September 2, 2011

Why I am a bit of a Russian space tech fan…

You might have noticed on twitter <ahem> that I am a bit of a fan of Russian space technology. That could sound puzzling, because when thinking about Russian technology, you might picture Lada’s and crashing Tupolev airplanes1.
However, space technology is another matter. If I would get the chance, I would immediately seize an opportunity to fly with a Russian Soyuz rocket. A Space Shuttle? Serious doubt. 

Let me explain why I am a fan. But be warned, this is going to be a bit of a nerd-blog. So if you have never mended your glasses with ‘leukoplast’, I would advise against reading along. 😉

Keep it simple stupid
It’s partly forced by lack of computer technology, but Russian engineers have achieved some wonderful KISS solutions2. My favourite engineering solution is the way the Soyuz rocket is held upright. This is in fact a tricky problem: of course you would not want your tall rocket to fall over before launch, but you also need to make sure it is free to go ‘when all hell breaks loose’ at launch. Space Shuttle for instance is released by a set of explosive nuts3.


The Russian solution is dead simple: Soyuz hangs in four arms with massive counterweights (yellow) on the other side. The design is such that when the rocket lifts as much as a few centimetres, the balance tips and the arms fall backward. It’s simple, effective and above all very fail-safe.

Another favourite: this (video) little hanging doll in the Soyuz spacecraft. It’s not a mascot if you may wonder, but a precision indicator. It tells you exactly when the capsule reaches zero-gravity. Brilliant!.4 

High tech
So now you think: “oh, it’s all low-tech then, is it?”. Meet the NK-33. It’s a very old rocket engine, developed in the ‘60s of last century. However, it is still the most advanced engine ever built to date, and plans are to actually take it in use powering  a US rocket somewhere this decade…..Hello?…This is a 50 year old rocket engine and still the most advanced in the world today.

How come? A quick crash course rocket engineering (I warned you! 🙂 ): most liquid fuel rockets carry in fact two engines: the main engine that propels the rocket, and a smaller gas generator5 that drives two very powerful turbine pumps6 (running on the same fuel and oxygen). In the ideal rocket motor, engineers want to inject the hot exhaust gases from the gas generator into the main engine to help power the rocket and give performance a boost (which is called closed cycle). But in reality, it is so horrendously complicated to make such an engine run stable that in reality this exhaust is just vented off. Always? No, only Russian space engineers have cracked this problem once, around 1970, in an engine developed for their Moon rocket N1 7. Until today, the NK-33 is the world most advanced rocket engine and there are plans to restart production in 2015.

But probably the biggest reason why I am a fan is their rich history.  Although crippled after the fall of the USSR There is no bigger space endeavour than the Russian.  I couldn’t find very recent data, but up to 2004, Russia/USSR launched 2772 rockets. The total number of ALL nations up to that moment is 4300. So more than half of all rockets in the world was launched by Russia. That picture hasn’t changed since 2004, with Russia still being the biggest launching nation to date despite their recent problems.

Russia also leads the rankings for spending most days in space: over 20.000 (2007). Although the gap with the US is not so large: 18.000 in 2007. Most of the Russian spaceflights were long stays on MIR and Space Stations, while the US flew more people on Shuttle for shorter time. Note by the way a proud 16th place for the Netherlands: Ockels and Kuipers clocked nearly 18 days in space together. However, with the long flight of Kuipers still to come we are going to jump into the top 10. Right before Costa Rica! Euh… 8

The Russians can claim nearly any record in space: first satellite, first animal, first human, first woman9, first space walk etc etc. Only one (a rather significant one, I admit) they do not have. Did you know the Russians also build the most powerful launcher ever -excluding the dedicated moonrockets? Energia could launch upto 200.000 kg of payload in to space. Note,  that’s a dozen very large trucks. This Energia rocket flew twice –including once with the Russian space shuttle Buran10 but was discontinued when the USSR collapsed. 11

I was lucky to be in Baikonour twice during a launch and it’s a remarkable place. The site was chosen for it’s southern location in the USSR12 and kept very secret in the early days. The Russians believed it was outside the range of the US U-2 spy planes13. The place is packed with history14: the launch pad for manned launches is still the same one that Gagarin used, the two scarcely used launch sites for Energia are simply left to rust, the original houses where Gagarin and their genius designer Koroljev stayed are still untouched (but well taken care off). Russian manned spaceflight is full of rituals, topped by the famous pee against the right back wheel of the crew bus.

As said, I am a fan. 

So is it holy and perfect? Of course not. Many of the Russian Space achievements came with the price of happening in a totalitarian regime. They lost the race to the moon and their Buran Shuttle was in my view a big (political) mistake. On top, pollution by residue rocket fuels is a very serious problem.
I am sure, many of my bold statemets above are food for heated debate (feel free in the comments!). Nevertheless,  I believe our common Western view of space technology has been off-set by Cold War propaganda and Russian engineers just deserve a bit more credit.


1.      In fact Russian aeroplanes themselves are not badly engineered. The problem is -I am guessing- their apparent lack of interest in maintenance. Oh, they are pretty good at repairs though. I remember flying in a Tupolev once when a flight attendant showed up in the aisle. He opened a hatch in the floor and started banging away with a spanner. That was somewhat disturbing (although I did obviously survive)…

2.      I am not referring to the famous story of using a 2 ct pencil versus an US multimillion dollar pen –which is an urban legend

3.      common mistake: often referred to as explosive bolts. Technically, that’s not true. The nut is blown up, not the bolt

In general, Russian engineers have a no-nonsense way of solving problems. Once, an elder engineer told me a story from the early ages of western-USSR space cooperation. He was responsible for an European instrument that was destined to fly on a Russian spacecraft. The instrument was finished, except for the precision-drilling of the holes needed to fix the instrument to the spacecraft. Despite many tries, the specs were not delivered. When the instrument had to be shipped, the engineer decided to travel along with it together with a colleague to sort things out in Russia locally. The Russians where surprised to see them and even more when they explained the problem. A Russian engineer then picked up a drill, drove six holes in the baseplate and simply fixed the instrument to the spacecraft.

It was this gas generator that failed on the last Soyuz launch

To give you an idea: a Space Shuttle fuel pump empties an Olympic swimming pool in 25 seconds.

More precise: their doomed rocket. Apparently because they tried to make 30 of these engines work together in the first stage, despite insistence of the designers it was developed to work as stand-alone.

Costa Rica??? Oh, American astronaut with double nationality…

Admittedly, also a human 😉

I am completely lost on why they build Buran in the first place, probably only political pressure to match the USA. At least, they did it smarter: the engines are with Energia and not the Shuttle itself. Consequently, you have also a very powerful rocket that can launch other things (see also 11)

Certainly, the collapse of the Russian space budget was the leading factor, but I guess there was also a practical reason: can’t really imagine anything practical one might want to launch to space so heavy? 20 tonnes?? Get real. This rocket was and still is somewhat ahead of time

Being close to the equator means you can launch more mass with the same rocket. Earth rotation rocks: at the equator you get 0.5 km/sec for free

13.   They were wrong. To mislead intelligence even more, the launch site is a few hundred kilometres southwest of a small mining city called Baikonour. Also rather futile..

 14. Not all glamorous by the way: there is a shed somewhere near a farm on the base that suspiciously looks like halve a nose cone of a N1 moon rocket.




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12 Responses

  1. Wijnand says:

    My favorite is the Americans paying millions of dollars to Fisher to develop a pen that would work in zero gravity. The Russians just took pencils to space.

  2. Wijnand says:

    Oops, urban myth…

  3. michel says:

    @wijnand sadly, yep, although an interesting one. The pen was developed with private money and then sold to both US and Russia. Interestingly, pencils are not without problems: floating broken point are a safety hazzard (fire and short-circuites)

  4. huub eggen says:

    This is mostly about manned spaceflight. In the field of space research the Russians have been far less successful of course. Here their robust technology wasn’t avanced enough.

  5. michel says:

    @huub true. But I had no ambition to write a balance space history, merely explaining why I am a fan (which excuses me even from being accurate :D)

    Nevertheless, I recall there are some astronomy domains where Russia was and is leading (trying to remember which. Gamma maybe?)

  6. Andre says:

    Pencil urban myth?
    I use a pencil all the time on board the Soyuz

  7. Brigitte says:

    I’m curious… which record that they don’t have are you referring to?

    Very interesting post, by the way!

  8. Michel van Baal says:

    @brigitte first man on the moon? 😉 and thanks!
    @andre the urban myth is the bit that nasa invested millions of public money. Untrue, as it was private money from fisher (well spend, great pr 🙂 )

  9. Jaap says:

    In the ’90’s there was a BBC documentary series about the Soviet Moon program and IIRC they mentioned the pen/pencil story as being fact. But what was really impressive was that their Lunar Lander was almost steampunk, straight out of Jules Verne. I loved it, it’s almost a shame they lost the race.

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