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“Simplified Soyuz” model rocket

Two years ago, I watched a Soyuz launch to the International Space Station on NASA TV. I was inspired to write a blog post about how both the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft represent at once technological continuity and change. The basis of the Soyuz rocket is the R-7 Semyorka missile, which first flew in 1957. Space launchers derived from the Semyorka have been launching satellites and spacecraft into orbit since Sputnik 1.

Back when I was in high school, I built and flew a model rocket of another Semyorka-derived space launcher, the Vostok rocket. The model was based on plans by Peter Alway, scale model rocketeer extraordinaire and author of the ever-fascinating (and now apparently back-in-print!) Rockets of the World. Alway had posted the plans on his website (now offline). The geometry of the Semyorka is pretty complex, with lots of tapered cones and tubes of different diameters. Alway simplified the geometry a little and called his plan “Simplified Vostok.”

My own Simplified Vostok was difficult to build, and it took me a couple of years to complete it. The one time I launched the rocket, it had a rough landing, and some of the boosters (made out of paper) got damaged. Years later, I put the rocket on display in my office, with the damaged parts turned toward the wall.

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My “Simplified Vostok” rocket.

Some time after I watched the 2020 Soyuz launch and wrote the blog post about it, it occurred to me that I could adapt the Simplified Vostok plans to make a Soyuz rocket, or in this case “Simplified Soyuz.” Right around this time, NASA was commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Expedition 1 mission, the first crew rotation on the International Space Station, which launched on a Soyuz rocket on October 31, 2000. I decided that this would be a good Soyuz launch to portray in my own model.

Expedition 1 (Soyuz TM-31) rocket on its way to the launch pad in Kazakhstan. (NASA photo)

Expedition 1 (Soyuz TM-31) rocket on its way to the launch pad in Kazakhstan. (NASA photo)

Soyuz TM-31 before its erection on the launch pad. (NASA photo)

Soyuz TM-31 before its erection on the launch pad. (NASA photo)

Launch of Soyuz TM-31 on October 31, 2000.

Launch of Soyuz TM-31 on October 31, 2000. (NASA photo)

To convert the Simplified Vostok plans to Simplified Soyuz, I had to lengthen the rocket, as the Soyuz rocket has a larger upper stage than the Vostok rocket did. I also had to redesign the nose cone.

The Soyuz spacecraft has an escape tower, which is used to pull the crew cabin away from the rocket in the event of an emergency. (Mercury and Apollo spacecraft also had escape towers, as does the Orion spacecraft. Vostok had an ejection seat for the lone cosmonaut inside.) Initially, I thought that I would craft the escape tower out of dowels, but I decided instead to try using a new technology that hadn’t been available when I was building rockets twenty years earlier: 3D printing.

Using FreeCAD, I designed a nose cone with an escape tower, basing it off of data in Rockets of the World. I exported the design to an .stl file and ordered a plastic print of it from Shapeways. I ordered two copies of it, in case I messed one of them up, but this turned out not to be necessary. The printed piece was rough, so I had to putty and sand the surface multiple times until I was satisfied with the result.

Simplified Soyuz plans

Original Simplified Vostok plans by Peter Alway, with my modifications to make it Simplified Soyuz. When I made these modifications, I hadn’t yet decided that the nose would be a 3D-printed part.

Simplified Soyuz nose cone CAD model

Nose cone for Simplified Soyuz, as designed in FreeCAD.

Soyuz nose cone 3D-printed part

Simplified Soyuz nose cone from Shapeways, with its first layers of putty to make the surface smooth.

The hardest part of building Simplified Soyuz was assembling the paper boosters. Another challenging aspect of this build was adding little details made out of balsa scraps to make the model look more like the real thing. It took me a couple of tries to get the fins of the launch-abort system to look right.

Soyuz booster assembly

Assembling Soyuz boosters.

Paper Soyuz boosters

Completed boosters, all ready to paint.

Spacecraft fairing attempts

Two attempts at making the spacecraft fairing. The one on top is the one I actually used.

Working on Simplified Soyuz while watching a real Soyuz launch on NASA TV!

Working on Simplified Soyuz while watching a real Soyuz launch on NASA TV!

Painting the rocket was also a big challenge, and it took me more than a year to complete. I did most of the painting with an airbrush, which made for a very smooth finish. The final product looks far better than the Vostok model that I built in high school.

Simplified Soyuz complete

The finished product.

Semyorka boosters

The boosters of the Semyorka.

Interstage trusswork

Detail of the interstage between the second and third stages. (This is open trusswork on the real thing. My model only has one stage.)

Spacecraft fairing

Detail of the completed spacecraft fairing.

I built Simplified Soyuz to fly, but I don’t think I will launch it. Thinking back to what happened to Simplified Vostok, I don’t want to risk the same sort of damage to this rocket, at least not any time soon. Maybe later!

Rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge

Rocket-testing relics in the Mojave Desert

Edwards Air Force Base, where the Air Force and NACA or NASA have tested experimental aircraft since before the Cold War, occupies a vast dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Although the base lies just south of California State Highway 58, most of it isn’t visible from the road, because sight-lines are blocked by low hills and a railway embankment between the highway and the lakebed. One exception to this is Leuhman Ridge, which rises above the desert floor southwest of the junction of CA-58 and US Highway 395. Several large metal and concrete structures stand on the crest of the ridge, plainly visible from the highway miles away. These are rocket test stands, used in the Cold War and Space Race to test out new rocket engines and test articles of complete rocket stages.

Rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge

View of the Rocket Engine Test Site on Leuhman Ridge, Edwards Air Force Base.

The Air Force started out testing missile components on Leuhman Ridge in the 1950s. Missiles tested there included the Thor IRBM, the Atlas and Titan ICBMs, and the Bomarc cruise missile. Some of the test stands had large gantries that could hold complete missile stages like the Atlas. One of the stands, Test Stand 1-1, still has its gantry in place.

Test stands used for Air Force missiles on the western end of the ridge. Test Stand 1-A is on the left of the picture.

Test stands used for Air Force missiles on the western end of Leuhman Ridge. Test Stand 1-1 is on the left of the picture, with a large gantry that could hold a complete Atlas missile in a vertical position for tests. The stand on the right is 1-2.

Atlas missile exploding during test in stand 1-A

Photo of an Atlas missile exploding in Test Stand 1-A, March 27, 1959. The stand was never repaired for Atlas use but was instead modified for F-1 engine testing. (Source: HAER)

Subsequently, NASA and Rocketdyne tested the F-1 engine for the first stage of the Saturn V moon rocket on Leuhman Ridge. F-1 tests started on stands originally used for the Atlas missiles, then moved to purpose-built stands that were much larger than the earlier missile stands. Rocketdyne test-fired a prototype F-1 for the first time on February 10, 1961, before Alan Shepard’s first flight and before President Kennedy had committed America to the moon race.

F-1 prototype firing in Test Stand 1-A

F-1 prototype test-firing in stand 1-A. This test engine is firing without its nozzle skirt, or rear part of the nozzle. (Source: HAER)

The biggest of the F-1 stands was Test Stand 1-C, which could hold a pair of engines side-by-side. As tall as an 11-storey building, it had foundations deep into the granite bedrock of the ridge in order to withstand the power of the engines.

Test Stand 1-C during a test-firing of an F-1 engine in 1962. (Source: NASA)

Test Stand 1-C during a test-firing of an F-1 engine in 1962. (Source: NASA)

Test Stand 1-C is the most prominent of the stands on Leuhman Ridge, because it now has a huge white building on top of it with an American flag painted down the side. Two similar test stands nearby, 1-D and 1-E, were also built for F-1 engine testing.

Apollo-era test stands on Leuhman Ridge: 1-D (L) and 1-C (R). Test Stand 1-C has been modified from its original configuration with the addition of a white tower on top, but 1-D looks about as it did in the 1960s. Test Stand 1-B is out of view to the right.

Apollo-era test stands on Leuhman Ridge: 1-D (L) and 1-C (R). Test Stand 1-C has been modified from its original configuration with the addition of a white tower on top, but 1-D looks about as it did in the 1960s. The large tanks directly behind and to the right of 1-C held water that was pumped over the flame deflector during tests. Test Stand 1-E is out of view on the other side of the ridge behind 1-D.

Since the Apollo-Saturn Program, some of the test stands have been modified for use on other programs. Even with the modifications, the stands are still visible relics of the Cold War and the race to the Moon.

Rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge with annotations

Panoramic view of the rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge, with annotations.

Sources and links

Space Shuttle studies and model rockets

In 1969, the model rocket company Estes Industries introduced a kit called Orbital Transport. The rocket consisted of two parts, a larger carrier rocket and a small glider. When launched vertically from a standard model rocket launch pad, the carrier rocket would take the glider up to altitude, and then the glider would detach and glide back to the ground while the carrier rocket descended under a parachute.

My Estes Orbital Transport, which I built mostly in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. It is a “clone” of Orbital Transport, built not from a kit but from plans using stock parts. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

My Orbital Transport, which I built from plans in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

The 1969 Estes catalog had this to say about the design of the kit:

Spectacular in flight and a true show model on the ground, the Orbital Transport is the launch vehicle of the 80’s. Based on the latest proposals for a reusable air breathing (scramjet) booster for orbital vehicles, the Transport is an exciting experience to build and fly.

What were these “latest proposals” that the catalog referenced?

Between August 1965 and September 1966, a joint NASA-US Air Force panel studied the possibility of building spaceplaces to succeed the expendable boosters and single-use capsules that were then launching people into space. The panel studied three classes of spaceplanes, namely:

  • Class I: A reusable spaceplane launched atop an expendable booster, such as the Saturn I-B or Titan III-M.
  • Class II: A fully reusable two-stage spaceplane, both stages winged and both powered by rocket engines. The orbital second stage would ride piggyback atop the suborbital first stage.
  • Class III: Another two-stage spaceplane, similar to Class II, but with air-breathing engines (scramjets) in the first stage.
Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

The panel envisioned all of these spaceplanes flying, one after the other, with the technology developed in one class being used in subsequent classes. In the panel’s optimistic timeline, Class I would fly by 1974, Class II by 1978, and Class III by 1981.1

The joint NASA-USAF panel issued its report in 1966, three years before Estes introduced the Orbital Transport. The design of the Orbital Transport kit is clearly based on the Class III spaceplane, and several details of the kit are drawn directly from the 1965-66 study. The carrier rocket, which represents the first stage of the Class III spaceplane, has open boxes under its “wings” (fins), which represent air-breathing scramjet engines. The 1980s date for the design (as the catalog description says) is also from the study, because Class III was supposed to be flying by 1981.

The Estes model rocket design included one fanciful element that was not present in the NASA-USAF study. While Class III was intended for launching satellites and possibly servicing a space station, Orbital Transport was a passenger transport, a space-airliner. The decal set that came with the kit identified it as being operated by “Astron Aerospace Lines,” and the decals for the glider had a row of windows with a stripe through them, like the airliners of the 1960s.

The NASA-USAF study proved to be fanciful as well. More than 55 years after the panel issued its report, a spaceplane like Class III has never been seriously considered. In the latter half of the sixties, NASA tried hard to make the Class II design work, but it was too big and too expensive, and the engineering challenges inherent in its design were too great. NASA at last fell back on a version of Class I, and in January 1972 (fifty years ago this month), President Nixon approved NASA’s plans to build a reusable spaceplane with a partially reusable booster—what would become known as the Space Shuttle. The shuttle first flew in 1981, the year that the vastly more sophisticated Class III spaceplane was supposed to start flying.

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)


The Estes Orbital Transport has been out of production for a long time (except for a brief reissue in the early 2000s), but Semroc makes a reproduction of it. I made my Orbital Transport by “cloning” it, which means that I built it from plans using stock parts (rather than using a kit, which wasn’t available at the time). I got the plans from JimZ Rocket Plans.

  1. T.A. Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA’s Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle (Washington, DC: NASA History Office, 1999), 82-83. []

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