Soviet Space Program

John Harding February , 1999



During the 20th century, there have been many great achievements in space exploration, from the 1957 launch by the Soviet Union of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, to the new International Space Station currently under construction. The majority of these feats have been achieved by two nations the United States and the former Soviet Union, combined these two nations led the world into space and set the groundwork for all future missions. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russian Federation inherited the space program of the Soviet Union. The newly formed Russian space agency, or RKA, would share control of the former Soviet Union’s space program with the military space forces, or VKS, including use of the Baikonur Cosomodrome which is located in the newly independent nation of Kazahkstan. In the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the RKA would take a visible role in space exploration by maintaining the Mir space station, providing launch capability for foreign satellites, and becoming a key partner in the new International Space Station Freedom.


By far the most well known Russian space triumph has been the Mir space station, Mir is the Russian word for peace, this part of the program has brought both success and failure to the RKA, but overall has allowed for huge advances in research. First launched on February 20, 1986, Mir has outlived it’s planned mission of three years by over a decade. These years have been turbulent for the program, while it has yielded great scientific data, most news reports have been about he myriad of problems the crews have faced. These problems range from an inability to get supplies due to budget shortages, failing electrical and guidance systems, to a potentially deadly failure of Mir’s life support systems. While all these problems were solved by ground based engineers and the brave work of cosmonauts on-board they have marred the image of Mir. The RKA prefers to focus on the successes of Mir, these include the records set for time in space, the longest of which was 466 days by Valery Polaykov, are several times longer than any previous records. In response to budget shortages after the fall of the Soviet Union, the RKA began excepting foreign cosmonauts on-board Mir, these cosmonauts have come from the United States, Kazahkstan, Syria, the European Space Agency, and several other nations. While on-board Mir these foreign cosmonauts conduct experiments from their home country as well as assisting the Russian cosmonauts with RKA programs. There are several ways for cosmonauts and supplies to reach Mir, the most popular has been the Russian Soyluz space craft, but the NASA Space Shuttle has made several trips to Mir, and the failed Soviet Buran shuttle had been designed to dock with Mir. In their most recent experiment aboard Mir, the RKA attempted to use a large mirror to reflect sunlight towards northern Russia, much of which gets little sun during the long wither months. Unfortunately, this experiment failed and the mirror was let loose to burn apart in the Earth’s atmosphere. Overall, Mir has provide a great deal of scientific information despite being faced with the challenges of outlasting it’s predicted life expectancy and a loss of funding from the government.


In the years since 1991, the RKA has seen a massive drop in the funds Moscow has allocated for the space program. This is not a result of waning interest, but a harsh reality of the crippled Russian economy. In an effort to find their own funds, the RKA began to launch commercial satellites for companies around the world. While this practice has grown around the world, the RKA is the world’s leader. Providing a lower costs than the Untied States, while assuring greater reliability and technological superiority to any other competitor, the RKA has found a market for it’s service. Since few details are available about this relatively new program, one must assume that their clients include the usual list of telecommunications companies and smaller governments without space programs of their own. Whomever the clients might by, this part of the program has provided much needed foreign currency for the RKA.


The future of the RKA lies with the future of the International Space Station Freedom. While the Russians are unable to honor all of their financial commitments, the program is dependent upon their knowledge of space endurance and technology required to build such a station. The station is currently under construction, with the first piece having been designed and built in Russia. In the years to come, many more components of the station are to be built by the Russians, and their knowledge of human behavior in space will play an even larger role. It is this knowledge of the effects space has on the human body that make the Russians partnership key. No other nation has maintained a space station for so long, and besides the NASA Skylab of the 1970s, no other nation has ever launched a space station. Thusly, the RKA is the only space agency with any knowledge of the physical and mental stress long periods in space put upon the human body. It is for this reason that the other partners are able to tolerate Russian shortcomings, such as an inability to finance their portion of the station and the long delays in construction resulting from the state of the Russian economy.


It has been almost eight years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of the RKA, in that time there have been great achievements in space exploration by the RKA. However, the agency can not escape the economic realities of Russia today, money is scarce and the program has been reduced from the glory days under Communism. In what can be seen as a harsh reminder of this the famed Soviet Buran Shuttle, built to rival NASA’s own shuttle, has been de-activated and now stands in a Moscow park, a rusted reminder of days past.











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