Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Soyuz


“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.


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!

Technological continuity and change in the Russian space program

Listen to this post as a podcast:

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.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén