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Sturgeon's House

(Most) Soviet Space Capsules were Bad

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The Soviets did a lot of good things with their space program. The R-7 was the first and still is one of the best satellite launchers, the Venera probes were cool and got us a lot of data, the RD-180 gets high performance through weird metallurgic sorcery, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff they did was also crap. Stuff like the N-1 comes immediately to mind, but there were others.


Let's take a look at Vostok, the first manned spacecraft. It is commonly compared to the American Mercury spacecraft. Both had similar purposes; to get a man into space, keep him there for a short time, and return him safely. It did this well. However, Vostok was a bit primitive compared to Merucry;


Instrumentation on the Vostoks was rudimentary in the extreme. There were no gyros and no eight-ball for maneuvering as on Mercury or Gemini.



In my opinion, this made Vostok less useful than Mercury for getting astronauts experience with maneuvering a spacecraft in zero-g, and building knowledge needed for more complex missions.


Also, the Vostok's spherical shape meant that all reentries were purely ballistic, which subjected the cosmonauts to higher g-loads than their American counterparts.


Still, on the whole, Vostok did its job. It's probably not fair to call it bad.



Voshkod, on the other hand. Holy shit, motherfucking Voshkod.


People often compare Voshkod to Gemini. Those people are wrong. Gemini was a completely new design, incorporating many advanced features. Voshkod was simply a Vostok with three people crammed inside of it.  The cosmonauts were unable to wear spacesuits, leaving them no options in the event of atmosphere loss. There were no ejection seats or launch abort system (Gemini and Vostok had ejection seats) meaning that a failure of the launch vehicle would have been fatal. The capsule was poorly designed also, with the instruments being difficult to read.


The American Gemini program of about the same time made many pioneering advances in spaceflight. Docking tests were conducted, at first with unmanned targets (Agena), and later with other capsules. Flights at high altitudes beyond low earth orbit were also done. In contrast, Voshkod flights did little to advance human knowledge of spaceflight (aside from Leonov's spacewalk). The best thing that can be said about Voshkod is that it didn't kill anyone, which is more due to luck than good design. The Soviet space program would not accomplish the goals that the Gemini program did until later in the 1960s with Soyuz. By this time the Americans were almost at the moon.


In 2015, the Soyuz capsule has evolved to be an excellent and reliable space transportation system. However, it was not always this way. Let us look at Soyuz 1.


Multiple unmanned tests flights of the Soyuz capsule experienced failures and showed unreliability in the system. http://www.astronautix.com/flights/soyuz1.htmDespite this, Vladimir Komarov launched in Soyuz 1 on April 23 1967. Immediately, he experienced numerous issues. Stuck solar panels, failed maneuvering systems, and other problems meant that the flight had to be terminated after only a day in space. Reentry was mostly successful; however, the main parachute sadly failed, and Komarov was killed on landing. Not only did the failure of Soyuz 1 cause the senseless death of a cosmonaut, but it also set the Soyuz program back by over a year. Had the Soviets waited a few more months to debug the capsule before launching it, it is possible that this could have been avoided.


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So, I've read period Western sources regarding Voskhod, and IIRC they marveled at the sort of technical wizardry the Soviets must have had to produce a capsule like that capable of launching two people (at the time, they didn't know the Soviets were actually cramming three dudes in the thing) on such short order.

What they didn't know is that the Vostok and Voskhod capsules were basically just standard size pressurized hamsterballs that you could stuff some dudes into and launch into orbit.

It's difficult to convey the crudity of the Vostok/Voskhod series through words, so let's use pictures instead. Here's the inside of a Mercury capsule:



Note that it is absolutely jam-packed with instrument panels, dials, switches, etc, exactly what you'd expect of a 1960s-era test vehicle. Let's take another look:



Hot damn, son! Now, what does Vostok look like on the inside?












So while the Americans treated the early spaceflights as test projects, the Russians basically said 'fuck it' and stuffed a dude into the space equivalent of a diving bell and launched him up there. Vostok was even piloted from the ground, Gagarin was just along for the ride. Later, they decided that risking just one cosmonaut's life on the Orbital Hamster Ball O' Fun was not stereotypically Soviet enough, so they stuffed three dudes in, instead.

I concur with Lost that the Russian space program prepared them very poorly for actually achieving things in space. Essentially, launch vehicle technology aside, the Russians were doing exactly jack and shit in space until the Soyuz program.

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Voskhod was really dangerous, and it was pretty much a miracle noone died on any of its missions. Leonov almost failed to get back inside on the first spacewalk.

Vostok could have been piloted by Gagarin. There was a manual override for the Vostok 3KA and he had been given the code. The thing is that noone knew what would happen to a man in space, and they were worried he might go crazy or something. Vostok also at least had ejection seats, which Voskhod did not.

Korabl-Sputnik all the way to Voskhod are pretty much the same spacecraft with different modifications (KS - 1K, Vostok - 3KA, Voskhod - 3KV (3-person) & 3KD (EVA-capable).

Soyuz was indeed a very promising design (as its service history since the early days has shown), but unfortunately at the time there was severe pressure on the Soviet space program to do things faster and cheaper, and Soyuz was chronically underfunded and rushed, and this would eventually lead to Komarov's death on Soyuz 1. Komarov himself knew something would probably go wrong on the flight, and Gagarin had even offered to take his place instead.

Hopefully PTK NP will be as successful as Soyuz, with less casualties


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  • 2 weeks later...

It's probably also worth mentioning that (IIRC) the Vostock capsule was developed from/in parallel with the Zenit spy satellite, since as I recall Korolev was doing some political maneuvering because he was worried he'd loose funding for manned spaceflight or something to that effect.


Vostok seems to have been safe enough, it did have ejection seats and enough reserve stores


The ejection seat was pretty much just for reentry, after deorbiting the cosmonaut would eject and parachute down separately. Technically it could be used to escape a failed launch, but only after something like 20-30 seconds otherwise the cosmonaut would get burnt up by the exhaust.

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Even today's Soyuz ejection systems are designed only for a relatively small window of the launch.

Zenit was developed from Vostok, not the other way around


Like I said, I'm under the impression they were developed in parallel.


Council of Chief Designers Decree 'On course of work on the piloted spaceship' was issued. Council of Chief designers approved the Vostok manned space program, in combination with Zenit spy satellite program Korolev was authorised to proceed with development of a spacecraft to achieve manned flights at the earliest possible date. However the design would be such that the same spacecraft could be used to fulfil the military's unmanned photo reconnaissance satellite requirement. The military resisted, but Korolev won. This was formalised in a decree of 25 May 1959.


Central Committee of the Communist Party and Council of Soviet Ministers Decree 569-264 'On work on a reconnaissance satellite and piloted spaceship' was issued. Due to a bitter fight with the military over the nature and priority of the manned spacecraft and photo-reconnaissance space programs, the final decree for the Vostok manned spacecraft was delayed until seven months after drawing release began. This authorised production of a single design that could be used either as a manned spacecraft or as a military reconnaissance satellite. These were the Zenit-2 and Zenit-4 spacecraft based on the Vostok design. This marked the end of the original Zenit configuration. The military had to develop the recovery forces and techniques for both spacecraft, including appropriate aircraft, helicopters, and handling equipment. At that time it was felt that there was a 60% chance on each launch of an abort requiring rescue operations for the cosmonaut.

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At the very top of the article it already says that Zenit is a derivative of the Vostok manned spacecraft

Basically it had been intended that a more advanced satellite called Obyekt OD-1 would be the first Soviet spy satellite, but it ran into problems. Thus, Korolyov proposed that Vostok could also be modified into a spy satellite, which became Zenit


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