60 Years After First Satellite, Russian Space Program Faces Struggles

    08 October, 2017

    Russia's space program faces hard questions as it marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.

    Some experts are wondering how Russia's aging rocket designs will compete with new, less costly rockets.


    Sixty years ago, the area known as the Soviet Union was in a fierce competition with the United States to reach beyond Earth's atmosphere.

    Tensions between the world's biggest nuclear powers, the United States and the U.S.S.R., were high. The Cold War between the two competing sides, which began after the end of World War II, was intensifying.

    Then, on October 4, 1957, news broke that the Soviets had placed the first artificial satellite into orbit.

    Called Sputnik, the satellite was a small sphere, 58 centimeters wide and about 84 kilograms in weight. It contained two radio transmitters that sent out a beep that could be received by radio operators on Earth.

    The satellite was tiny. Yet, it started the extremely costly competition known as the Space Race. The race would end with the Americans' Apollo Moon landings in 1969.

    In October of 1957, however, many people in the West were shocked. The Soviets had put an object in Earth's orbit, and they had done it before the West. Soviet media said it was because the socialist political system of the U.S.S.R. was better.

    In the U.S., lawmakers placed an urgent importance on science education in an effort to "catch up" with the Soviets.

    A product of the Soviet missile program

    The project to launch the first satellite into space was a product of the Soviet's development of their first long-distance missile, the R-7.

    The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, July 28, 2017.
    The Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, July 28, 2017.

    It was designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile meant to strike the U.S. with a nuclear warhead.

    Sergei Korolyov led a team that was building the rocket. He had the idea to place a simple satellite on the rocket.

    The Soviets were already planning a satellite that would carry scientific instruments. But Korolyov pushed for a basic satellite design that could be put into space quickly -- before the U.S. could attempt a launch.

    The designers considered a cone shape for Sputnik, but Korolyov insisted on a sphere. He is quoted as saying, "The Earth is a sphere, and its first satellite also must have a spherical shape."

    A main part of Russia's Soyuz space capsules that are still in use today also is spherical.

    Aging rockets, manufacturing problems bring delays

    Although the Soviet Union came apart in 1991, the Russian Federation remains very important in the space industry.

    But, observers point out that the Soyuz rocket boosters Russia uses to carry people and supplies to the International Space Station are very old. The Soyuz rockets are modified versions of the S-7 that carried Sputnik into space.

    Another rocket used by Russia, the Proton, was designed in the 1960s.

    These rockets have earned a reputation for reliability over many years of service. But recent launch problems have raised questions about the quality of parts manufactured for the vehicles.

    Officials found problems with the Soyuz and Proton rockets in 2016 at a factory in the city of Voronezh in western Russia, where the engines for both rockets are built.

    Russia's space agency sent 70 rocket engines back to the production lines to replace problem parts, the Associated News agency said. These issues led to a one-year suspension of Proton launches.

    That suspension caused Russia to fall behind both the U.S. and China for commercial satellite launches in 2016. Russia had led the world for more than 10 years before that.

    Russia's space agency Roscosmos also decided on cost cutting measures. It cut Russian International Space Station crews. The AP reports that two cosmonauts instead of three are to be used. Cosmonaut is the Russian term for astronaut.

    Many people in Russia have criticized the cuts.

    A new Russian space launch center

    However, Russia has spent huge amounts of money on a second space launch center in the far east of the country near Vostochny. The new spaceport is meant to offer an alternative to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where Russia launches almost all its rockets.

    Despite the money put into the new center, work in Vostochny has been slowed by workers' protests over pay and the arrest of construction officials accused of corruption.

    A Russian Soyuz rocket, center in the background, carrying satellites stands on the launch pad at the new Vostochny Cosmodrome near Uglegorsk, the city in eastern Siberia in the Amur region, Russia, April 27, 2016.
    A Russian Soyuz rocket, center in the background, carrying satellites stands on the launch pad at the new Vostochny Cosmodrome near Uglegorsk, the city in eastern Siberia in the Amur region, Russia, April 27, 2016.

    And people with ties to the space program have criticized the spending on Vostochny at the expense of other priorities.

    For example, Maksim Surayev was a cosmonaut who is now a lawmaker. He criticized the low pay of workers at the cosmonaut training center near Moscow known as Star City.

    "It's wrong when, instead of fulfilling their task to prepare for space flight, they have to find side jobs and a place to live," Surayev told Parliament.

    In addition to budget and manufacturing problems, the Russian space program has seen some projects postponed. For instance, space agency officials had hoped to launch the Russian module for the I.S.S. in 2007. But the module has been delayed for many years.

    The launch is now planned for next year, but some reports say another delay is possible.

    A historic day

    Yet, Russia's space presence with its 60-year history continues -- dating back to that first launch that shocked the West.

    On October 4 this year, AP said that Sergei Ryanzanskiy posted on Twitter a picture of himself holding a small model of the Sputnik satellite.

    Ryanzanskiy is currently a cosmonaut on the International Space Station.

    He was marking the 60th anniversary of the historic launch.

    Ryanzanskiy had a special reason to note the event.

    His grandfather was the chief designer of radio guidance systems for space vehicles during the Soviet era. And he was involved in the Sputnik launch.

    In August, Ryazanskiy helped release five very small satellites that were manufactured by a 3-D printer. One of the hand-held satellites honored Sputnik's 60th anniversary.

    I'm Mario Ritter.

    AP reported this story. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English with additional materials. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    artificial –adj. not natural, made by people

    sphere –n. a completely round object with depth, width and height

    modified –adj. changed in some way from its first state or version

    reputation –n. the opinion that people have about someone or something

    alternative –n. something that represents a choice among more than one possibilities

    3-D printer –n. a device that is able to create objects with three dimensions: length, width and height

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