the Transandine Railway. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

Diagram of the summit tunnel on the Transandine Railway. (Source: Barclay, “The First Transandine Railway.”)

The original Chile-Argentina Transandine Railway closed in 1984.

Nicaragua

The Tribune article describes in detail the Nicaragua Railroad, a transoceanic railway across the Central American republic. The article explains that the railway would pass alongside Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua on its route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. A British company had contracted to build the railway. As stipulated by the contract, the company had to begin construction within two years of the signing of the contract, and complete construction before an additional seven years had elapsed. The company would receive large land concessions to aid in the construction, and the right to use forest resources from that land.

Although the Tribune characterized the Nicaragua Railroad as the “furthest advanced” among the projects in Spanish-speaking America, it is the only one that was never built. (A proposed canal across Nicaragua, cutting through Lake Nicaragua, also was never built.)

Nicaragua map with Nicaragua Railway

Map of the approximate route of the Nicaragua Railroad (purple), as described in the New York Daily Tribune article. (Source: CIA base map from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaragua_rel_97.jpg.)

Mexico

In the eyes of the Tribune author, the most important interoceanic railroad project was a proposed line across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico. A foreign company had planned to make such a railway as early as 1842, but the Mexican government subsequently reneged on the agreement. According to an article in the Courrier des Etats Unis, Maximilian, the French puppet-emperor of Mexico, planned to recommence work on the railway. The Tribune saw this as a way for Maximilian to shore up support for his regime, thus threatening republicanism across the Americas:

“There is hardly any project by which Maximilian could better inaugurate the series of reforms which are to make the Mexicans forget the loss of their independence, and make a favorable impression, in behalf of the prospects of the Mexican Empire, upon the commercial classes of Europe, than the Tehuantepec Transit.”

The Mexican Liberals who opposed Emperor Maximilian found common cause with the Unionists of the United States, who were fighting to defeat the aristocratic, slaveholding Confederacy. American abolitionists celebrated the defeat of a French invasion force at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. (This is the origin of the Cinco de Mayo holiday.) After the defeat of the Confederacy, the Union gave military aid to the Mexican Liberals led by Benito Juárez.

Maximilian never did get to build his railway across Tehuantepec. Juárez defeated and executed him in 1867.

The Tehuantepec Railroad ended up being built a little later in Mexican history, during the Porfiriato (the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz). The railway was specifically built to serve as a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, not to carry local traffic. An early incarnation of the railway opened in 1894, but it consisted of different sections of track built at different times and to different standards, so it was not usable for interoceanic service. The Mexican government hired the contracting firm of S. Pearson and Son, Ltd. to overhaul the railway. From 1902 to 1906, Pearson replaced bridges, ties, and track; widened curves; and built new port facilities at Coatzalcoalcos, Veracruz (on the Gulf of Mexico) and Salina Cruz, Oaxaca (on the Pacific). The railway reopened in January 1907.

At first, interoceanic traffic boomed across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but in 1914 the Panama Canal opened and ate the Mexican railway’s lunch. Between 1914 and 1919, interoceanic tonnage across the Tehuantepec Railway dropped 99.7%.

Tehuantepec Railroad map

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is 125 miles across at its narrowest point. The highest point on the railway, Chivela Pass, is 735 feet above sea level, which is not very high. The total length of the railway is 192 miles. (Source: Wikimedia, PD-Self.)

References

Barclay, W.S. “The First Transandine Railway.” The Geographical Journal 36, no. 5 (1910): 553-62.

Glick, Edward B. “The Tehuantepec Railroad: Mexico’s White Elephant.” Pacific Historical Review 22, no. 4 (1953): 373-82.

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

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