Commercial Rockets

SOYUZ (Союз) — Russia, 1967

The Soyuz capsule, like the rocket which took on its name by launching it, is the workhorse of manned spaceflight, having carried at least 350 passengers to orbit. (The shuttle has taken over 800, thanks to its larger seating capacity, but the number of flights is about the same.) Being an old design, it is not the least bit reusable, but it is pretty inexpensive. It seats three and the crew-carrying part is only 2.3 meters across, and even worse, the seats are nearly in the nose because of all the equipment behind them. But this spacecraft is roomier than this might suggest because of its two-part design, which has a spheroidal “orbital module” in front, on top of the bell-shaped “descent module” where the seats are, adding up to an interior of 9 cubic meters. Behind the heat shield is a service module, with solar panels and a rocket nozzle, which as expected uses hypergolic fuel. All in all, it weighs a bit over seven metric tons, which is not far from the limit of its rocket.

The safety record of the Soyuz is not great. It’s obviously better than that of the Shuttle, but it’s not as much better as you might think. It hasn’t killed anybody since 1971, but there have been multiple close calls since then. It did recently manage to pull off a flawless separation from a disintegrating booster, making it the only spacecraft to ever use its launch escape rockets in a real emergency.

The descent module is, as indicated by the name, the only part which comes back to the ground. It soft-lands on dirt by first using parachutes, and then firing a set of small rockets moments before touchdown to soften the impact. Despite this, the collision with the ground is said to be very jarring. The custom molded personal seat cushion that every Soyuz passenger gets is a necessity, not a luxury, but these seats are hardly comfortable, as they jam your knees nearly into your chest. The seats piston themselves up to the capsule’s ceiling just before impact, to provide more shock absorbtion.

The Russians have made dozens of variants of this design, and keep falling back on it instead of coming up with anything new, such as the “Kliper” spaceplane they were working on until 2006. Even the Progress freight capsule is basically just a Soyuz with automation instead of seats. Perhaps the Orel will be the one to finally fly.

From 2011 to 2020, the Soyuz held a monopoly on crewed flight to orbit, particularly to the Space Station. They were setting prices accordingly: according to one Russian pundit, Vadim Lukashevich, a single foreign astronaut on board a Soyuz brings in enough to pay for the entire flight, and with two they make a considerable profit. He is not optimistic for how Roscosmos will handle setting prices in a competitive market, and maintain a budget without that revenue.

If we were to give Soyuz its English name, as with Progress or Federation, it would be “Union”, which is fitting given its multipart design.