I must admit I don’t give the Russians enough credit for the work they do in space. If a Shuttle launches you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll write a post up about it and guaranteed I’ll be letting everyone else know about it if they don’t read my blog. Still at least 5 times a year Russia launches up a Soyuz craft carrying 3 *nauts and in between those they launch another 4 or so Progress craft to resupply the International Space Station. So whilst their craft might not be as iconic and grandiose as the Shuttle they are in essence the innovators of cheap, reliable access to space and have been for many decades.
Really though Russia’s prowess in terms of pioneering space technologies goes much further than that. Today 39 years ago they launched an extremely ambitious project called Salyut-1, the first ever space station. For the most part you would call it an observatory as the majority of the work during the Salyut’s maiden flight was Earth facing observation plus a few deep space spectrographs. Like with all firsts in space there were many problems with the first flight being unable to dock due to their docking couple failing and the second crew, who were tragically lost upon re-entry but have since ensured that none will be lost in that way again, were forced out of the station due to numerous problems including an electrical fire (probably the worst thing that can happen in high pressure oxygen rich environments).
The Salyuts were fairly spacious for their time having just under 100m³ of area for the visiting cosmonauts (compare that to the ISS’s living volume of 373m³). Couple that with 20 portholes that littered the space craft and life up there wouldn’t have been too bad. Especially for those cosmonauts who were used to the cramped confines of the Soyuz which, up until recently, didn’t even have a window for the orbital module (not that it needed it anyway). Taking a tour of the inside reveals that most areas had enough room to be quite comfortable, they even had a treadmill.
True to their core philosophies of truly repeatable mission profiles Salyut 1 wasn’t the last of its kind. The Salyut mission profiles flew another 8 missions and were responsible for many of the components that made up the Mir Space Station that followed. The last of the Salyut series even managed to stay up in orbit for over 4 years and was visited repeatedly by a total of 10 crews. If you compare that to the American offering of the same time who managed to keep a station in orbit for 6 years but only ever managed to visit it 3 times you can see why that even today the core of our biggest space station ever is in fact a Russian module called Zvezda. It’s no wonder the Chinese turned to Russia for their space program.
The Salyut craft also had a slightly darker side with 3 of the missions (2, 3 and 5) designated as Almaz military Orbital Piloted Stations. These are the only (known) craft to ever fly weapons in space and whilst they didn’t carry anything really destructive, a Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23, it was still successfully fired at a test satellite on orbit. Other than that however they were just your typical military operation with the exception that they were piloted by humans on orbit rather than on the ground.
Despite this however the Salyut missions were another step forward in humanity’s endeavours in space and we owe a great deal to Russia for them. Without their courage and sacrifice there’s no telling how much longer it would have taken us to big something as impressive as the ISS or the technology to keep humans alive in orbit for a period that was measured in months instead of weeks. I believe I speak for many of us space nuts in saying that on today of all days we salute you Russia.