The Russian Workhorse Rocket

You most certainly would have heard of the widely publicized Falcon 9 rocket from recent times with its incredible ability to land and reuse its first stage. You may also have heard of the mighty behemoth that is the Saturn V, the largest and most powerful rocket to have ever flown which successfully landed men on the moon in the early 1970s. Closer to home you may even have heard of the highly reliable Indian PSLV, successfully launching missions for over two decades or probably even the more recent GSLV MK III, India’s own heavy lifter. However, there is one rocket that you may not have heard of that has spanned across all these generations of rockets, old and new, probably because it wasn’t ever as widely publicized as the others. Maybe it was taken for granted because it was always there, working as usual, whenever it was needed. Do you not know what is being talked about? Well, it’s time that you do.

The Soyuz rocket was a Soviet-era orbital class rocket that was first launched in 1966. It belongs to the Soyuz family of rockets which consists of various variants of the original Soyuz rocket, some of which are in frequent operation even today, with updated versions expected to last another decade or so. The rocket was developed from the R-7 family of rockets, which was in turn developed from the Soviet R-7 Semyorka, the world’s first ICBM.

The Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Sept. 18, 2006 

With a combined total of over 1000 successful launches of the Soyuz family of rockets over the 5 decades of their operation and with a success rate of over 95%, they are not only the most extensively used rockets in the history of spaceflight, manned or autonomous, but also one of the most reliable launch vehicles in human history.

The Soyuz rockets are comprised mainly of three stages. The first stage is made up of four liquid-fueled boosters attached to the central core stage in radial symmetry. It is due to this design that a very characteristic ‘cross’ pattern is formed as the first stage boosters separate from the core stage during flight (booster jettison), famously called the ‘Korolev Cross’, named after acclaimed Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

Booster Jettison; Source:
Korolev Cross; Source:

The core stage acts as both the first and second stage. The liquid-fueled four-chambered engine of the core stage lights up before launch, powering the ascent along with the boosters as the first stage and continues to fire post booster jettison as the second stage. The third stage, powered by a smaller liquid fueled four-chambered engine, is the final stage of the rocket that takes the payload to its intended orbit. The Soyuz rockets can also be fitted with an optional Fregat upper stage for increased precision injection of payload into a variety of targeted orbital trajectories.

Soyuz rockets were ones that could always be relied upon for decades, whether it was to launch civilian or military application satellites, cargo resupply missions to old Soviet and Russian space stations and presently to the ISS (Progress cargo spacecraft) or, and most importantly, take humans into Earth orbit (Soyuz piloted spacecraft). This is especially true since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, making the Soyuz rockets the only human-rated rockets in operation that can take people to the ISS, not to mention possibly one of the safest rockets in the world to fly them in, considering their exceptional success record.

Soyuz Spacecraft docked with the ISS

The more recently upgraded variant of the Soyuz family of rockets, Soyuz 2, has proven itself many times recently and is set to replace the older Soyuz variants in the coming years, further extending the life of the Soyuz family well into the next decade.

With an incredible service record spanning over five decades, not only has this rocket served up a contribution to space exploration that is quite possibly unsurpassable, but it has also set a benchmark for launch vehicle reliability that is unlikely to be redefined for decades to come. It truly is one of the most exceptional feats of engineering ever to have been witnessed by our generation, the generation before ours, the generation before theirs and hopefully, the generation after ours.


Kiran Nandanan

Third Year

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