Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private - U.s. Military Space Programs, Space Agencies Around The World, Russia, Europe

Space Organizations Part 2: U.S. Military, Foreign and Private - Russia

soviet vostok orbit program

The Russian Space Agency is called Rosaviakosmos (RKA). It was officially created on February 25, 1992, by decree of the President of the Russian Federation. The RKA inherited the technologies, programs, and facilities of the Soviet Union space program.

Sergei Korolëv

Sergei Korolëv (1906–1966) is considered the founder of the Soviet Union space program. Korolëv was born in Zhitomir, a town in what is now the Ukraine. An engineer and aviator who began building rockets in the 1930s, he founded a rocket organization called Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya (Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). Following World War II the government appointed Korolëv to develop Soviet missile systems.

In August 1957 his team successfully tested the R-7, the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The R-7 was powerful enough to carry a nuclear warhead to the United States or a satellite into outer space. In October 1957 an R-7 rocket carried Sputnik 1 into orbit. It was the world's first artificial satellite. The Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space.


Korolëv's next challenge was to beat the United States to the Moon. In January 1959 the Soviet probe Luna 1 flew past the moon. In September 1959 Luna 2 was (deliberately) crashed into the lunar surface, making it the first manmade object to reach the Moon. A month later Luna 3 took the first photographs of the far side of the moon. Korolëv was already working on a spacecraft for manned missions. It was a modified R-7 called Vostok ("East" in English). Vostok included a sphere-shaped cosmonaut module that held one person. The module was too heavy for a parachute. Instead it included an ejection seat so that the cosmonaut could eject from the module following reentry and parachute to Earth by himself.

Throughout 1960 and early 1961 the Vostok was tested unmanned, with dogs, small mammals, and a mannequin aboard. Vostok flying dogs included Strelka, Belka, Pchelka, Mushka, Chernushka, and Zvezdochka. Many of the dogs died during these tests. The mannequin was nicknamed Ivan Ivanovich, which is the Russian equivalent of "John Doe."

International space agencies

Country Name Acronym
Argentina Comisión Nacional de Investigaciones Espaciales CONAE
Australia Australian Space Office ASO
Austria Österreichische Gesellschaft für Weltraumfragen Ges.m.b.H (Austrian Space Agency) ASA
Belgium Belgium Federal Science Policy Office SPO
Brazil Agência Espacial Brasileira AEB
Bulgaria Bulgarian Aerospace Agency BASA
Canada Canadian Space Agency CSA
China China National Space Administration CNSA
Denmark Dansk Rumforsknignsinstitut (Danish Space Research Institute) DSRI
Finland National Technology Agency of Finland Tekes
France Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales CNES
Germany Deutschen Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt DLR
Hungary Magyar Ürkutatási Iroda (Hungarian Space Office) HSO
India Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO
Indonesia National Institute of Aeronautics & Space LAPAN
Israel Israel Space Agency ISA
Italy Agenzia Spaziale Italiana ASI
Japan Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency JAXA
Korea Korea Aerospace Research Institute KARI
Netherlands Nationaal Lucht-en Ruimtevaartlaboratorium (National Aerospace Laboratory) NAL
Norway Norsk Romsenter (Norwegian Space Centre) NSC
Poland Space Research Centre SRC
Portugal Instituto Nacional de Engenharia e Tecnologia Industrial INETI
Romania Romanian Space Agency ROSA
Russia Rosaviakosmos RKA
Spain Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial INTA
Sweden Swedish National Space Board SNSB
United Kingdom British National Space Centre BNSC
SOURCE: Created by the author, 2004

On April 12, 1961, the Soviets launched the first man into space aboard Vostok 1. His name was Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was one of the 20 original cosmonauts selected by the Soviet Union in 1959 for manned spaceflights. Korolëv played a major role in selecting and training the cosmonauts. In 1960 they began training at a sprawling new complex called Zvyozdny Gorodok (Star City) in the Russian countryside. Gagarin's flight into orbit lasted 108 minutes and reached an altitude of 203 miles. During descent, Gagarin parachuted safely from the module and landed in a rural field. A month later, on May 6, 1961, U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

There were five more Vostok flights from 1961 through 1963. Vostok 2 carried Gherman Titov to 17.5 orbits around Earth on August 6–7, 1961. Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 were launched only one day apart on August 11 and 12 of 1962. Vostok 3 carried Andriyan Nikolayev, and Vostok 4 carried Pavel Popovich. The two cosmonauts landed within minutes of each other on August 15, 1962. In June 1963 Vostok 5 and Vostok 6 also conducted a joint operation. Vostok 5 launched on June 14th with Valeri Bykovsky aboard. It was followed two days later by Vostok 6 with Valentina Tereshkova aboard. Tereshkova was the first woman in space and had been personally selected for the task by Korolëv. The two cosmonauts returned to Earth on June 19, 1963.

The Vostok program and the U.S. Mercury project both took place between 1961 and 1963. The Soviet cosmonauts beat the U.S. astronauts into space and spent much more time there. The longest Mercury flight lasted only one day and ten hours. The longest Vostok flight lasted nearly five days.


In 1964 the Soviets began testing a multi-passenger spacecraft called Voskhod, which means "sunrise" in English. The Voskhod module had a parachute descent system that eliminated the need for ejection seats. On October 12, 1964, Voskhod 1 carried three men into space: Vladimir Komarov (the pilot), Boris Yegorov (a physician), and Konstantin Feoktistov (a scientist). Their flight lasted just over twenty-four hours and circled the Earth sixteen times. A few months later Voskhod 2 was put into orbit with two cosmonauts aboard: Aleksey Leonov and Pavel Belyayev. On March 18, 1965, Leonov conducted the first extravehicular activity (space walk) in history. It lasted about ten minutes.

Despite these successes, the Voskhod 2 mission was plagued by life-threatening problems. Leonov's spacesuit and the vehicle's airlock and reentry rockets malfunctioned. The crew module spun out of control during reentry and landed in heavy woods far from its intended landing point. At the time, a number of crewed Voskhod missions were planned for the 1960s, including one with an all-female crew. However, the problems of Voskhod 2 and the death of Korolëv in January 1966 shook the Soviet space agency. All of these planned missions were cancelled.


During his lifetime Sergei Korolëv was relatively unknown outside the U.S.S.R. The Soviet Union was very secretive about its national affairs and provided scant information about them to foreign media. This was particularly true for the inner workings of its space program. It was only following his death that the Western world learned about Korolëv's many contributions to space travel. These included numerous rockets and launch vehicles, satellites and probes of different types, and manned spacecraft. His most famous spacecraft was the Soyuz ("Union" in English). Modified versions of Soyuz rockets are still used by Rosaviakosmos in the 21st century.

Korolëv is also remembered for his one great failure, the N-1 rocket. This was supposed to be the superbooster that would launch a Soviet spacecraft called the L1 (or Zond) to the moon. Korolëv's design team created the L1 from a modified Soyuz spacecraft. The N-1 superbooster was similar in scope to von Braun's Saturn V rocket. Korolëv worked on the N-1 project from 1962 until his death in 1966, but never achieved an operational rocket.

His successors continued the work after his death, but were not successful.

On July 3, 1969, an unmanned N-1 rocket exploded only seconds before lift-off. The resulting fireball was so huge it destroyed the launch facilities. Thirteen days later a U.S. Saturn V rocket launched Apollo 11 on its way to the moon.

The Soviet space program was shrouded in secrecy. Successes were publicized, while failures and plans were not. Although the Soviets had ambitions to land a man on the moon, this goal was never announced publicly. It was only years later that the West learned about it. Some people in the United States assumed that the Soviet Union was aiming for the moon, but this was not certain. After the U.S. reached the moon first the Soviets insisted that they had never intended to go there.

Firsts in Space

Despite losing the moon race, the Soviet space program achieved many firsts in space during the 1950s and 1960s:

  • Sputnik 1—The first artificial satellite in orbit (October 4, 1957)
  • Sputnik 2—The first space passenger, Laika the dog, spent seven days in orbit (November 3, 1957)
  • Luna 2—The first artificial object to reach a celestial body (September 14, 1959)
  • Vostok 1—Yuri Gagarin is the first person to orbit the Earth (April 12, 1961)
  • Vostok 2—Gherman Titov is the first person to spend a full day in orbit (August 6–7, 1961)
  • Vostok 3 and Vostok 4—First spaceflight including two spacecraft in orbit at once (August 11–15, 1962)
  • Vostok 6—Valentina Tereshkova is the first woman in space (June 16, 1963)
  • Voskhod 1—First spaceflight including three people (October 12–13, 1964)
  • Voskhod 2—Aleksei Leonov is the first person to take a space walk (March 18, 1965)

The Soviet space program also experienced a tragic first in space. On April 23, 1967, the Soviet space agency launched the first manned Soyuz rocket with Vladimir Komarov aboard. A day later the flight ended in tragedy when the module's parachute failed during descent. Komarov was killed. He was the first human to die during a spaceflight. On June 29, 1971, three more cosmonauts died when their Soyuz 11 spacecraft depressurized during descent after visiting the Salyut 1 station. Their names were Georgiy Dobrovolskiy, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Paysayev. At that time cosmonauts did not wear space-suits FIGURE 3.3
Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous and docking test project
during launch and reentry. This was later changed to provide them greater safety.

A New Focus

The Soviet's Moon program continued well into the 1970s. However, neither the N-1 nor a competing rocket called the Proton ever became dependable enough for manned launches. During the early 1970s the Soviets concentrated on perfecting their Soyuz rockets and building a space station. Like NASA, the Soviet space agency had always envisioned an orbiting space station as the next step after a lunar visit.

On April 19, 1971, space station Salyut 1 was launched into orbit. It was another first for the Soviet Union. The United States space station Skylab would not launch for another two years. Between 1971 and 1982 the Soviets put seven Salyut stations into orbit, one after another. These were designed to be temporary stations. Some of them fell out of orbit only months after being launched.

The last station, Salyut 7, stayed in orbit for nearly nine years, from April 1982 to February 1991. It hosted 10 crews of cosmonauts that spent a total of 861 days in space. The Soviet space program gained invaluable experience in long-duration exposure to weightlessness. The Salyut program was also notable in that cosmonauts and scientists from Cuba, India, and France were invited to visit the stations.

In 1972 the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. agreed to work together to achieve a common docking system for their respective spacecraft. This would permit docking in space of U.S. and Soviet spacecraft during future missions. On July 17, 1975, a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft carrying two cosmonauts docked with an Apollo spacecraft carrying three astronauts. (See Figure 3.3.)

The crewmembers conducted a variety of scientific experiments during the two-day docking period. Both spacecraft returned to Earth safely. The Apollo-Soyuz Rendezvous and Docking Test Project was the first union of spacecraft from two different countries.

By 1976 the Soviet space program was engrossed in another new project called Buran, a reusable space plane modeled after the U.S. shuttle. Buran means "snowstorm" in English. The Buran program (like the U.S. shuttle program) was plagued by development, cost, and scheduling problems. Although an unmanned Buran was successfully orbited in November 1988, the program was halted soon afterwards due to funding cuts.

The 1980s were a tense time in U.S.-Soviet relations. The Soviets were at war with Afghanistan and cracking down on dissidents in Poland. In 1983 the military shot down a Korean jet liner that allegedly veered into U.S.S.R. air space. More than 60 Americans were among the 269 passengers killed. The Soviet Union felt threatened by President Reagan's so-called "Star Wars" proposal to build a satellite shield. Throughout the decade, arms talks with the United States failed repeatedly.

On February 8, 1987, the Soviet space agency launched the space station Mir into orbit. Unlike the temporary Salyut stations, Mir was designed to last for years and to be continuously inhabited. Dozens of cosmonauts, astronauts, and space tourists visited the station during its fifteen-year lifetime in space. On March 22, 1995, cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov returned to Earth after spending 437 days and 18 hours aboard Mir. It was a new record that remained unbroken in early 2004.

Rosaviakosmos Takes Over

During the early 1990s the Soviet Union splintered into a number of individual republics. The largest of these is Russia. In 1992 the new Russian government established a space agency called Rosaviakosmos to take over the space programs of the old Soviet Union. Russia and the United States began a new era of cooperation in space. In 1993 the two countries agreed to work together to build an International Space Station (ISS). Between 1994 and 1998 U.S. shuttles carried astronauts and cosmonauts into orbit together and to missions on the Mir station. In 1998 ISS construction began when the Russians placed the first module (Zarya) into orbit. Construction is expected to take place at least through 2010.

Rosaviakosmos controls all of the country's nonmilitary space flights. Military space ventures are controlled by Russia's Military Space Forces (VKS). The two agencies share control of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City, Russia. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome launch facility in northern Russia is under the control of the VKS. The RKA employs only a few hundred people. The vast majority of civilian space work is performed by contractors.

At its Web site ( the RKA lists six major goals:

  • Conduct environmental monitoring
  • Develop global positioning systems
  • Place satellites in orbit for telecommunication and television broadcasting purposes
  • Participate in orbital manned flights including the ISS
  • Conduct fundamental space research
  • Upgrade launch systems, infrastructure, and test facilities
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