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The Soviet Space Program

As it has evolved over the years, the Soviet space program might be described as something with a dual personality. A Jackal and Hyde so to speak. That is it consists of two parts, one of which is highly visible and acceptable to the world public. While the other moves in a sort of shadow land and is cloaked in high secrecy.

In this presentation, we will look at both sides and reach some conclusions about just where the Soviets are today in their program and where they are going in the future.

The Soviet space program became truly visible with the launching of the first Sputnik into low earth orbit on October 4th 1957. Small as it was, it created a sensation around the world and spurred the U.S. to accelerate its own program.

Basking in the glow of its early success, the Soviet Union made it clear that the intent was to enhance its image as a technical, scientific and military power. In the mid-1960s, the Soviets expanded the objectives of their space program by launching new types of satellites with practical military and economic applications.

While those directed toward meteorology and civil communications received considerable publicity, others such as those designed for photographic and ELINT reconnaissance, radar calibration, covert communication, navigation, geodesy and satellite interception were masqueraded as a part of a continuing program of scientific research. Their real purpose of course was in large part of a military nature.

In the late 1960s, the Soviet started testing larger and more complex space boosters and spacecraft, but serious setbacks hampered their progress. For example, their failure to develop a booster large enough for manned lunar missions, along with the U.S. lead in the Apollo project caused the Soviets to redirect the emphasis of their man and space program to earth orbiting space stations.

Since the early 1970s, the Soviets have concentrated their effort on space systems for military support. They improved the capability of their ELINT and photo reconnaissance satellites and constructed geo-synchronistic communications satellite network. At the same time they have sought to maintain the image of Soviet prowess in space by heavily publicizing the missions of the Salyut space station.

Soviet interest in constructing manned orbital space stations goes all the way back to 1896 when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—the so called father of Soviet space flight—described such an undertaking in his book “Beyond The Planet Earth.” His vision of several cylinders four meters in diameter linked together in Earth orbit and accommodating as many as 20 men may well be realized by the Soviets in the next few years. They have already achieved part of this by docking the Salyut 6 space station with COSMOS 1267, a new space station module.

In 1969 Leonid Brezhnev said that orbital space stations with replaceable crews were man's highway into space. The Soviets put their first space station, Salyut 1, into orbit in 1971. Since then, in spite of two failures, they have successfully orbited the total of six.

As mentioned at the beginning of this presentation, Soviet space efforts can be divided into two parts: military and scientific. This is also true within the manned space station program. While Salyuts 1, 4 and 6 are all involved with scientific research—with some military applications—Salyuts 2, 3 and 5 are clearly part of the military program.

As an example of the Soviets growing proficiency in manned space flight, it is notable that Salyut 6 has been in orbit for the past four years and during that time has played host to both Soviet and non-Soviet visitors. 28 different cosmonauts have visited Salyut 6. Nine of these were non-Soviet. They spent a total of 2,117 manned days or nearly seven manned years in space and occupied the station for 44% of its time in orbit.

It is also notable that although Salyut 6 does serve certain military purposes, mostly of an observational nature, the Soviets prefer to project its purely scientific nature, such as biomedical research, Earth resources studies and materials processing. Here again we note the Jackal and Hyde nature of the Soviet space program.

Within the Soviet space program, the military effort is by far the most active, usually accounting for about 70% of the launches each year. By contrast although the number of dual military-civil missions has grown significantly since the early 1960s, they still account for only about 15% of the annual total and the number of purely scientific missions account for less than 15%.

The U.S. programs, on the other hand, are about evenly divided between military and non-military projects.

During the 24 years of their space program, there has been no significant change in the soviets highly standardized development process. Typically it covers a 10-15 years span from decisions to final development. And this is of course precluding any major setbacks.

Although their system of development has some inherent advantages, such as centralized bureaucratic direction, it is neither malleable nor adaptive, and it lacks the ability to recognize and solve complex problems in a short time. The Soviets are continuing to expand their aerospace industry for space system design and production.


Posted: Jun 07, 2013 04:06 PM
Last Updated: Jun 07, 2013 04:06 PM