The Soyuz Capsule
The Soyuz capsule has been ferrying astronauts and cosmonauts into space for 49 years
HAVE you ever been to the Cape Town Science Centre in Observatory? If you have you would have seen the replica of a Soyuz capsule donated by Mark Shuttleworth, our own “afronaut” – the first South African and African to travel to space.
Shuttleworth – a billionaire entrepreneur who currently lives on the Isle of Man – donated the replica to the science centre after his historic 2002 trip in a Soyuz to the International Space Station (ISS) where he spent eight days.
The Soyuz is sometimes called the workhorse of space because it has undertaken more than 100 space voyages over close to 50 years.
Considered the world’s safest and most cost-effective human spacecraft, it is currently the only way cosmonauts and astronauts can travel to the ISS.
A Soyuz trip to the space station can take between six hours and two days, depending on the mission plan, but it takes the craft just three hours to return to Earth. At least one Soyuz is docked at the ISS at all times for use as an escape spacecraft for the crew in the event of an emergency.
But back in the 1960s the Soyuz had only one main goal: to eventually land a human on the moon. While the famous engineer Wernher von Braun was perfecting the powerful Saturn V rocket in the United States, on the other side of the world his Soviet counterpart Sergei Korolev was developing the N1 rocket, meant to send the Soyuz to the moon.
Unfortunately Korolev died in 1966 while the N1 was still in development, with disastrous results for the programme. From 1969 to 1972 the rocket was launched four times on test flights and all four times it blew up. The worst of these disasters occurred in 1969 during the second test flight when an explosion destroyed not only the N1, but a few surrounding buildings as well.
Development of the Soyuz mooncraft was also plagued with technical setbacks and not moving very quickly.
In the end, when it became clear the Americans had won the race to the moon, the Soviets abandoned their moon programme.
However it was not a complete failure – another Soviet project called Luna consisted of a series of unmanned spacecraft missions that, among other firsts, accomplished the first unmanned moon landing in 1959 and a month later took the first pictures of the far side of the moon (the side invisible from Earth).
After the N1 disasters Soviet engineers turned their attention to developing a space laboratory and in 1971 they launched Salyut 1, the world’s first space station. In 1986 Salyut 7 was replaced by the space station Mir. In 1998 Mir was replaced by the International Space Station.
And who ferried the cosmonauts and astronauts to the floating bases in the sky? You’ve guessed it – our old friend Soyuz. Through the decades it has been upgraded often and made far more sophisticated, but it remains one of the most hard-working vehicles in space.
‘An experience like that changes your perspective on life and on the world’ – Mark Shuttleworth