The Sciences


Adam Bartos's

By Svetlana BoymOct 1, 2001 5:00 AM


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From Kosmos: A Portrait of the Russian Space Age by Adam Bartos, with text by Svetlan Boym. Photographs coypright 2001 by Adam Bartos; text copyright 2001 by Svetlana Boym. Published by Princeton Architectural Press.


Rockets used in the Russian space program are transported by train to the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. In preparation for the liftoff on August 13, 1998, of a manned mission to the Mir space station, a Soyuz TM-28 two-stage booster rocket mounted on a special erector transporter strongback is pushed to a launchpad at Baikonur by a diesel locomotive.

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, one of my favorite toys after the launch of Sputnik was a model of a rocket. Soviet children of the 1960s did not dream of becoming doctors and lawyers; they dreamed of becoming cosmonauts. They were encouraged to aim upward and not westward. A trip to the moon seemed more likely than a journey to America. "Would you like to have a million? No!" sang a chorus of Soviet children playing jump rope. "Would you like to go to the moon? Yes!"

Every fairy tale we read in our early childhood spoke to us about a space journey. Whenever the Russian hero Ivan the Fool found himself lost at a crossroads, ordered to go “there nobody knows where,” we suspected that he had traveled into space, just like Yuri Gagarin, the first person to take off in a rocket and orbit the Earth. Our cosmic fairy tale, however, did not survive the test of reality. There were too many rumors about the workings—and failures—of the Soviet space program, always shrouded in secrecy.


Rocket scientist Oleg Genrikhovich Ivanovsky was one of the principal designers of Soviet missiles and spacecraft. A desk in his Moscow apartment is covered with memorabilia collected since he was a young Red Army soldier during World War II. Ivanovsky’s treasures include models and plaques of various Sputnik spacecraft and a photograph that shows him helping cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into his capsule on April 12, 1961, the day Gagarin became the first human to venture into space.

The Soviet space center, the Baikonur cosmodrome, was so secret few people actually knew where it was. Baikonur was not even its real name; it was a misnomer, designed to throw Western journalists off the scent. In order to register their world record for the first manned space mission, the Soviet authorities had to supply the geographic coordinates of the starting point of the cosmic flight. They gave the coordinates of a little town along Gagarin’s flight trajectory called Baikonur, located some 200 miles from the actual launch site.

Off-limits to foreigners and most Russians, Baikonur was part of the invisible heart of the Soviet motherland. The cosmodrome was founded in 1955, on the eve of the twentieth Party Congress. At that congress, the “excesses of the Stalin era” were officially denounced and information about the gulag reluctantly released. Ironically, the Soviet space center lay in the area of “internal exile,” in the Kazakh desert of Tyuratam, close to the Aral Sea, where many enemies of the state had been sent. Like the gulag, Baikonur constituted a state within a state. The largest launch facility in the world, its population reached as much as 150,000 in the 1980s. The sprawling complex included 52 launching plazas, 34 scientific laboratories, 10 factories, an agricultural system, six towns, some of the best-equipped hospitals in the country, 13 schools, two specialized music schools, three palaces of culture, a palace of Young Pioneers, a lycée, a school for cosmonauts, three movie theaters, a stadium, and a luxury swimming pool, as well as resorts and beaches built on artificial lakes.


Train tracks crisscross between towering light scaffolds at the desert-based Baikonur cosmodrome, which has served as the central launch complex for the Soviet (now Russian) space program since its inception in the 1950s. Soviet officials managed to keep the location a secret until U.S. pilots flying U-2 spy planes spotted the cosmodrome in 1957, the same year Sputnik, Earth’s first artificial satellite, was launched from the site.

The rockets launched from Baikonur became larger-than-life vehicles to the glorious future; they were supposed to conquer space and make the Soviet Union the most powerful country in the world. That myth came to an end with the dissolution of the Communist government, or perhaps even earlier. The Soviet space program was supposed to be a vision in which science, Communist ideology, and dreams worked together in an attempt to break loose from the dystopian human condition. In post-Soviet Russia the exploration of space endures, but it is devoid of the mythical and ideological significance it once possessed.

The Russian program continues despite diminished funding and a growing indifference toward space exploration on the part of the government. These days, the cosmodrome is caught in a bitter territorial dispute, having ended up in the now independent Republic of Kazakhstan. The drawing of new borders left no space for the extraterritorial state within a state, and now that garden city—the nation’s secret heart—finds itself in disarray.

See for the history of the Russian space program as well as recent news. An encyclopedia of space history is at


The base of a 1970s-era descent module (opposite) on display at Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Space Exploration is inscribed with distress warnings in Russian and English. The capsule was built to ferry two cosmonauts to the Salyut orbital space station and return two others to Earth. On reentry, primary and secondary parachutes slowed the capsule’s descent. Two to three seconds before touchdown, a heat shield separated from the base, and retro-rockets helped soften the impact of the landing.


At NPP Zvezda, a research center outside Moscow that specializes in life-support and escape systems for space travel, space suits designed for use by cosmonauts bound for Mir are queued up for testing in a vacuum chamber.


Two RD-110 missile engines (left and center) used during the 1940s and 1950s suffered from rough combustion and thermal stress design problems and were abandoned as an approach to rocket propulsion. The third engine, an RD-105, was a water-shed design that led to the development of the R-7, the engine on the rocket that lifted Sputnik into space. Variations of the R-7 are still used in Soyuz spacecraft.


The main assembly hall at the M.V. Khrunichev State Space Science and Production Center in Moscow houses the Proton satellite launch vehicle. Proton rockets have been launched more than 200 times since 1965, with a success rate of 96 percent, and have lifted the Zond, Venera, Mars, Vega, and Phobos interplanetary probes into space, as well as manned Salyut, Kvant, and Kristall modules.


A TKS descent module on display at NPO Machinostroeniya in Moscow was originally designed to ferry crew members and supplies to the Almaz, a large orbital space station intended primarily for military purposes.


A Proton rocket under construction at the Khrunichev factory features six single-chamber RD-253-14D14 engines fueled with nitrogen tetroxide in a closed-cycle, staged-combustion system that increases thrust and engine efficiency by after-burning oxidizer gas. RD-253 engines have been used in the first-stage Proton launch vehicle since 1965 and have operated without a failure since 1969.


A Baikonur launchpad used for the N-1 Lunar Program now stands abandoned. The superheavy booster developed for Soviet lunar exploration failed in four attempted launches before the program was discontinued.


A trio of quality control workers check engine parts at Energomash NPO on the outskirts of Moscow. Founded in 1929, Energomash is the primary facility in Russia for the design and manufacture of liquid-fuel rockets.


Researchers from the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems use a long-duration-flight simulator at NPP Zvezda to test how cosmonauts might respond to the physical and psychological stresses of being confined in cramped quarters on a journey to Mars. Long-duration-flight simulations are also conducted in a mock space station interior at the facility.


On the walls of a classroom at the Scientific Research Institute of Chemical Machine Building on the outskirts of Moscow hang portraits of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (right), the visionary father of Russian cosmonautics, and Sergei Korolev, the man who realized Tsiolkovsky’s visions by overseeing the launch of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s historic 1961 spaceflight.

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