Russian space program Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Russian space program was one of two successful attempts to travel into outer space. Starting in 1945, the Soviet Union developed sophisticated scientific and technological expertise that allowed it to make significant accomplishments in space exploration.

Russia has had a long and significant role in the history of space exploration. Most historians of science designate Konstantin Tsiolkovsky as the father of modern spaceflight. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Tsiolkovsky produced a ground-breaking theoretical study on the possibilities of traveling in space. The essay, “Issledovanie mirovykh prostanstv reaktivnymi priborami” (1903; exploration of cosmic space with reactive devices), published in the journal Naootchnoye Obozreniye (scientific journal), described the methods to be employed to develop vehicles that would carry human beings into outer space.

Tsiolkovsky was both a technological visionary and a social utopian. He perceived spaceflight as the instrument to free humankind from the drudgery of earthly existence. He viewed the power to conquer the law of gravity as a metaphor for the human race’s ability to liberate itself by embarking on a new historical epoch of limitless possibilities. The connection among science, technology, and political and social philosophy within Russian culture played an important role in the development of Soviet technological policy.

Unfortunately, Tsiolkovsky’s ideas were constrained by the autocratic regime of Czar Nicholas II and the economic, political, and social instability it fostered. This cultural turmoil led to Russia’s disastrous defeat in World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution. The modern history of Russian spaceflight begins in this politically explosive era. From the ascension of Lenin to the construction of the Soviet space station Mir, the Russian space program would be linked to and directed by changes in the accepted political doctrine of Communist totalitarianism.

Early Communism and Space Theory

The intellectual foundation of communism was laid on the philosophy of Karl Marx, who did not consider himself a political philosopher in the classical sense but insisted that his ideas were based upon scientific principles. Technology would be the instrument used to establish Marx’s new utopian society. In 1917, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the leader of the Communist Party, accepted these ideas in the abstract, but the practical problems of reconstructing a wartorn nation drove Lenin to compromise his adherence to strict Marxist-Leninist theory in favor of economic recovery. Lenin’s famous statement, “Electrification plus Soviet power equals socialism,” set the tone for his national recovery program.

From this emphasis on science and technology, a technological elite developed whose expertise was used to create a new socialist order. Many of these technologists were influenced by the works of Tsiolkovsky, especially by his utopian vision based upon space travel. The Soviet scientific community during the 1920’s adopted a research and development program focusing upon the possibilities of space exploration, and two influential works were published during this decade. Yuri Kondratyuk’s book Zavovevanie mezhplanetnykh prostorov (1929; The Conquest of Interplanetary Space, 1997) and Nikolai A. Rynin’s work Mezhplanetye Soobschchicheniia (1927-1932; Interplanetary Flight and Communication, 1970-1971) had a significant impact on the technologists around the world who were working on the possibilities of spaceflight.

Technology Under Stalin

Soviet society drastically changed with the death of Lenin and the ascension of Joseph Stalin to power. In Stalin’s purges, technological expertise became secondary to ideological purity, and he launched a nationwide attack against the “elite experts”; many of them suffered the same fate as their military and political counterparts. Stalin’s concentration on making socialism safe in Russia had an important impact on Soviet space research. The utopian vision of a socialist cosmos was declared unimportant at a time when the Soviet Union needed to construct a competitive industrial and military sector in order to protect its borders from both its fascist and democratic rivals.

The aeronautical expertise that had been focused on spaceflight during the 1920’s was now directed toward the construction of a world-class air force. During the 1930’s, the Soviet Union made great strides in aeronautical engineering, generating a confidence among Russia’s military leadership that its air force was among the best in the world. This optimism was shown to be unfounded when the German Luftwaffe soundly defeated the Soviet air force during the Spanish Civil War.

Stalin reacted with reprisals against the Russian aeronautical engineering establishment. Many of the Soviet Union’s finest rocket scientists were sent to the gulag (a series of camps for political prisoners) and released only after the German invasion of 1941. Among these prisoners was Sergei Korolev, who became the driving force behind the postwar Soviet space program, working on the development of military rockets for the defense of the Soviet Union.

World War II and the Early Cold War

Two major scientific developments of World War II had a lasting impact on the Russian space program. In the last months of the war in the European theater of operations, the Nazis attempted to change the strategic direction of the conflict by introducing a new super weapon, the V-2 rocket. The German industrial sector was too damaged to mass-produce this weapon in the numbers needed to change the outcome of the war, but all of the Allied nations, including the Soviet Union, recognized the potential of this revolutionary new delivery system. The Russians expended considerable resources and energy to capture as many German rocket scientists as possible. The new technology became even more important after the United States successfully used two atomic bombs to force the Japanese to surrender in August, 1945.

The breakdown of the wartime alliance due to Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe brought on the Cold War. Once again, Stalin focused upon the defense of the “Motherland,” but this time he accepted the connection between rocket science and the protection of the Soviet Union. A new generation of Soviet rockets was produced through the combined efforts of German and Russian scientists. With the successful detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 and a hydrogen bomb in 1953, the Soviets accelerated their research in an attempt to create an accurate, uncrewed delivery system for these new weapons of mass destruction. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the direction of Russian rocket technology once again focused on space travel.

The Sputnik Era

The Khrushchev era catapulted the Soviet Union into a position of prominence in the area of space exploration. Nikita Khrushchev was a true intellectual child of Marxist-Leninist thought and believed in the compatibility of socialist and scientific truth. Like Tsiolkovsky, he envisioned a utopian state that would reap the benefits of increased productivity based upon science and technology. He extended this idea of universal brotherhood to the entire universe when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. Khrushchev believed this great scientific and technological accomplishment confirmed both the power of Russian science and the inevitability of communism because it showed that the communist system had created the conditions and the environment for great scientific advancement.

Sputnik had an impact on Khrushchev’s foreign policy that went far beyond the technological strategic implications of United States-Soviet relations. This dramatic event also captured the attention of the newly independent nations of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. An important aspect of the Cold War was the struggle between the democratic and communist camps to win the allegiance of this important segment of the world community. When Sputnik went into orbit, most of the leading nations of the Third World issued press communiqués praising the achievements of the Soviet scientific community. Many seemed convinced that the socialist model, based upon the universal ideal of a one-world community sharing equally the benefits of human knowledge, was responsible for such great accomplishments.

Khrushchev also used the image of Soviet scientific prowess to challenge the theory that war was inevitable between the capitalist and communist nations. Russia’s seeming ability to accurately target the United States helped to create the reality of mutual assured destruction, which Khrushchev believed would reduce the likelihood of a third world war.

Khrushchev’s confidence in this new strategic doctrine established a sense of security among the nations of Western Europe that bordered the Soviet Empire, and it upset an already strained relationship between the Soviet Union and the ultraradical People’s Republic of China. Mao Zedong embraced the Leninist doctrine that power would have to be taken from the capitalist nations through the use of force. As a result of Sputnik, the Chinese believed that the Soviet Union had the ability to bring down the capitalist West. Mao was not deterred by the possibility of widespread death and destruction. He believed a new socialist order would rise from the dust and inaugurate a utopian epoch. He had no concept of the fact that the dust of the old civilization would contain deadly levels of radiation with a half-life of ten thousand years. Khrushchev refused to adopt Mao’s radical strategy, an attitude that helped create the Sino-Soviet split.

The success of the Russian space program also caused considerable tension between Khrushchev and the Soviet military establishment. Khrushchev believed that a new strategic doctrine that reflected recent accomplishments in space technology was necessary if the Soviet Union was to reach the ultimate economic goal of universal material prosperity. Khrushchev desperately wanted to reduce the size of the military in order to redirect money and resources into the domestic economy. He created a Seven-Year Plan that proposed increasing both agricultural and industrial output. The military perceived these cuts as unwarranted and dangerous, and it vigorously opposed his plan. At the same time that the Soviet leader proposed massive cuts in conventional forces, he approved a large budget for important research into the development of spy satellites. Khrushchev knew the United States was far more advanced in this field; he recognized that if the Soviet Union hoped to maintain some sort of military parity, significant progress would have to be made in this all-important area. This action exacerbated his problems with the military, which recognized that introducing this new technology could also mean a further reduction in the military budget.

The Space Race

Khrushchev’s plan to reduce both world tensions and the size of the Russian military rested upon the image of Soviet scientific and technological superiority. A potentially dangerous aspect of this situation was the absolute importance of staying one step ahead of the accomplishments of the United States.

On November 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2; this spacecraft carried Laika, a Russian dog that was the first living creature to be placed into orbit. These successes set the stage for the greatest era of human space exploration. Russia’s first crewed project, Vostok, had to reflect both Soviet scientific strength and the proposed egalitarian nature of the communist system. Yuri Gagarin had all the attributes necessary for this space spectacular. He was a highly intelligent, handsome test pilot from one of Russia’s elite units. Politically, Gagarin was made to order. He was born in the Russian hinterland, grew up in a log cabin, and was the son of a poor artisan. The success of his magnificent flight on April 12, 1961, seemed once again to validate the inherent strength of the Soviet system.

The Russian space program soon scored another propaganda victory on June 16, 1963, by launching the first woman into space, and like Gagarin, she fit the Marxist model perfectly. Valentina Tereshkova was a simple factory worker whose lack of scientific training and expertise would be emphasized to show once again the power of Soviet science. Soviet propaganda would describe how the innate strength of the socialist model based upon the power of technology would one day create a utopian society.

When intelligence reached the Soviet Union that the United States was planning to launch two astronauts into space, Khrushchev reacted by pressuring Sergei Korolev to strike first by launching a capsule containing three men. The Russian space program had already started to develop plans for a vessel that could carry more than one cosmonaut. Initially the program was designated Soyuz, but in 1961 it was only in the earliest stages of development. To meet the deadline set by Khrushchev, the Russians had to modify the Vostok capsule at great risk to the three cosmonauts. All but essential equipment was removed, and they had to fly without the protection of their outer spacesuits as well, in order for three men to fit inside what was supposed to be a one-person vehicle. On October 12, 1964, Voskhod 1 was launched and placed into orbit. It returned the three cosmonauts safely to earth in what was perceived to be the next example of Soviet dominance of outer space. On March 18, 1965, the crew of Voskhod 2 again impressed the world when Aleksei Leonov made the first space walk, remaining outside his capsule for twelve minutes while orbiting 128 miles above the surface of Earth.

The Soviet Moon Program

Sergei Korolev had developed a plan to land cosmonauts on the lunar surface that consisted of three major stages. The Vostok and Soyuz programs were to provide the Soviets with the necessary experience and information concerning both the effect of spaceflight on human beings and the skills needed to successfully complete a sophisticated lunar mission. This would be followed by a program designated Luna, which would consist of a series of reconnaissance missions to familiarize the cosmonauts with the surface of the moon. Finally, the N-Program would be the Russian equivalent of the American Apollo Program, which would transport three cosmonauts to the moon.

Two important events occurred in the mid-1960’s that would forever change the direction of the Soviet lunar program. On January 14, 1966, Sergei Korolev died of complications resulting from his years as a prisoner in Stalin’s gulag. Korolev’s great intelligence, formidable power, and universal respect among Russia’s scientific elite had enabled him to push his fellow space scientists to achieve at levels unmatched by any other members of the space establishment. The problems that resulted from his death were compounded by the political demise of Nikita Khrushchev. In pursuit of his new socialist order, Khrushchev had alienated too many powerful interest groups, especially the Soviet military. When widespread agricultural and industrial failure was combined with the military and political embarrassment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev was removed from office.

Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, a Stalinist hardliner whose political philosophy was far more practical than that of Khrushchev. He inherited a very inefficient economy that already had to balance the military expenditures of the world’s largest army with the growing consumer expectations of Soviet society. Brezhnev’s strategic view differed significantly from that of Khrushchev. He believed that if the Soviet Union continued an extensive military buildup, the United States by the early 1980’s would find it necessary to begin to accommodate to Russian international demands.

The Soviet Space Program in Decline

On September 12, 1970, after the success of the Apollo Program, the Russians attempted to salvage some international respect by landing an uncrewed vehicle on the lunar surface. Luna 16 extracted soil samples to be studied back on Earth. A second moon mission on November 17, 1970, saw a Soviet Lunokhod lunar rover explore the surface of the Moon. However, these two missions actually reflected the underlying weakness of the Russian space program.

In the 1980’s, the United States established its clear supremacy in outer space. The year 1981 saw the successful flight of the space shuttle that displayed a level of space technology decades beyond the capabilities of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union attempted to maintain some respectability by concentrating its resources on an extensive space station program. Instead of competing against the United States in the arena of space travel, the Soviets decided to focus on creating a permanent working environment that would provide space-based laboratories for scientific research.

Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to institute a series of reforms that would revitalize the Soviet economy and provide an economic foundation for the development of a new generation of technology that would allow the Soviet Union to once again compete in space with the United States. Instead of reinforcing the communist system, glasnost and perestroika set in motion a chain of events that brought down the Soviet Union. Initially there was great optimism about a future democratic Russia operating within a structure where both material goods and ideas flowed freely. Unfortunately, this dream was not realized, and Russia fell into economic and political chaos. In 1996, the new Russia ranked eighteenth out of the top twenty nations in expenditures on space technology. By the turn of the century, a series of disasters ravaged the space station Mir and in the end turned the broken spacecraft into a metaphor for the collapse of the Russian space program.

  • Burrows, William E. This New Ocean. New York: The Modern Library, 1999. A comprehensive one-volume history of spaceflight that provides a detailed chronological account of the age of space exploration.
  • Harford, James. Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997. An unique and interesting look inside the Soviet space establishment as seen through the life of Russia’s most important space scientist.
  • Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. An excellent one-volume history of spaceflight that describes the economic, social, and political impact of the space age.
  • McDougall, Walter A. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. An outstanding political history of the space race that describes the important linkage between the events of the Cold War and the American and Soviet space programs.

Astronauts and cosmonauts

Crewed spaceflight

Yuri Gagarin



Valentina Tereshkova

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Uncrewed spaceflight

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