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Spacecraft Soyuz orbiting the earth. Ele
Russians in Space

Russia, with the other countries of the Soviet Union until 1991, was one of the leaders of space exploration in its early years and continues to be actively involved today.

The rest of this section will show you some of the highlights of this exciting history.

Shutterstock image of the Soyuz spacecraft and cosmonaut Valeri Polyakovtter

1903 - the idea
1903 - the idea

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky 1857-1935  The Russian father of rocketry


The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.

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Russian space exploration began with a man called Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who is called "the Russian father of rocketry".

Tsiolkovsky was born in 1857.  He was home-schooled from the age of 14 because he was very deaf.  At that age he began to be passionately interested in maths and physics, as well as enjoying science fiction especially the works of Jules Verne. He never lost these enthusiasms and was conducting all sorts of experiments all his life.  He worked as a schoolmaster when he grew up.  This is a picture (in "Tsiolkovsky's path to the stars") of him doing an experiment in speed travel when he was a teacher.

All through his life Tsiolkovsky was thinking about and designing rockets.

The Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, explaining how rockets could move forward (momentum) by reducing their weight,  is explained very simply in this cartoon. 


The equation itself (for any mathematicians reading this) is printed beside it and explained in detail here

by Bernard de Go Mars, Wikimedia 

The Tsiolkovsky rocket equation 1903

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And here is a Tsiolkovsky rocket design.

This is a model based on a sketch Tsiolkovsky published in 1903.  

The model is on display in the Smithsonian Museum in the USA.  This is a screenshot from their website and explains what is going on inside the spacecraft.


What else can you find out about Tsiolkovsky's life and his space discoveries and predictions?

1957 - Sputnik
1957 - Sputnik
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Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, was launched on October 4 1957.  The launchpad in Kazakhstan has been used by all Russian space flights since.


Sputnik 1 was 58 cm (23 inches) in diameter and circular “like the planets” by order of the chief designer Sergei Korolyov.


A lot of people saw the light of Sputnik’s rocket booster on the night of the launch and radio enthusiasts could pick up its signals.


It took 96 minutes to orbit the earth and travelled at 29,000 km/hour.  It kept going for 3 months then burned out and fell back to earth.

1960 - animals in orbit
1960 - animals in orbit
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The dogs Belka and Strelka, with the other creatures on their flight (a grey rabbit, 2 rats, 42 mice and a lot of fruit flies) were the first living creatures to successfully orbit the Earth and return safely afterwards.

You can see a short documentary of the flight on YouTube.

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You might enjoy the animated film Belka and Strelka. Space dogs (2010, dir. Inna Evlannikova and Svyatoslav Ushakov) which is available in English entitled just Space Dogs.

Why do you think animals were sent into space?

1961 - the first cosmonaut
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Yuri Gagarin

The first human to travel into space.  Squeezed into the Vostok capsule Gagarin orbited the earth just once in108 minutes before ejecting and parachuting to earth.

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The R-7 ("Semyorka") rocket launched Gagarin's Vostok-1 spaceship on 12 April 1961.

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Sergei Korolyov

The most important single person in the success of Soviet space achievement.  Known as the "Chief Designer".


Gagarin was born in the relatively peaceful setting of a collective farm in a village about 100 miles west of Moscow.  When he was 6 the German army occupied the village and he showed his courage with exploits such as pouring mud into German tank batteries.  His subsequent career as a test pilot, and first man in space, needed plenty of that courage.

As a young factory apprentice he began his flying career by joining the air cadets, flying old biplanes, but was soon promoted to train as a military pilot flying new Mig jets.  And in 1957 Gagarin was sent to Star City near Moscow as one of the first intake of “cosmonauts”.  Four years later, on 12 April 1961, he was the first man in space.

Read more in Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin by Piers Bizony, 2011


SERGEY KOROLYOV – known only as the “Chief Designer”  1907-66    

Korolyov began his career as an aircraft designer but by the 1930s he had been recruited to work on rockets at a military research centre set up by Marshall Tukhachevsky of the Red Army.  By the late 30s Stalin had begun his programme of mass arrests, including large numbers of army officers including Tukhachevsky.  Korolyov was swept up in these terrible events and sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp in Kolyma, Siberia – which could easily have been a death sentence.  Luckily for him he was transferred to a research laboratory for prisoners in Moscow which probably saved not only his life but also the future Soviet space programme.

His most important invention was the R-7 rocket which was used in 1961 to send Gagarin’s space capsule into orbit, and is the basis for the Soyuz rockets that take astronauts to the International Space Station today.

For the next 30 years human space travel passed more landmarks.   This was the period of the "space race" with the USA and if you look carefully you will find one American on this poster. (Poster from Roskosmos). 

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1961 - the 1st cosmonaut
1986-2001  Space Station Mir
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Mir was the last Soviet space station becoming Russian at the end of the Soviet period in 1991. 


Space cooperation with the USA began at this time and American and other foreign astronauts began to use Mir.

"Mir" means "peace" in Russian.

How would you describe Mir?

These are some descriptions by astronauts and others on the NASA website (which also contains other interesting information on Mir):

“the strangest, biggest structure ever seen in outer space. Traveling at an average speed of 17,885 mph, the space station orbited about 250 miles above the Earth. Mir was both great and graceful—and incongruous and awkward—all at the same time”

“a dragonfly with its wings outstretched”

“a hedgehog whose spines could pierce a spacewalker’s suit”

“six school buses all hooked together”

space station Mir
the ISS
from 2000 - the International Space Station (ISS)
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After the USSR collapsed in 1991 the newly independent Russian Federation (Russia) took over the Soviet space programme and for a few years collaborated with the USA, sharing the Mir space station.

That has now been replace by the International Space Station (ISS) of which Russia has its own section.  In addition to Russia and the USA collaborators now include Japan, Europe and Canada.

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This is the Russian section of ISS

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​This photograph shows the method of descent of all astronauts and cosmonauts, which until the launch of SpaceX in 2020 reverted to the Soviet system of a Soyuz capsule parachuted into the Kazakh desert.  

There are a lot of videos about the ISS on Youtube including one on returning to earth from the ISS, and another about travelling to the ISS


These are some stills from a video showing daily life in the Russian section. 

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