Russians in Space

Russians in Space

Russians in Space

A cheat sheet for the news.
Sept. 14 1997 3:30 AM

Russians in Space

Sputnik I

The Soviet Union put the first satellite in orbit, Sputnik, and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The space race was once regarded as a metaphor for the Cold War, and the Communists seemed to be winning. Today the Russian space program is a joke, symbolized by the space station Mir. What happened?

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.


Sputnik was launched on Oct. 4, 1957--the first man-made object to orbit Earth. Its eerie beep, broadcast over U.S. radio, signaled the Soviet Union's commanding lead in the space race. Masterminded by Sergei Korolev, the Soviet counterpart to the United States' Wernher von Braun (and, unlike von Braun, a native product), Sputnik seemed to represent a system superior to capitalism, and proved useful in wooing developing nations that had yet to choose sides in the Cold War. Sen. Lyndon Johnson declared, "Control of space means control of the world."

One month later, Sputnik 2 carried Laikathedog in orbit for seven days. Laika suffered the first death in space. With no means yet of safe re-entry, she was put to sleep inside the floating capsule.

Yuri Gagarin

On Dec. 6, 1957, the first American attempt to put a satellite in orbit exploded on the launch pad. It was instantly dubbed "Flopnik," "Kaputnik," and "Stayputnik." The first successful American launch came on Jan. 31, 1958.

The Soviets, with their Lunaprogram (1959), achieved the first solar orbit; the first impact on the moon; and the first photographs of the moon from a lunar orbit, which allowed them to map and triumphantly name geological features of the moon's far side. Their next program, the Vostok ("east") series, shocked the United States even more. On April 12, 1961, Vostok 1 launched the first human into space. YuriGagarin's module was controlled from the ground--engineers were unsure if he would function competently in weightlessness. After 76 minutes of orbital flight, the capsule began its descent. Gagarin ejected as planned at 23,000 feet, and parachuted to Earth. The Soviet government did not reveal that Gagarin landed separately from the craft. At Gagarin's post-flight press conference the pioneering cosmonaut claimed, "While in outer space, I was thinking about our party and our homeland."

Valentina Tereshkova

Two days later, President Kennedy met with advisers and asked, "Is there any place we can catch them?" Consensus held the Soviets were so far ahead that only a manned lunar landing could win the space race. On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed Congress and called for a moon landing by the end of the decade.

Three weeks before this announcement, the United States had launched its first manned flight: a 15-minute journey by Alan Shepard that didn't even reach orbit. By 1963, when John Glenn orbited Earth three times in five hours, the Soviet Union was launching daylong flights and a 48-orbit mission. ValentinaTereshkova, the first woman in space, orbited Earth on June 16, 1963--20 years before Sally Ride. (Tereshkova announced, "Warm greetings from space to the glorious Leninist Young Communist League that reared me.")

In March 1965, a Soviet cosmonaut took the firstspacewalk. A U.S. spacewalk came that summer. But the Soviet Union racked up a series of unmanned firsts between 1965 and 1968: the firstimpactonanotherplanet (Venus), the first soft landing on the moon, and the first orbit of the moon witha safe return.

The Soyuz ("union") program, beset by vastly inferior funding, marked the end of Soviet space domination. In 1969, Americans walked on the moon as the Soyuz suffered from malfunctioning launchers. With Soyuz 10 in 1971, the Soviet Union announced a shift in its goals. Introducing the Salyut 1 space station (a "salute" to Gagarin), the Soviets began a focus on long-term, orbital space living that endures today. Soyuz 11 blew a hatch on re-entry, killing three cosmonauts, but after this early catastrophe the Soviet program boasted constant space habitation and scientific experimentation for more than two decades. The Soyuz craft ferried cosmonauts to a series of Salyut stations, and once to a 1975 docking with Apollo 18, the first international space rendezvous. The Soviet Union put the first man of African heritage in space in 1980 (America's first black astronaut flew in 1983). The crew of Salyut 7 (1982) set a duration record of 211 days in space--a record since repeatedly broken by various cosmonauts.


In 1986, the core unit of Mir ("peace" or "world") was launched. As NASA reeled from the Challenger disaster, the Soviet Union briefly enjoyed a return to its dominant reputation. But as Mir floated in orbit, the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia took over the space program--with massive expenditure cuts. Mir's life span has been extended well past what it was designed for, as Russia cannot afford a replacement.

Mir space station

Financial desperation has led Russia to endeavors shunned by NASA. Russia's program places advertisements on its rockets, and allows its cosmonauts to film commercials (one for Israeli milk, another for Pepsi) in space, for a fee. In 1990, a Japanese television network paid $12 million to send a journalist to Mir for eight days as a ratings booster.

On June 25 this year, a supply ship slammed into Mir. Since then, Mir's main oxygen system has failed repeatedly (forcing its crew to burn chemical candles to survive), its commander has developed heartbeat irregularities (caused by stress), and a cosmonaut has accidentally unplugged its main computer (which is less powerful than the chip in some cellular phones). Mir's crew was docked pay for its incompetence. The main computer failed again Sept. 8, but the replacement crew reported that the situation was "normal."