Rockets of Today

SOYUZ (Союз) — Russia, 1966/1967

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, because of the narrow size of the rocket it was built for. 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. The descent module has two round portholes to see out the sides, and a periscope for looking forward. This is a good workaround for how to launch a large enough habitable space with a heat shield that’s too small to protect all of it on reentry. The upper module burns up after it is detached.

The orbital module, or habitation module, has one porthole. Behind the heat shield is a service module, with solar panels and a central rocket nozzle covered by a hatch, 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.

In the seventies they flew a version with only two seats. The Apollo-Soyuz mission was done with this type. They went back to three seats with the T-series upgrade in 1980, and that didn’t change through the further revisions: TM (1986), TMA (2003), TMA-M (2010), and the current MS series (2016). The reason for the seating change was that the earliest models could fit three, but not if they had suits and helmets on. When a leak killed three people that would have been saved by suits, they had to make room by eliminating a seat, until the T modifications finally made room for three helmets. Unlike American capsules of the Space Race era, which always flew with full crew complements, early Soyuzes often flew with one or two empty seats. The first test flight, for instance, had only a single cosmonaut, Col. Vladimir Komarov.

The safety record of the Soyuz is not great. It’s obviously better than that of the Shuttle, but maybe not as much better as you think. It hasn’t killed anybody since 1971 (which remains the only incident where people have ever died while actually in space), but there have been multiple close calls since then, and the Soyuz has also caused the majority of nonfatal injuries in spaceflight. 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 for an emergency in flight. In the eighties a Soyuz once also rescued its crew from an explosion on the ground with its escape rockets.

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 a series of parachutes, then dropping the heat shield and 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. The seats piston themselves up to the capsule’s ceiling just before impact, to provide more shock absorbtion. This arrangement produces a side effect that is both comical and alarming: when the seats aren’t elevated for landing, a lot of the buttons and switches on the control panel are out of reach. The cosmonauts operate the craft by poking the controls with a stick!

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 extra fuel tanks in place 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 International 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.

Through 2023, if I have counted right, there have been 151 crewed Soyuz launches with 399 occupied seats. Four cosmonauts have been lost in Soyuz mishaps. The amazing part is that in the sixty-plus years of Russian spaceflight, only eleven people have ever been launched in anything that was not a Soyuz.