Category Archives: Soviet Space History

An Embarrassment of Rich Space History?


Image from Go there to see more. I’m sure they would appreciate it.

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Over four years ago, I had fun writing about the Buran, the Soviet Union’s (now Russia) answer to the U.S. Space Shuttle. You can read about it here:

The reason why I’m bringing this up is because posted an article (here: about a week ago. It’s a story about a reporter who managed to sneak into places at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. These are places Westerners typically are not allowed to visit. In this instance, the reporter not only snuck in, but took quite a few photos.

The photos were of the Buran–two Burans, actually. He also captured a few photos of the Energia booster, which would have lifted one the Burans into orbit. The story focuses on the reporter’s efforts to get to these buildings, and what happened when he returned to show off the photos of what sat within. Apparently some Russians have been embarrassed by this. It’s probably almost as embarrassing as a teenager flying a Cessna 100’s of miles through very secure airspace and then landing in Red Square (true story:

But it’s also sad. The Russians were very good at building awesome space technology. The launch vehicles used today in Roscosmos launches are a testament to the engineering and design prowess of the Russians (albeit flagging lately). The shape of their Soyuz launch vehicle is about as iconic as V-2 based rocket designs, and perhaps better-looking. But in those images lay some of the Soviet space program’s more interesting projects, covered in bird droppings and hidden away from history, in buildings that sound like they are on the verge of collapse.

Whether the Soviets dropped the Burans because they realized operations would be too expensive for such as a system, money issues generally, or were concerned about possible safety issues because of the system’s complexity, I am not sure (I’ll have to find a book about it). But there they sit, a history snapshot.

I’d love to see them in person one day.


Your Comrade Through Space History


Take a walk through history. Image from Roscosmos.

A friend of mine passed along this link today: Before you click on it, you should have some time on your hands. This is an animated walk through history, thanks to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s a very dynamic and cool way to present some of the more important historic bits in space history.

Initially, there’s a Russian space history focus. But as the little space traveller goes along, more international missions get discovered. Really, that site is all this short blurb of a post is about, but maybe it will help make the mid-week bearable for some of you.

If you are Russian, learning Russian, or have Russian friends, you can go directly to: Either site is pretty nifty, maybe proving that it doesn’t matter the language–space is just fun.

P.S.: Don’t forget to move the mouse around on the initial load screen. The spacewalking cosmonaut is more than a pretty picture.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

There’s something kind of beautiful about this old Soviet rocket design. Notice the arms protruding from the ground? Those arms are what hold the rocket up before launch, using the rocket’s weight to “clamp” it into place. Image from Wikimedia.

I found this 2001 Air & Space article during my research about Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite. It’s a very good first person account of a visit out to the Baikonur Cosmodrome and some of the run-ups and rituals for launching from there. The writer was there for a launch of the first permanent International Space Station crew (which occurred in November 2000). It’s a neat article, because I love reading about some of the traditions established by the Russians that started with Sputnik-1’s launch. The story is four pages long, so if you have time, give it a read.

Overhead look of some of the launch sites in Baikonur. Image hosted on “Stop Frames of the Planet” blog.

Probably like most space nerds, I’ve known about Baikonur for a long time. It’s a big Russian rocket launch complex. It’s also known by another, perhaps less well-known name: Tyuratam (or Tyura Tam). Either way, the Cosmodrome has a place in space history, as well as missile development history. Like Peenemuende in Germany (some history about that here), it is the site that launched a few space history “firsts.” Probably the most well-known is the launch of Sputnik-1 into space on October 4, 1957 from Baikonur’s “site 1.” Sputnik-1 wasn’t very big, just 23 inches (58 centimeters) in diameter and weighing around 184 pounds (over 83 kilograms).

Almost exactly a month later, Laika the dog was launched in Sputnik-2. Laika, unfortunately, didn’t last long, but the satellite the poor dog was ensconced in was massive when compared to Sputnik-1, weighing in at over 1,120 pounds (about 508 kilograms). Both Sputniks were launched on top of a modified R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)–which was a first as well. The R-7, like the traditions at Baikonur, became well-used. It became a heavily modified rocket design used in space launches even now.

Yuri Gagarin was launched from Baikonur. He was “only” the first man in space. Launched into space on April 12, 1961, we still commemorate that event now with “Yuri’s Night” every year in April. By the way, the organization I work with will be hosting a Yuri’s Night this year (2015). We’re going to have astronauts and others hosting the event, and it will be in our little, but fantastic, museum–the Discovery Center. If you wish to attend, you’ll have to pay, though. If you are close by and wish to attend, just go here.

But back to Baikonur. It is the biggest launch complex in the world. It’s probably also the oldest. The Soviets used to own it, building it in the middle of nowhere (for the most part) so their missile tests wouldn’t inadvertently hurt populated areas. Another consideration for it’s placement in Kazakhstan was to keep Soviet activities away from spying US eyes (although it was photographed by a U-2 within the same year the Soviets started testing ICBMs in 1957). It was a part of the Soviet Union, but now is leased for use by the Russian government from Kazakhstan.

Baikonur is the ONLY place right now that launches humans to the International Space Station. Which makes it the ONLY place that gives humans a physical toehold in space exploration and activities. China might also eventually start placing Taikonauts in their own space station, but until Americans once again have a crew-rated space launch vehicle, the Russians, and Baikonur in particular, are both playing important and historic roles for human space launch.

Repost: Soviet Dogs and History

Image from the Guardian. Notice Strelka and Belka in the rocket’s windows?

This is a repost of a post from 3 Sept 2014.  For those who just needed a reminder, yesterday was the 57th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s second satellite launched into space.  This time with a dog named Laika on board.  And while the Soviets’ accomplishment of launching the first living being into space shouldn’t be forgottern, there were other dogs involved in the Soviet Space program, all talked about in The Guardian’s posts, linked to from this article.

There were a couple of Soviet space history posts published on The Guardian’s pages on 1 Sept.  Both talk about the dogs for the Soviet space program.  However, this one talks about the Soviet Union’s odd hero-worship of the dogs that were sent into space through their space program.  The post also mentions some of the reasons why dogs were considered a good fit for space testing in the USSR.  The program starts, of course, with Laika, who was launched in space in November 1957.  It was the second successful space launch of a satellite conducted by the Soviet Union.  The United States hadn’t even successfully launched their first satellite into space.

Not only had the Soviets launched a second satellite into space nearly a month after their Sputnik launch, but they launched a satellite with a living being on board.  That history-making being was Laika (Russian for “the barker”), the dog.  According to the post, the Russians admitted in 2002 that Laika did not survive more than a few hours after launch and suffocated.

But other dogs were also used by the USSR to forge ahead into space again in August 1960.  Two of them.  Belka (Little Squirrel) and Strelka (Little Arrow), orbited the Earth 18 times in a Vostok-1 spacecraft, then came back to Earth safely.  They were treated as heroes and toured the USSR.  They apparently lived long lives, and Strelka even had several litters of puppies.  In an odd side note, while Nikita Khrushchev was eating dinner with President and Mrs. Kennedy in June 1961, Khrushcheve bragged about Strelka’s litter of “space” puppies.  Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy joked about the possibility of Khrushchev sending a puppy to her.  Two months later, she received a space puppy from the USSR.

It seems that dogs tend to fare better than the geckos used in Russia’s more recent space experiments.  But it wasn’t all doggy heaven–the dogs unknowingly risked their lives during these experiments.  The Guardian’s post mentions two other dogs by name:  Chaika (Seagull) and Lisichka (Little Fox) were some of the unfortunates who died in the line of duty.  The post doesn’t really mention the other six dogs that also had died before Belka and Strelka, but it’s not the point of the post.

The fascinating hero-worship of the Soviet Space Dogs continues to be focused on in another fine Guardian post, too, this time showing the stamps, toys, postcards, and candies.  Pictures of their space dogs were posted proudly on all these items.  I seem to remember seeing some of these stamps in my earlier days.  I thought they were nifty then, and they are definitely fun to peruse now.  Please go to the Guardian’s page to enjoy the pictures of the Soviet dogs as they help sell some sugary snack to some Soviet citizen.

These dogs helped with Soviet space programs until 1966.  They were pioneers, if not in space, then for manned space programs, taking risks that human astronauts would not.  Plus, they’re kind of cute.  No wonder the Soviets adored them.

DIY Space: Ardusat

Image from Ardusat.

Before I begin the fairly short DIY part, this is just a reminder for those who don’t know, or just plain forgot.  Today is the anniversary of Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite, which was launched into orbit on the top of an R-7 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome. The R-7 had already been successfully tested as a missile earlier, on August 21, 1957.  That test demonstrated the R-7 to be the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile as it flew the 3,700 miles to hit a target near the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Artist’s conception of Sputnik I in orbit. Image from Wikimedia, posted by Gregory R. Todd.


However, the nosecone system designed to protect the nuclear payload  had failed during that test.  In September, another R-7 basically did the same thing again, but this time the nosecone worked as designed.  In spite of the historical and strategic significance of the missile tests, the West didn’t really bat an eyelid.  It only reacted once Sputnik was launched into orbit.  If you wish to read a really great story about the origins, development, and launch of Sputnik, I recommend Matthew Brzezinski’s “Red Moon Rising.”  It does a great job of humanizing the Soviet Chief Engineer, Sergei Korolev.  Sputnik I was always Korolev’s goal, but the missile program helped him get there.  The story shows the Soviet Union’s rocket development efforts in contrast to the antics going on in the United States at the time.

Also, Sputnik’s anniversary kicks off the start of “World Space Week” for 2014.  For those interested, please go to the website, which is full of good information.

Back to DIY, though.  If you’re a teacher who believes the classroom needs more hands on with space projects, this might be the key, depending on your resources.  Ardusat wants to bring satellite building into the classroom.  They offer a few kits, and according to this post, the cost of the kits is as low as $2,500.  The kits use a Spire (formerly Nanosatisfi) Cubesat bus and, of course, an Arduino (What!  You don’t know what an Arduino is??!!  Go here to find out).  It also includes a few sensors and wires.  There’s more to their kits, but you can go to this part of their website to find out, if you’re curious.

If you and your students have an idea for an Ardusat experiment, then just go this part of Ardusat’s site and sign up for their Association of Space Explorers Astrosat Challenge.  You can sign up until October 30, 2014.  The prize?  One week’s worth of data from an on-orbit satellite.