Saturday, September 21, 2013

Book Review: Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft

I've been reading quite a bit lately, but not everything I've read requires a review. This book was, if only to teach American space aficionados about the parts of the space business we haven't heard much about. The Soyuz spacecraft in its various forms has served Russia and the Soviet Union since 1960. Its design, developed in secret away from Western eyes, is distinctive and has not varied much since that time. The original vehicle launched Yuri Gagarin to a single orbit in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. The latest version, the Soyuz TMA, now supports the International Space Station, a joint U.S.-Russian space system, and can stay in space for over six months. This is a story--or set of stories--that's worth reading.

The basic Soyuz spacecraft is a three-part vehicle, with a bulb-like Orbital Module (OM) at the front end that currently serves to store instruments and provide a docking mechanism to link up with other spacecraft; a descent module (DM), where a crew of two or three sits during launch and reentry and controls the spacecraft; and the Propulsion Module (PM), which is a skirt at the bottom that houses the engines. This three-part structure is covered by an aerodynamic payload shroud at launch, and the vehicle continues to be sent into orbit aboard increasingly advanced versions of the original R-7 ballistic missile that launched the first Sputnik.

These vehicles faced several challenges that American spacecraft did not: they had to land on land in the Soviet Union (the USSR not being fond of letting outside eyes look at their strategic hardware). The territory is large and forbidding, often mountainous and cold. Like Apollo capsules, the Soyuz DM has a heat shield to protect it from the heat of reentry before deploying a parachute. However, instead of splashing down onto the relatively soft surface of the ocean, the DM drops its heat shield just before "dust down" and a set of solid rocket motors slows the capsule just enough to make for a "soft" landing. Of course the DM doesn't stop there. With its rounded shape, Soyuz looks like an upside-down acorn, and has a tendency to roll or bounce upon landing. Some missions set fire to the grass; some scare villagers; some land on snowy hillsides; one actually splashed down into a frozen lake and had to be towed by helicopter to shore. The seats have serious shock absorbers to cushion the crew from the impact, which is fortunate because the braking rockets don't always work. Upon landing, the crews sometimes have to wait for hours before rescue arrives. A pistol is considered standard equipment, if only to deter hostile bears. Can you imagine this sort of thing if an Apollo capsule had to touch down in the wilds of Colorado or Florida?

Which brings me to the next point: mishaps. The Soviet and Russian space programs do not have the same level of quality control and reliability as U.S. electronics. Automated docking systems often failed, as did Soyuz electronics, radars, or engines...but they kept flying. The really eye-opening parts of this book are the stories of the challenges, mishaps, and tragedies that the Western World didn't learn about until the Soviet Union collapsed. The story that had my hair standing on end concerned the reentry of Soyuz 5. Having just completed a test of docking with another Soyuz spacecraft in orbit, Soyuz 5 then started reentry procedures, but the propulsion module did not separate from the descent module. The DM was coming down head-first, and the hatch started to smolder and buckle inward before the reentry heat knocked the propulsion module loose. The video I liked to tells the rest, but it's definitely worth reading. What's even more astounding is that the single cosmonaut aboard was able to walk away (in a typical minus-40-degree Russian winter) to find help.

The USSR had the mixed advantage of state secrecy for much of its existence and a controlled press, which prevented the domestic media from either questioning the government or the non-Soviet world from learning of problems. The closed nature of life behind the Iron Curtain ensured that the cosmonauts received no help from the outside world, even if they wanted it. And even as the USSR was collapsing and the Russian Federation was struggling to be born, the Russians considered it a national priority to keep the space program going.

Personally, I find the Soyuz a bit lacking in aesthetic beauty: its three-part shape makes it look vaguely antlike, and they are not terribly comfortable--the current model is only 2.2 meters across, and the astronauts are crammed in three-wide in a metal ball that would be a serious challenge to anyone suffering from claustrophobia. But it works. The Russians continue to refine the vehicle and build more of them, much more cheaply than we Americans do. They are durable and reflect lessons learned over 50 years of spaceflight. Rather than build a completely new vehicle to meet new needs (the Buran "shuttleski" being the single exception), the Russians have continued to refine their single vehicle to meet differing needs over time.

The book itself is unevenly written. Broken up by vehicle class type, there are parts that overlap because the Russians would continue to fly older classes of spacecraft while testing the new version. Because of these incremental changes--roughly four generations over 50+ years--it is difficult to follow all the nomenclature. Soyuz vehicles have production numbers, vehicle numbers, and mission names/numbers that are likely to change depending on how they're used. For example, a vehicle might be a class T (Transport), but then also have one mission name if it's testing a particular piece of hardware or a maneuver, and then a different name for the consumption of the non-Soviet world. Missions that didn't achieve their objectives, for example, often were named "Cosmos" rather than "Soyuz."

There are also missing pieces in the book that I would have liked to learn about in more detail. For instance, what was going on with launch vehicle development in parallel with Soyuz improvements? What was the Russian lunar program like--the N-1, the lander (if any)? How did the various Soyuz configurations compare to each other in appearance and performance? Obviously the book would have benefitted from a lot more illustrations or photographs, even of the Salyut and Mir space stations, but it seems that even when the book was written (2003), some of the old secrecy remained.

There are definitely lessons Americans can and do learn from the Russian space program through the International Space Station partnership. Let's just hope we don't have another Cold War to fight.

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