Contributions Russia made to space travel

For many people, the history of space exploration often feels like a very American story. And while the moon landing is rightly placed as the shiny gold medal, the Russian cosmonaut program was incredibly successful and achieved many firsts that are too often overlooked; Moscow, we have a problem. These days, space exploration is a much more collaborative process and is often controlled by private businesses rather than governments. Although perhaps Elon Musk is building an evil moon base and will become our cosmic overlord. So today we’re looking at some of the biggest contributions Russia made to mankind’s exploration of space. The founding father of rocketry and aeronautics was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a partially deaf scientist who was home-schooled and ended up living as a recluse in a log cabin south of Moscow. He believed that life in space was the future of mankind, where we could live forever and be free from all our worries, sort of like a floating Disneyland. He seemingly thought about every aspect of space travel; from steering thrusters and a multi-stage booster system to airlocks and even the closed system of biology you would need to make self-sustaining food systems. In 1903 he published Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices and in it he calculated that you would need a speed of 8000m/s in order to hold a minimal earth orbit. He showed how this could be achieved with a multi-stage rocket fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, using an earlier formula he had created to show how the mass lost though burning fuel affects a body’s acceleration. He was the first person to show that space travel was actually possible, rather than just a Jules Verne fantasy. Not sure the same will happen with the whole Journey to the Centre of the Earth thing though, Jules, it’s bloody hot down there. Tsiolkovsky inspired many others, including the German, Hermann Oberth, and American, Robert H. Goddard, who built the first liquid fueled rocket. But within Russia, Sergei Korolev was his greatest disciple and went on to lead the Soviet Space program. Korolev started out as an aircraft designer but in 1938 he was arrested as part of Stalin’s great purge, where Stalin cleared out the communist party of anyone who might oppose him. By the time Korolev’s appeal was awarded, he had already spent months in a Siberian gulag, starving to death down a mine. He lost many of his teeth thanks to scurvy and just generally had a really great time. His death sentence was overturned and he spent 5 years in a Sharashka, which was basically a prison for brainboxes so they could be punished but the country could still benefit from their expertise. It’s similar to how many university professors feel today. He began work on rocket boosters, because apparently just escaping prison with a ladder would not have been good enough for him. After World War 2, he worked on trying to understand and improve the German V2 missile design and eventually, in 1957, the R-7 Semyorka successfully launched, the world’s first true intercontinental ballistic missile. On the back of this success, he persuaded Khrushchev, then leader of Russia, to allow him to launch a satellite and beat the Americans to the punch. In just a month they cobbled together a metal sphere with a transmitter, a few instruments and batteries, and on 4 October 1957, Sputnik became the first ever satellite, launched on a modified R-7 rocket. Sputnik is the Russian for satellite but was previously used to mean “travelling companion”. Sputnik 2 contained the dog Laika, the first animal in space, who died of heat exhaustion in just hours. Sputnik 3 launched but its instruments failed, which were intended to map the Van Allen radiation belts. The west continued to obliviously label every subsequent Russian satellite or space station as Sputnik 4, 5, 6 etc. even though in Russia they had proper names for them. Belka and Strelka were the first animals to successfully return from space and you can actually visit their little stuffed bodies in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, in Moscow. Around 50 dogs were used in the program, mainly mongrel mutts as they were more resilient and predominantly female ones as they were better behaved. The final test flight was in the Vostok 3KA-2, when a dog named Zvezdochka along with a human sized dummy named Ivan Ivanovich, returned from a low earth orbit. Korolev really wanted to follow Tsiolkovsky’s big ambition and head straight for Mars but the Space Race with the Americans meant that politics decided what the aims should be, so the Moon became the target. The rate of achievement was phenomenal, as both sides pushed to achieve a series of firsts. There was barely any testing and deadlines were suddenly dragged forward as news from the other side came in. Luna 2 was the first space probe to land on Mars, after they missed by 6000 km with Luna 1, everyone needs a warm up shot, I guess. Luna 3 gave us the first shots of the far side of the moon but it was 14 years before Pink Floyd released the soundtrack, so they were a bit too early. And then on 12 April 1961, the big one, the first human to leave the planet; Yuri Gagarin. The whole trip in the Vostock 1 took just 108 minutes, including the time it took him to parachute down from 7 kilometers up. But even for such a short trip, Gagarin stopped the bus on the way to the rocket to take a quick, preparatory leak, a tradition which is now continued on every Russian mission; a Urine Gagarin, if you will. And the Russians sent empty bladders up on a pretty regular basis from then on, as they crossed off many other firsts such as Alexey Leonov’s spacewalk and Valentina Tereshkova flying the female flag in space, beating the American Sally Ride by almost exactly 20 years. Interestingly, Sally is still the youngest American to leave earth, at 32 but Gagarin was just 27 and Gherman Titov was only 25, the first to spend a day in space. And what about the future? Well there are a range of orbiters and landers being sent up to the moon but this seems to just be a bit of warm up. The exciting things in the pipeline are various collaborations with NASA, yes that’s right, Russia is collaborating with NASA. The Kremlin also put 1.5 million dollars into planning a mission to Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Of course, we all know the big secret that the Russian space program have been hiding from us; that if you open up a Russian rocket, you find another slightly smaller rocket hiding inside, and then another smaller rocket, it’s a very clever system.

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