back to article 50 years on, the Soviet-era Soyuz rocket is still our favorite space truck

On 28 November 1966, Soviet engineers cheered as the first Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Motherland and made it into space. 50 years later, the Soyuz family is still delivering the goods. For the past five years, the rockets have been our only means to resupply the International Space Station. Not bad for a rocket design …

  1. AbelSoul
    Pint

    Korolev Cross

    Excellent footage and a sight to behold. Cheers.

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Korolev Cross

      The soviet moon program (or rather any chance of it being a successful) pretty much died with Sergei Pavlovich in 1966. As there is no водка icon, I'll rise a pint to his memory.

  2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    Never underestimate machines that go 'ping' ...

    1. Ole Juul Silver badge

      or sometimes bang

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Boffin

      Never underestimate engineers who were supposed to be building an ICBM, but made a people-carrying rocket out of it.

      1. Gene Cash Silver badge

        supposed to be building an ICBM, but made a people-carrying rocket

        Or remember Werner von Braun, who wanted to make a people-carrying rocket but was forced to build an ICBM. He got there in the end though!

        1. John 104
          Flame

          @Gene Cash

          You might want to read up on your history a bit before you idolize von Braun.

          Yes, he got us to the moon. However, it was on the coat tails of his work for the Nazis during WW2, in which he used slave labor to build his toys. He cared only about his scientific achievements, no matter the cost in life.

          Here is some light reading for you. http://www.dora.uah.edu/slavelabor.html

          13,000 slaves died during the build out and production of the V2 facility. How much sleep do you suppose von Braun lost over this?

          1. Steve Evans

            Indeed.

            The rocket engineering expertise for both Russia and USA's space programs was provided by the Nazi rocket engineers they managed to grab at the end of the war.

            1. Beachrider

              Are you saying that it was ONLY Germans?

              Von Braun did not get a job on American rocketry until 1957. The Redstone and Titan ICBM projects (even the F-1, which became central to Saturn V) predated this time. He was reviled for his wait-and-be-sure approach with Redstone rockets for project Mercury. There WAS a way for the USA to get someone in space before Russia, but his cautiousness caused the USA to not-risk a person on the March 1961 Mercury/Redstone successful launch. The next one would be May. The Russians launched in April.

              He was part of a team for Apollo (started RIGHT after the May 1961 Redstone launch). He had nothing to do with the capsule and his design for LEM was merged with others. The second & third stage (HydroLOX) rockets were mainly outside of his control, too. He had a LOT to do with adapting F-1 to Saturn V and refining the RP-1/LOX design. None of the electronics was derived from German technology.

              He stood on his head and did a LOT of work, but he was a member of a team.

              He did care VERY little for the human cost at Peenemünde

          2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
            Pint

            He cared only about his scientific achievements, no matter the cost in life.

            He was apparently an all-round PHB. Here's a story from Helmut Hölzer, talking about the design and development of the A4 guidance computer (a world first in embedded electronics), in original Krautlang:

            Ich will hier die elektrische Modellgeschichte einmal unterbrechen und später darauf zurückkommen, weil ich chronologisch einigermaßen genau bleiben möchte. Der Grund dafür war ein Besuch von Dr. von Braun’s (1939) in unserem Labor. Er war ziemlich aufgeregt und erzählte mir, daß alle vier Firmen die unter Vertrag waren, eine Kurssteuerung zu entwickeln gestanden, daß ihre Berechnungen zeigten, daß die Steuerungen im Flug instabil sein würden.

            Der Grund dafür sagte er, wäre bei allen vieren, daß die Teile verwenden wollten, die ursprünglich für Flugzeuge gedacht waren, und daß einige, insbesondere die Servomotoren die die Strahlruder bewegen sollten, zu langsam waren. Letzten Endes hat die Rakete nur 60 Sekunden zum auskorrigieren einer Störung, während das Flugzeug den ganzen tag hat (so zu sagen). Sie erklärten, daß sie entweder schnellere Servos haben müßten oder die Aufschaltung der Winkelbeschleunigung zusätzlich zu der Winkelgeschwindigkeit, welche von den Wendezeigern geliefert wurde.

            Alles dies brauchte erheblich mehr Zeit und Geld beides war nicht da. Von Braun fragte mich: “Sie müssen doch ein ähnliches Problem in dem Fernsteuersystem haben; wie messen Sie denn die seitliche Geschwindigkeit?” Ich muß hier erwähnen, daß zu dieser Zeit die En twicklung der Kurssteuerung von der Fernsteuerentwicklung organisch getrennt war. Ich sagte ihm, daß wir die seitliche Geschwindigkeit nicht messen, sondern automatisch ausrechnen. Er sagte “ausrechnen? Können Sie denn nicht dasselbe tun für die Winkelbeschleunigung? Und wie lange würde Sie brauchen?” Er dachte offensichtlich in Wochen oder Monate. Meine Antwort war: “Es ist jetzt 9 Uhr; wenn Sie mal um 6 Uhr heute Abend wieder hereinschauen würden ...” Er faßte das als guten Witz auf und ging wieder weg. Für uns aber war das alles dank unseres elektrischen Simulators kein Problem und wir fanden ohne tief in die Theorie gehen zu müssen, stabile Bereiche. Abends versuchten wir von Braun zu finden, aber vergebens. Mir fällt da ein, daß wir öfter die Heisenberg’schen Unbestimmtheits-Realisation auf von Braun anwandten: Auf von Braun bezogen, sagt

            Relation No. 1: Wenn man genau weiß wo er ist, kann man nie genau sagen was er als nächstes tut.

            Relation No. 2: Wenn man genau weiß was er tut, kann ihn keiner finden.

            Als er schließlich auftauchte und sah was wir getan hatten, erwarteten wir Lob. Aber alles was er sagte war: Dafür werdet ihr Kerle ja bezahlt. Wo sind denn die Wendezeiger in diesem Aufbau?” Wir sagten ihm, daß zusätzlich zu der rechnerischen Gewinnung der Wendebeschleunigung die Wendezeiger bei diesem Unternehmen auch gestorben seien und daß sie auch durch Computer-Teile ersetzt wären. Kosten: Ein paar Mark gegen ein paar tausend. Er sagte dann: “Oh gut! Ich brauche gerade mehr Geld für Antriebsleute” und verschwand. Er war ein großer Mensch, wir verehrten ihn alle.

          3. bombastic bob Silver badge
            IT Angle

            "How much sleep do you suppose von Braun lost over this?"

            who knows. most likely, very little. There was a LOT of 'ends justifies the means' going on during that war, primarily on the Axis side, but not exclusively.

            Aside from that, the fact that a 50 year old rocket is still in use is a really good testament to 'tried and true' designs that aren't continuous moving targets. Such things make it possible to PLAN.

            Micro-shaft should take a lesson from this with respect to software development... [I just added "the I.T. angle" to it, heh]

          4. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

            @John 104 - The problem is any relatively high ranking German would have been caught up in the Nazi policies and stupidities. Von Braun, like many others, had to make a Faustian bargain with the regime. Also, protesting the Nazi regime was good way to end up in a concentration camp or dead. It is too easy to criticize when one is not likely to face a situation remotely similar.

            Von Braun was arrested by the Gestapo because he commented at one point that his interest was manned space flight not ballistic missiles.

          5. Zuagroasta

            And who do you think built Korolev's toys? He was himself a guest in Club Joe before being hauled out to build airplanes

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Vodka now!

    It's time to re-read "The Chief Designer" then. Google for ""Kolyma labor camp, sometime during World War II".

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Vodka now!

      Or for those that prefer their non-fiction to be well researched and footnoted to within an inch of it's life, there's "The Challenge To Apollo", which covers the manned Soviet space program from before WW2 up until the 1970's. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who's only ever read the US side of how they got to the moon.

  4. Joe Gurman

    Oh come now

    "For the past five years, the rockets have been our only means to resupply the International Space Station." As indicating by the correct reporting in the rest of the article, this sentence is clearly in error.... or SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Orbital have been spending a lot of cash on spitballs.

    The Soyuz spacecraft has been the sole method of crew transfer since the end of Shuttle operations, but there are lots of options (Progress [a Soyuz derivative], Dragon/CRS, Cygnus, Kounotori, ATV, and maybe someday Dreamchaser) for unmanned resupply/trash disposal.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "...and after the US set foot on the Moon first..."

    <citation needed>

    1. You aint sin me, roit

      Cheeky!

      The Russians giving up the race is probably proof enough...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cheeky!

        and rightly so.

        who wants to enter into a race with cheaters?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Cheeky!

          They never dared to go because of the Nazi Moonbases.

    2. Rattus Rattus

      Citation?

      Here we go: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/LRO/news/apollo-sites.html

      And it's an authoritative source.

  6. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    For gentlemen of certain age

    Soyuz is favourite because it looks like a proper Dan Dare spaceship.

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: For gentlemen of certain age

      Have you seen a Proton? Now there's a proper '50s-era SF pulp-magazine-cover rocket!

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: For gentlemen of certain age

        Pre-WWII, please!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          @DestroyAllMonsters - Re: For gentlemen of certain age

          Conrad Haas would do ?

  7. Gene Cash Silver badge

    It's interesting to see how the Russians do upgrades to the Soyuz spacecraft, such as the 6-orbit fast ISS rendezvous, switching to digital computers, adding the capability to use data relay satellites, and changes to the rendezvous systems.

    First they try it out on an unmanned Progress, which is identical except for obviously being unmanned. If that works for a couple flights, then it's approved for the manned Soyuz.

    Nobody else has such a large production line of vehicles to do this. All the American stuff is basically one-off and each Shuttle or capsule is its own "special jewel" with its own specific problems and idiosyncrasies.

    1. TitterYeNot

      "It's interesting to see how the Russians do upgrades to the Soyuz spacecraft"

      Yes, it's interesting looking at the differences between how the US and Russia develop their vehicles for their respective space programmes.

      The Americans seem to have gone for complex, expensive, brand new designs from the ground up, which they then risk-assess the hell out of (in theory at least.)

      The Russians, on the other hand, build something that they have some prior experience of, which is usually fairly simple, very effective, and only moderately dangerous. In testing it'll go bang, they'll work out why it went bang, fix it, and test it again. Then rinse and repeat. When the design stops going bang, you end up with a very effective, reliable piece of kit, which is why Russian rocket engines have been used in some US space vehicles since the end of the cold war - they're only starting to get unreliable now (see Orbital Sciences) due to age and poor maintenance.

      It does look as if the US have learnt something from the Russian design process though - their latest heavy lifter, the SLS, will re-use slightly updated versions of the Shuttle main engines and SRBs - why design something totally new when you've already got thoroughly tested, improved and reliable kit (now that the SRB O-ring leaks have been fixed.)

      1. druck Silver badge

        I'd say its less about learning something, and more about knowing they wont get the cash from congress to spunk on some even more hideously expensive ground up new design, and instead keeping favour by retaining employment at some of the old Shuttle factories.

      2. anothercynic Silver badge

        @TitterYeNot

        Yes, it's interesting looking at the differences between how the US and Russia develop their vehicles for their respective space programmes.

        The Americans seem to have gone for complex, expensive, brand new designs from the ground up, which they then risk-assess the hell out of (in theory at least.)

        Well, this is how the UK's BlueStreak was designed and built: Go for the simplest design with least failure possibilities. It might not be the shiniest, but it will work and continue to work for decades. But we all know what happened there.

        1. Beachrider

          @cynic

          You need to compare similar systems before drawing conclusions. The Russians have famously tried their Gemini-like (Vostok) rocket systems vastly beyond what NASA did with Titan. It evolved into Soyuz, but kept the manned vessels in LEO for 54 years, now.

          NASA redirected its basic research prime work to Apollo immediately after their FIRST Mercury/Redstone manned launch. Russia tried Energia for ONE launch, but it was unsuccessful and shortly abandoned. Russia has NEVER gotten a large rocket to 'work'.

          Russia has also kept Proton in its quiver, but has never qualified it for manned use. It has a track record of severe failures 10 percent of the time, too. Proton is 4-5 times the lift of Soyuz, no where near the 25-30 times Soyuz for Saturn.

          It is MUCH harder to build big rockets for manned work, especially for Lunar or Martian missions.

          1. cray74

            Re: @cynic

            Russia tried Energia for ONE launch, but it was unsuccessful and shortly abandoned. Russia has NEVER gotten a large rocket to 'work'.

            The Energia, with a Saturn V-class payload capacity, worked flawlessly on 100% of its flights - the Polyus launch and the Buran launch. In both cases, the Energia did its job. The Energia boosters have gone on to be the successful, if not flawless, Zenit rocket.

            The Polyus station core launch failed after separation from Energia. The station module was attached upside down (for some aerodynamic reason) and so needed to flip 180 degrees to perform an orbital insertion maneuver. Instead, it rotated 360 degrees, so the circularization burn became a de-orbit burn.

            Then the Soviet Union followed the Polyus's crash and there were no payloads or money for super-sized rockets. The successful Energia was mothballed.

        2. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: @TitterYeNot

          "Go for the simplest design with least failure possibilities."

          Sea Dragon it is then.

      3. cray74

        Americans...then risk-assess the hell out of (in theory at least.)

        They also test the hell out of it. Compare the Saturn V and Apollo development to that of the N-1.

        The Russians, on the other hand, build something that they have some prior experience of, which is usually fairly simple, very effective, and only moderately dangerous.

        They did just the opposite with the N-1. New engines, only 1-in-3 tested before launch; no stages tested all-up on the ground; and new aerodynamic design (an attempt at a base-plug nozzle) that was never fully tested before launches began. They also apparently didn't try much software testing because it was often the flight control computer that brought down the N-1 after something else broke on the test flights.

        That was the exact opposite of the US's approach to the Saturn V, which was: test in the factory, test on test stands, ground test in the full stage, test in unmanned flight test, and test some more. The F-1's, for example, operated for about 2 minutes but had a design life of 20 minutes just to accommodate required pre-flight testing; some permanent test engines accumulated over 2 hours of operation.

        But besides the atypical N-1 development cycle, the Russians do favor proven designs - just like the Americans. The US stuck with the Atlas, Titan, and Delta rocket series for so long for the same reason the Russians stuck with the Soyuz for so long: they worked, they were proven, and had mostly stopped going "bang." Like the Soyuz, all those families also saw continuous tinkering.

        Point being: both American and Russian 'rocket scientists' favor proven hardware. The SLS is by no means the first time Americans have recycled hardware.

        When the design stops going bang, you end up with a very effective, reliable piece of kit, which is why Russian rocket engines have been used in some US space vehicles since the end of the cold war - they're only starting to get unreliable now (see Orbital Sciences) due to age and poor maintenance.

        Well, no, the Russian engines (NK-33 and RD-180) had not flown prior to being used by the Americans.

        The Russian engines were selected because of their respectably high performance and the lack of equivalent American engines so well suited for first stages, not because of their reliability. The US had concentrated on hydrogen-oxygen liquid fuel rockets in the 1970s-1990s, which are better suited for upper stages than kerosene-oxygen engines. So seeing the performance of the Rooskie rockets was a revelation and an opportunity to upgrade existing workhorses like the Atlas.

        This was the case with the NK-33s (aka AJ-26). They had fantastic performance, high specific impulse and high thrust-to-weight ratios, but they hadn't been proven beyond a test stand. They were derivatives of the oft-balky NK-15s used on the N-1 and never found a home on Russian spacecraft - 60 engines were manufactured in the 1970s for the cancelled N-1F, and those were sold to Aerojet in the 1990s. (Kistler also wanted to use them but went bankrupt.)

        Aerojet did inspect and test the engines before installing them in the Antares, but it was an original manufacturing defect - not old age and bad maintenance - that caused the 2014 explosion. The 2014 Antares failure was traced to the NK-33's oxygen turbopumps' manufacturing defect.

        The NK-33 is getting more flying time because - for the first time - they're being installed in a Russian rocket, the upgraded Soyuz-2-1v. As much as the Russians like proven hardware, they're willing to shed the proven RD-107s/108s (thousands used in 1700 Soyuz launches) to try the NK-33 and its higher performance.

        Similarly, the RD-180 engines of the Atlas V were also selected for performance, not proven reliability. The RD-180 is a derivative of the RD-170 monster, basically an RD-170 cut in half. The RD-180 had not flown prior to use on the Atlas V. The RD-170 flew a couple of times on the Energia before Lockheed Martin bought the RD-180; its improved derivative, the RD-171, had flown a few times on the Zenit. Subsequently, the Zenit has flown a total of 83 times with 13 failures, 4 attributed to the RD-171.

        Basically, when Lockheed selected the RD-180 for the Atlas V there wasn't a lot of flown examples of its hardware family, and none of the actual RD-180. But it was a high performance piece of kit worth the gamble.

      4. jj_0

        So the Russians are Agile and the Americans Six Sigma?

        1. cd

          Americans are devops, thus the F-35.

      5. Alan Brown Silver badge

        "why design something totally new when you've already got thoroughly tested, improved and reliable kit"

        If you know how complex and risky the design for the SSMEs are, you might not be keen to ride on a rocket using them. Rocket engines are generally better with fewer moving parts in them, not more of the things coupled with complex bell designs that use the fuel to keep it from melting. (The F1 protected the bell by injecting the the exhaust gas from the turbopump along the inner edge, which provided a shielding effect. That's the black "sheath" you see over the flames as they emerge in the famous slo-mos of Apollo launches.)

    2. Beachrider

      to Gene, about the 6 hour launch...

      As part of the 1998 ISS agreement, the orbit of ISS is inclined 50+ degrees from the celestial equator. That was a special dispensation to the Russians to enable more Russian monitoring and cheaper Russian launches. NASA would have MUCH preferred a ZERO degree orbit.

      That being said, at least the Russians exploited the arrangement.

  8. Archtech Silver badge

    Korolev, Challenger, Columbia...

    Essentially the same syndrome at work.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Korolev, Challenger, Columbia...

      Explain!

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Korolev, Challenger, Columbia...

        I think he's suggesting politicians/administrators over-ruling engineers is not a good thing. Whether he's right (or I've interpreted his intentions correctly) is another matter.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Were waiting for the EM Drive.... oh wait:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCAqDA8IfR4

    Now were waiting for the Skylon Sabre:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSEnAB1J4KE

  10. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Aaarrrr! Motherland!

    This is a good occassion to post soviet-era ballistic dogs and hardware:

    1st Soviet ballistic missiles & heroic space dogs in declassified Kapustin Yar range

  11. Anna Logg

    "The goal was to develop rockets usable both to defend the Soviet state and get it into space."

    "After several prototypes, the Soviets produced the R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile."

    ICBMs are a defensive weapon?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      ICBMs are a defensive weapon?

      Originally, with the V2, no.. those were offensive. But nukes changed that.

      Under the Cold War doctrine, yes they were and still are. Both sides had them as part of the MAD theory: "You launch first, we'll retaliate and destroy everything and every one.". If they were offensive, someone might have launched first and indeed, we (the world) came very close to nuclear war several times. It was only some cool heads in charge of launching that prevented it.

      Now if we believe the NORKS, ICBM's are offensive as they've claimed they will launch first.

      1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Also consider the fact that anti-ballistic missile systems were regulated by treaty before ballistic missile were, because the latter were considered an indication of offensive intent.

        The real offensive weapons are the little ones (tanks, planes, boats) because those are the ones that you can actually use day-to-day to make war.

  12. aberglas

    One way to the moon would have been much easier

    The Soviets could have easily won the space race just by sending somebody one way. They had already successfully landed a probe on the moon, just do another with somebody inside.

    It would have made two points. First that they got there first. And second, that soviet life is cheap. In the ICBM games you have to be prepared to lose a few million lives, which would not have bothered the Soviets that much but would have terrified the Americans.

    1. herman Silver badge

      Re: One way to the moon would have been much easier

      Err... about 24 people died flying American space craft and only about 8 flying Russian space craft. There are good reasons why for many years now, Russia is the only country doing manned space flight. The Americans are a bunch of cowboys by comparison, with little regard for human life and safety.

  13. TheProf

    Design

    "the first Soyuz design was large for its time and very powerful. While it was designed to be flown with a three-man crew capsule on top"

    Are you sure about that?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vostok_spacecraft

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voskhod_(spacecraft)

    The original manned capsule was designed for one person. The following capsule design removed the ejector seat and fitted a second couch allowing for two crew. Dispensing with spacesuits at launch allowed for three crew members.

    I read a book several years ago written by an engineer who had worked on the Russian rocket programme. It provided a fascinating insight into the politically motivated space programme. (Sorry I can't remember the authors name. I'd like to read it again sometime.)

  14. Redosk

    "SpaceX has a few things to learn from the old masters"

    They have to learn how to destroy shipment to the ISS, twice in less than 2 years, that's what you meant, right ? :)

  15. herman Silver badge

    Hmm, many more Americans died in their space program than Soviet citizens in theirs - about 3 times more in fact. The US tossed money and people at the problem with wild abandon. Flying with the Russian space craft is much safer. Boeing and Space Exploration have a long way to go to catch up with Russia on the safety front.

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