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Russian Space Programme

Soviet Era

The Soviet Union led the era of space exploration, starting with a series of 'first's: first orbit launch, first man in space and orbit, first images of the far side of the Moon, first probes on the Moon, first Mars and Venus orbiters and probes, ....


Sputnik exhibit in the Moscow RKK Energiya museum

Launch: 4.10.1957

First satellite in Earth orbit

Basically just a large metal football with whiskers, for 21 days Sputnik broadcast radio signals, and supplied information about upper atmosphere density and the ionosphere. After three months, it burnt up on re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Sputnik came as a surprise to the world, and is generally heralded as kick-starting the space age. The Americans in particular were concerned about a space technology gap, and began its space exploration programme with vigour in response.

First People in Space

Tereshkova, Valentina
Tereshkova, Valentina, first woman in space

On 12 April, 1961, the 27-year-old cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first person to enter Earth orbit, and to complete an Earth orbit, aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft.

The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who entered orbit on 16 June 1963, aboard the Vostok 6 spacecraft.

The first person to walk in space, that is to leave the space capsule in a spacesuit, was Alexei Leonov, from Voskhod 2, on 8 March 1965.


Lunik 3 stamp
Lunik 3 stamp

October 7, 1959: the Lunik 3 probe passed to the far side of the Moon, and took photographs which it transmitted to Earth, revealing its features for the first time in history.

Lunik 3
Far side of the Moon, photographed by Lunik 3, Oct 7, 1959


Lunokhod moon rover

Launches: Lunokhod 1: November 10, 1970; Lunokhod 2: 1973 (Proton rockets)

Lunokhod is Russian for 'moonwalker'. As part of a broader Moon unmanned exploration series (Zond and Luna), the Soviets successfully landed two probes on the Moon.

The spacecraft made rocket-controlled soft-landings in the Sea of Rains and on November 17, 1970. The vehicle descended a ramp to move about the surface.

Achievements: first remote-controlled landers on an extra-terrestrial body. Lunokhod 1 travelled 10.5 km, and Lunokhod 2 travelled 42 km. Both vehicles ran scientific analysis experiments, with penetrating probes and sensors, as well as transmitting images and data to Earth.


Mars2 stamp 1971
Soviet space programme commemorative stamp. 1971 Mars 2 mission.

1960 - 1973. Launched by Molniya rockets, there was a series of unmanned Soviet missions to Mars. These included fly-bys, orbiters, and landers.

One of the missions, Mars 2, launched on 19 May 1971, sent a 1,210 kg lander to the surface of the red planet. It crashlanded unfortunately. The sister mission, Mars 3, was more successful, soft-landing a lander on December 2, 1971, which sent back part of a photograph before losing contact.

The Phobos-Grunt (Russian for 'Phobos soil') 2011 mission to land a probe on the Mars moon, Phobos, and return a sample of the surface soil, failed to leave Earth orbit.

MissionLaunchFly-by/OrbitLander / Rover
4 unnamed missions1960-2all failed to reach Mars
Mars 11962Radio failed at 106 Mkm
Zond 21964Fly-by, radio failure
Kosmos 4191971Failed to leave Earth orbitFirst planned lander
Mars 21971Lander burnt up on entry
Mars 31971Lander failed after 20s on surface
Mars 41973Orbiter failed to enter orbit
Mars 51973Orbiter entered orbit but failed after a few days
Mars 61973Fly-byLander failed on landing
Mars 71973Fly-byLander missed planet
Phobos 11988Orbiter planned, lost before arrivalPhobos Lander planned
Phobos 21988Orbiter lost near PhobosPhobos Lander planned
Mars 961996Orbiter, launch failureLander planned
Fobos-Grunt / Yinghuo-1, CNSA (China)2011Combined mission, 2 orbiters, failed to leave Earth orbit


Venera 13 lander and mothership
Venera 13 lander (foreground) and flyby mothership
Venera 13
The Venera 13 mission consisted of a fly-by mothership and a lander which successfully touched down and survived long enough to take a soil sample and send colour photographs of the surface of Venus

1961 - 1984: Venera programme. Some early missions failed to leave Earth orbit, but several missions were able to enter orbit or perform fly-bys of the planet, mapping it and collecting and transmitting atmospheric data.

After many failed missions, eight probes of the series successfully landed probes on the surface of Venus. However, the temperature and pressure (457 °C and 89 Earth atmospheres (9.0 MPa)) were so intense that few landers lasted long enough to send useful data or pictures. The longest lasting lander expired after 127 minutes, but managed to test a sample of soil, and transmit colour images to Earth before failing.

Orbit hook-up

Soyuz-Apollo orbit hook-up, July 17, 1975. Exhibit in the Moscow RKK Energiya museum

Launch: July 1975, Soyuz U rocket

Vehicles: Soyuz /K-TM and Apollo

On July 17, 1975, the Soviet orbiter, Soyuz 19, docked in Earth orbit with an American Apollo orbiter. The air-locks were opened, allowing the crews to mix and conduct PR ceremonies, as well as some scientific experiments.

This mission was a symbolic gesture of the two super-powers, and is generally interpreted as marking the end of the Space Race phase of space exploration.

Space Station Mir

MIR, the Russian space station, photo courtesy of NASA

Meaning 'peace' in Russian, MIR was a low Earth orbit space station from 1986 to 2001, when it was intentionally destroyed by automatic re-entry. As a modular design, it was a fore-runner of the later ISS (International Space Station), and was assembled over a ten-year period.

MIR was occupied for 3,644 consecutive days by humans, with Valeri Polyakov taking up residence for a still standing off-world record of 437 days in 1994-5. It was designed to house 3 crew at a time.

The station was a microgravity research laboratory. Fields of research included biology, human physiology, geophysics, physics and space technology.

Russian Federal Space Agency

Russian: Федеральное космическое агентство России Federal'noye kosmicheskoye agentstvo Rossii

Alternative name: Roscosmos, FKA, RKA.

Previously: Russian Aviation and Space Agency.

Russian government space and aerospace research agency.

Headquarters: Moscow

Main Mission Control operations center: Korolev

Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC): Star City

Launch Centre: Baikonur Cosmodrome (Kazakhstan)


Soyuz TMA-2
Soyuz TMA-2 launch
Roscosmos rockets
Ankara rocket family
Roscosmos Proton rocket
Proton rocket

Content © All rights reserved. Created : January 2, 2015 Last updated :December 27, 2015

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