The Russian space programme

In general terms, the Russian space programme has been the most active and focused in history: the first artificial satellite, the first man in space, the first spacecraft on the Moon, the first docking of two spacecraft, and the first space station. All of these are the achievements of Russia (or, rather, the Soviet Union). In the period from 1957 to 1959, three satellites and two successful lunar probes had been launched by the USSR, ironically fulfilling Goddard's prophesy. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and at the same time, several fly-bys of Mars and Venus were accomplished. In all there were 12 successful Russian lunar probes launched before the first Saturn V. Apart from the drive and vision of the Soviet engineers— particularly Sergei Korolev—the reason for this success lay in the fact that the Russian rockets were more powerful, and were better designed. The pre-war Russian attitude to rocketry had found a stimulus in the captured German parts, leading to the development of an indigenous culture which was to produce the best engines. It is significant that the Saturn V was the brainchild of Werner von Braun, a German, and the Vostok, Soyuz, and Molniya rockets were the brainchildren of Korolev and Glushko, who were Russian.

This Russian inventiveness has continued, and it is interesting to note that, following the end of the Cold War, Russian rocket engines for new launchers are being made under licence in the United States; and that Hall effect electric thrusters, developed in Russia, are one of the key technologies for future exploration of space. The collapse of the Iron Curtain is, in this specific sense, the analogue of the collapse of the walls of Constantinople, in generating a renaissance in space propulsion.

As the epitome of the practical engineer, Sergei Korolev (1906-1966) and his colleague Valentin Glushko (1908-1989) should be credited with much of the Soviet success. Glushko was the engine designer, and Korolev was the rocket designer. Glushko's engines, the RD 100, 200 and 300 series, were and still are used in Russian launchers. It is significant that the 100 series, using liquid oxygen and alcohol, was a Russian replacement for the A4 engine. The desire to use a purely Russian engine was already strong. In fact, in the 1930s Glushko had developed liquid-fuelled engines which used regenerative cooling, turbo-pumps, and throttles. Korolev, as chairman of the design bureau, led the space programme through its golden age.

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