Encyclopedia Astronautica
Soviet Space History


The previously unrevealed history of the Soviet space program...

History of the Soviet and Russian Space Program

The true history of Soviet spaceflight is predominantly the story of Soviet military space. Manned or scientific space missions could often only be justified as part of larger military projects. Less than 20% of Soviet launches were for 'national prestige' purposes (civilian manned flights, scientific and planetary).

The Soviet Union was a planned economy, and space projects were developed in co-ordination with Soviet five year plans. Long range military forces plans were made for a ten year period, and implemented in two five-year phases. The first such plan was approved in 1961. The second was approved in 1970, but the failure of the N1 launcher project and the poor reliability of first generation Soviet systems led to a drastically revised ten-year plan for second generation systems being approved in 1976. The final long-range space plan, for third generation systems, was approved in 1981 but again drastically revised in the face of the American 'Star Wars' programme in 1985. This was subject to constant alteration under Gorbachev and finally was never implemented. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Russian Federation conducted space operations at a reduced level basically using assets and systems that were 'in the pipeline' before the end of the Communist government.

Russian space historians variously refer to three or four generations of space systems, resulting in some confusion. The planning process resulted in a cycle where development of new space systems was authorised in one five year plan, followed by operational use in the next five year plan. This resulted in Soviet space systems falling into three generations before the fall of the Soviet Union. Prior to these three generations a few projects were begun on the initiative of the rocket and spacecraft Chief Designers, before the military fully accepted or understood the usefulness of space systems.

  • >Soviet Space History - Era of the Chief Designers (1950 to 1960) - The first concrete studies for spacecraft and launch vehicles were initiated in 1956. Three projects were authorised for development: the ISZ first earth satellite (launched as Sputnik-3); the Zenit photo-reconnaissance satellite; and the Vostok first manned spacecraft. After the propaganda success of the first Sputnik in 1957, Korolev was authorised to develop the rockets and satellites necessary for the first probes of the Moon, Mars, and Venus. At the end of this period other design bureaux emerged as competitors to Korolev in the production of space launchers and spacecraft (Yangel, Chelomei). Their collective ambitious plans - for manned expeditions to the moon and Mars, for space battle stations and combat spacecraft in earth orbit, for a huge array of launch vehicles and satellites - were authorised on a study basis in 1960. At the beginning of the 1960's an unwieldy total of thirty space systems were in development. But the military soon asserted control to the situation and only a fraction of these projects reached the hardware stage.

  • First Generation Soviet Space Systems - (1960 to 1975) - A July 1960 declaration defined the military systems to be developed in 1966 to 1970. Military research programs of 1962 to 1964 code-named Shchit (space systems), Osnova (space equipment), and Ediniy KIK (ground systems) defined the first generation of Soviet operational space systems, deployed in 1966-1975. First generation systems were often prototyped by Korolev or Chelomei, then spun off to new design bureaux for production. Many first generation systems did not reach full operational status but served as prototype and test articles for second generation operational systems.

  • Mature First Generation Soviet Space Systems - (1970 to 1985) A Defence Ministry directive of 6 November 1968 laid out the actions to be taken in the late 1960's and early 1970's for unit programming for military utilisation (Plans Mars, Osnova, Orion). The objective was to integrate space forces into overall military planning, taking into account the most cost-effective use of resources. Methodical operations planning was completed in 1970 with Plans Prognoz and Sirius Phase I. Development of the first nine systems of the second generation was completed in 1974-1975 and flight trials were conducted in the second half of the 1970's. The second group of second generation systems were developed in the second half of the 1970's and deployed in the first half of the 1980's. From 1971-1976 14 new space systems entered military service, and 16 were in operation.

  • Second Generation Soviet Space Systems - (1975 to 1985) In April 1972 work began to draft a five year plan for satellites to be used in the 1985-1990 period. These included Plans Sirius Phase 2, Dal', Gamma, Zamysel, Fon, etc. The final result was two plans: "Program for Military Space Units for 1976 to 1985" and "Basis or Direction of Development of Space Units through 1990". These plans, after evaluation by the Ministry of Defence, were approved by the Central Committee and Soviet Ministers on 27 February 1976. Second generation systems were to use a new series of modular spacecraft buses and ultimately a new series of launch vehicles. Satellite constellations were grouped into integrated systems to achieve specific military purposes. The satellites were normally modular designs developed in two phases - a phase 1 version that could be launched by an existing launch vehicles, and a larger phase 2 design sized for launch by the Zenit-2 booster. There was already considerable controversy as the 'Young Turks' took on the conservatives. Flight test and deployment of second generation systems were severely delayed, first by problems with the first stage of the Zenit-2 launch vehicle, then by diversion of resources to Third Generation 'Star Wars' systems.

  • Third Generation Soviet Space Systems - (1985 to 1990) Third generation Soviet space systems constituted an integrated Multi-Element Space System, including the planned Multi-echelon Anti Ballistic Missile System. Preparatory work for third generation systems was undertaken under the Tenth Five Year Plan (1976-1980), with full definition of the systems in the 11th Five Year Plan, (1981-1985). In 1985 the plans were drastically revised and a crash programme was undertaken to meet the American Strategic Defence Initiative challenge during the 12th Five Year Plan (1986-1990). Third generations systems were to be fully on line by 1990. This plan was not achievable and the Soviet Union disintegrated before any third generations systems could be placed in service.

  • Russian Federation Space Systems - Post-Soviet Space - After 1991 - the break-up of the Soviet Union resulted in the launch site for the largest launch vehicles and the main planned launch vehicle producer being outside of Russia. The sudden collapse of the launch rate meant that sufficient launch vehicles and spacecraft had been built to continue operations at a much-reduced level. By the year 2000 work had begun on the new Angara 1.1 launch vehicle that would allow operations from Russian territory and using only Russian suppliers..

The following articles provide additional historical information not included in this outline:

  • Soviet Space System Development Process - This perhaps should be read this first to understand some of the terminology.

  • Soviet Space Quality Assurance

  • Soviet Space Tracking Systems

  • Soviet Cosmodrome Histories:

More... - Chronology...

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