20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program

Steve - March 3, 2019

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
The Voskhod 1 capsule, as flown in 1964. On display at the Science Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

8. Setting a manned spacecraft altitude record, as well as carrying for the first time more than one individual, Voskhod 1 saw space travel enter into a new stage on October 12, 1964

Launching on the morning of October 12, 1964, and carrying for the first time a crew of more than one – three – Voskhod 1 marked an important milestone in the history of space travel. Lasting only a little over twenty-four hours, coinciding with the flight of Voskhod 1 was the removal of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev; his replacement, Leonid Brezhnev, made his first public appearance as the new head of state with the returning cosmonauts. The mission also set new records for altitude, reaching a height of 336 kilometers above the Earth, and its use of non-military pilots represented a minute shift away from military control over the space program.

Voskhod 1‘s mission was not without controversy. Lacking sufficient space, being originally designed for just two passengers, the crew of the spacecraft were required to forego spacesuits for the first time. Equally, the spacecraft had its ejection seats and emergency parachutes removed to make additional space. Furthermore, due to extreme politicking surrounding the launch, the original crew of Voskhod 1 were rejected just three days prior to their scheduled departure and replaced with comparatively untrained, but well-connected, individuals. Consequently, although the United States responded fearfully, being far behind with Project Gemini, the Soviet Union privately viewed the entire saga as an undisciplined “circus”.

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
Alexey Leonov performs the first-ever spacewalk during Voskhod 2. Wikimedia Commons.

7. Conducting the first-ever “space walk” on March 18, 1965, the crew of the Voskhod 2 braved the vacuum of space in a historic landmark

Launched on the morning of March 18, 1965, Voskhod 2, carrying two crew members, made history when Alexey Leonov became the first person to leave a spacecraft in orbit and perform an extra-vehicular activity. Lasting for approximately 12 minutes, carrying a suicide capsule in the event of failure Leonov bade farewell to his colleague, Pavel Belyayev, and stepped into the empty vacuum of space to conduct the first-ever “space walk”. Suffering from heatstroke, with his core body temperature increasing almost two degrees, Leonov was dangerously forced to depressurize his suit below safe limits to fit back inside the airlock.

Unable to return to their seats whilst wearing their custom spacesuits, the orbital module, without the calculated center of mass, was delayed disconnecting from the landing module by forty-six seconds. This delay caused the returning spacecraft to land almost four hundred kilometers from the intended landing site, instead arriving in the remote forests of Upper Kama Upland. Surrounded by wolves and bears, as well as facing freezing temperatures, the duo were forced to spend the night huddled together waiting for rescue. Arriving the following day, the pair were, eventually, safely retrieved from the site and hailed as heroes.

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
A replica of the Luna 9, on display at the Museum of Air and Space, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Achieving the first soft landing on the Moon on February 3, 1966, Luna 9 offered the world the first photographs of the celestial object from its surface

Launched on January 31, 1966, Luna 9 departed Earth on a mission to photograph the Moon from its surface. Using a four-stage rocket system to allow the lander to escape Earth’s orbit and reach the celestial orb, once Luna 9 reached 8,300 kilometers from the Moon landing protocols were initiated. Gradually slowing the fall of the lunar lander, the spacecraft hit the surface at a speed of approximately 22 kilometers per hour. Bouncing several times, the 99-kilogram Luna 9 eventually settled, becoming the first man-made object to perform a soft landing on another celestial body on February 3.

Beginning just minutes after landing, Luna 9 began surveying its new surroundings. Taking seven hours for data to be received by mission control, the probe successfully transmitted the first of nine images of the Moon’s surface. Although the Soviets did not plan for their immediate release, British observers at Jodrell Bank successfully identified the radio signals and intercepted the pictures which were then published worldwide. Proving that the surface of the Moon could support the weight of lander without sinking, a vital piece of information for future missions, final contact with Luna 9 was made on February 6.

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
The Luna 10 satellite. Wikimedia Commons.

5. The first artificial satellite to orbit another celestial body, Luna 10 began its orbit of the Moon on April 3, 1966

Launched towards the Moon on March 31, 1966, from an Earth-orbiting platform, Luna 10, after two emergency course corrections by Soviet mission control, successfully entered into lunar orbit on April 3. Completing its first orbit three hours later, Luna 10 began conducting important scientific studies on the environment of our celestial companion. Examining levels of gravity, radiation conditions, as well as performing geological surveys of the Moon’s composition, the satellite transmitted a total of 219 signals throughout the course of its mission. Eventually, after 460 orbits, the battery depleted and radio contact was lost on May 30.

Continuing to remain as the first artificial satellite of the Moon, Luna 10 serves as an exemplar of the propaganda purpose of early space programs during the Cold War. Fitted with a set of specially designed oscillators, after having entered into lunar orbit the spacecraft was programmed to reproduce the tune of “The Internationale”: the anthem of the socialist movement. Planned to be broadcast live before the 23rd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in a display of the technological brilliance of communism, a rehearsal tape from the night before was actually secretly transmitted due to a malfunction on the night of April 3.

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
Model of Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 after performing the first docking of two manned spacecraft on 16 January 1969. Wikimedia Commons.

4. Performing the first successful crew exchange in space on January 14, 1969, the crews of the Soyuz 4 and 5 beat their American counterparts by two months and did so externally via a “space walk”

Launching Soyuz 4 on January 14, 1969, carrying a single cosmonaut, Vladimir Shatalov, Soyuz 5 departed Earth the following day with a three-person crew. Their collective mission, attempted previously and unsuccessfully, was to transfer two members of the crew of Soyuz 5 into Soyuz 4 before safely returning all parties back to Earth. Soyuz 4 served as the active vehicle in the docking, attaching itself to its sister ship. Using a pulley-and-cable system to ensure a safe “space-walk”, the two exchanging crew, Khrunov and Yeliseyev, carried with them newspapers printed after the departure of Soyuz 4 the previous day to prove the veracity of their accomplishment.

Separating after just four hours and thirty-five minutes attached, the spacecraft began preparations for re-entry after the successful and historic operation. This process was not without incident, with the service module of Soyuz 5 failing to separate and causing the spacecraft to enter the atmosphere nose-first. Leaving the only remaining crew member, Boris Volynov, hanging by his straps, the atmosphere almost burned through the escape hatch into his compartment. Adding insult to injury, the parachute lines and landing rockets malfunctioned, precipitating a hard landing in which Volynov shattered several of his teeth.

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
A replica model of the Soviet Lunokhod rover. Wikimedia Commons.

3. A response to the successes of Apollo 11, the landing of Lunokhod 1 on November 17, 1970, saw the first lunar rover embark upon a historic journey across the surface of the Moon

Following the failure of Lunokhod 0 (No.201) in February 1969, which had failed to reach orbit, Lunokhod 1 was launched on November 10, 1970, to become the first remote-controlled robotic rover to move across the surface of a foreign celestial object. Entering lunar orbit on November 15, the lander performed a soft-landing two days later in the Sea of Rains on the Moon. Although designed for a highly limited lifespan of just three lunar days, the approximate equivalent of three Earth months, Lunokhod 1 in fact operated for eleven lunar days, almost an entire Earth year, during which time it traveled a distance of 10.54 kilometers.

Operating during the daytime and hibernating at night to preserve battery power, the rover, measuring 2.3 meters in length, was equipped with four television cameras, a range of x-ray technologies, and an antenna for data transfer. Across a combined 322 days of operation, Lunokhod 1 returned in excess of 20,000 images, including 206 high-resolution panoramas, as well as twenty-five soil analyses and constant readings of the lunar surface. Whilst originally thought lost after deactivating, in 2010 the historic rover was identified in modern pictures of the Moon and determined to reside near the limb of the celestial body.

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
The view of the world’s first space station, the Soviet Salyut 1, as seen from the departing Soyuz 11 (c. June 30, 1971). Wikimedia Commons.

2. Serving as the first crewed space station in 1971, Salyut 1 laid the foundations for long-term human habitation outside of our native Earth but at a heavy price

Developing out of the top-secret Soviet military space station program “Almaz”, following the landmark Apollo 11 mission the Soviets shifted focus towards the construction of a space station in order to regain prestige after suffering defeat in the race to the Moon. Beginning construction in early 1970, the space station was launched on April 19, 1971, to become the first space station in Earth’s orbit. On April 24, the first crew for Salyut 1 arrived on board the Soyuz 10 and attempted to dock with the space station. However, due to technical malfunctions, this was unsuccessful and the crew were forced to return to Earth.

On June 6, a replacement crew aboard the Soyuz 11 departed for the station. Arriving the following day, after almost three and a half hours of careful docking the crew were able to enter and man Salyut 1. However, suffering another misfortune, on June 29, after just 23 days and 362 orbits, sustained problems including an electrical fire demanded the mission be aborted. Disembarking aboard Soyuz 11, during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere a pressure valve malfunctioned causing a loss of cabin pressure. Not wearing pressure suits, all three members of the crew were found dead upon landing on June 30.

20 Important Historical Firsts Achieved by the Soviet Space Program
The historic handshake between Stafford and Leonov (c. July 17, 1975). Wikimedia Commons.

1. Serving as the final act in the protracted space race, in July 1975 the United States and the Soviet Union put aside their rivalries to share the honor of staging the first multinational crewed mission in space

A symbol of the ongoing détente – a relaxation of the hostilities between the competing superpowers – the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project demonstrated the potential of humanity in outer space without rivalry and marked the end of the Space Race which had begun almost twenty years prior. Involving the docking of an Apollo Command Module, surplus and repurposed from the Apollo program, and a Soviet spacecraft, the Soyuz 19, both two-man crews launched on July 15, 1975, to prepare for docking two days later. Among the Soviets, was Alexey Leonov, the first man to walk in space a decade earlier.

Spending a total of 44 hours together, during which time President Gerald Ford phoned the crew and gifts were exchanged, the American crew maneuvered their spacecraft to create an artificial solar eclipse to allow the Soviets to photograph the solar corona before returning to Earth. Sadly, despite hopes at the time of the mission that it might result in space, and even politics in general, becoming less competitive between the two nations, the legacy of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was limited. Both nations renewed national enterprises as the Cold War heated upon once more, with international cooperation not restarting until the 1990s with the International Space Station.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Rockets and People: Creating a Rocket Industry”, Boris Chertok, U.S. Government Printing Office (2006)

“Sputnik: The Shock of the Century”, Paul Dickson, Walker & Co (2007)

“Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige”, Yanek Mieczkowski, Cornell University Press (2013)

“Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge”, Asif A. Siddiqi, The University of Florida Press (2003)

“The Complete Book of Spaceflight: From Apollo 1 to Zero Gravity”, David Darling, John Wiley & Sons (2003)

“Soviet and Russian Lunar Exploration”, Brian Harvey, Springer Publishing (2006)

“Russian Space Probes: Scientific Discoveries and Future Missions”, Brian Harvey, Springer Publishing (2011)

“The Soviet Space Race with Apollo”, Asif A, Siddiqi, The University of Florida Press (2003)

“Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon”, James J. Harford, John Wiley & Sons (1997)

“The First Soviet Cosmonaut Team: Their Lives, Legacy, and Historical Impact”, Colin Burgess and Rex Hall, Praxis (2008)

“The Rocket Men: Vostok & Voskhod, The First Soviet Manned Spaceflights”, Rex Hall and David Shayler, Springer Publishing (May 18, 2001)

“Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier?”, Brian Harvey, Springer-Praxis Books (2001)

“Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965”, Francis French and Colin Burgess, University of Nebraska Press (2007)

“Space for Women: A History of Women With the Right Stuff”, Pamela Freni, Seven Locks Press (2002)

“Manned Spacecraft”, Kenneth Gatland, Macmillan Publishing (1976)

“The Right Stuff”, Tom Wolfe, Bantam Books (1979)

“Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974”, Asif A. Siddiqi, NASA (2011)

“The Rocket Men: Vostok and Voskhod, the First Soviet Manned Spaceflights”, Rex Hall and David J. Shayler, Springer Books (2001)

“The Nightmare of Voskhod 2”, Alexei Leonov, Air and Space Magazine (January 1, 2005)

“1966: Soviets Land Probe on Moon”, BBC (February 3, 1966)

“Is My Hair Grey”: The Story of Soyuz 4 and 5 (Part 2)”, Ben Evans, AmericaSpace (January 5, 2014)

“Lunokhod 1: 1st Successful Lunar Rover”, Elizabeth Howell, Space.com (December 19, 2016)

“Lost and Found: Soviet Lunar Rover”, Irene Klotz, Seeker (April 27, 2010)

“The Story of Manned Space Stations: An Introduction”, Philip Baker, Springer-Praxis Books (2007)

“Salyut – The First Space Station: Triumph and Tragedy”, Grujica S. Ivanovich, Springer-Praxis Books (2008)

“Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle”, Donald Slayton and Michael Cassutt, Forge Publishing (1994)

“The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project”, Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, NASA History Series (1978)

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