The Spacecraft Tarot: Soyuz

The Hierophant leads us through ceremony.

As a spiritual leader, the Hierophant serves as a conduit of faith. He guides us through the important milestones of life: The baptisms, the weddings, and the funerals. The Hierophant recognizes the value in traditions. Our connections to the past can prepare us the future, whether we are celebrating a new beginning or mourning a loss. The Hierophant reminds us of the beliefs we hold close to us, whichever they may be — and how they give shape to our perceptions and our interactions with the world.

Representing a rich history, the legacy of the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft series is one that began over sixty years ago and continues to this day. Like the Hierophant, the Soyuz is consistent, reliable, and deeply rooted in tradition.

On May 25, 1961, United States President John Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and announced his intention to land an astronaut on the Moon by the end of the decade. The president was reacting to recent developments in the “Space Race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two most powerful space programs in the world were intent on playing the ongoing Cold War conflict out in the heavens.

The Soviet Union appeared to be ahead in the competition for power and prestige: the superpower had launched the world’s first satellite into orbit with Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, and launched the first person into space with Yuri Gagarin’s flight on on April 12, 1961. With Alan Shepard’s recent suborbital flight marking the first American in space on May 5, 1961, NASA appeared to be catching up, but Gagarin’s flight still eclipsed Shepard’s in many ways. Gagarin had completed an 108-minute orbital flight in a Vostok 1 spacecraft, in contrast, Shepard had only been in space for 15 minutes aboard Freedom 7.

When President Kennedy announced the United States’ intention to land boots on the Moon, the Soviet Union was preparing to do the same. Scientist Sergei Korolev’s original design of the Soyuz spacecraft, approved by the Soviet Union in 1962, intended to carry Russian cosmonauts to lunar orbit, where a separate lander would bring them down to the lunar surface.

The Soyuz has a distinctive five-booster formation that flares out at the bottom like a bell. When the four outer boosters run out of fuel during launch, they detach and leave one remaining core booster to guide the Soyuz spacecraft into space.

On November 28, 1966, the Soviet Union launched its first uncrewed flight test of the Earth-orbit spacecraft aboard a Soyuz rocket under the cover name Cosmos 133. Teams intended to dock Cosmos with a second Soyuz to be launched the following day. However, the Cosmos’ attitude control system malfunctioned, spending the orientation fuel and leaving the spacecraft spinning. Despite efforts to retrofire, the spacecraft failed to orient properly upon re-entry. When teams realized Cosmos was headed toward China, they issued the self-destruct command. The second uncrewed Soyuz mission, delayed three weeks to December 14, 1966, aborted during launch when the second stage boosters successfully ignited but the first stage did not. A third uncrewed Soyuz mission was quickly added to the schedule. This Soyuz launched on February 7, 1967, but the mission was plagued with communication issues, navigation issues, and a hole was discovered burned through the bottom of the vehicle upon recovery in the Aral Sea. All three flight tests were considered failures.

Around the same time, disaster struck on the other side of the world. Despite NASA’s recent progress with the Mercury and Gemini missions, the team suffered a devastating tragedy when Apollo 1 launchpad caught fire on January 27, 1967. Three astronauts died when the Apollo capsule burst into flames during a preflight test, shocking the world and delaying progress toward the ultimate goal of making it to the Moon.

Despite the issues with the Soyuz flight tests, teams decided to move forward with a crewed mission. Cosmonaut Colonel Vladimir Komarov launched aboard Soyuz 1 on April 23, 1967. After entering Earth orbit, the short-wave radio communication failed, restricting communication with Komarov to a brief line-of-sight period each orbit. The left solar panel also failed to open, limiting the spacecraft’s power supply to just 19 orbits unless Komarov could maneuver his working solar panel to face sunlight. Coincidentally, the primary maneuver control system also suffered when a solar-stellar attitude control sensor failed. Despite all of the system failures and the pressure of the situation, during his 19th orbit and last opportunity, Komarov managed to use the ionic orientation system and Earth’s horizon as a guide to re-enter the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, even after all of Komarov’s best efforts to overcome the plights of Soyuz 1, both the main parachute and backup parachutes failed during re-entry. Without anything to reduce the speed of the vehicle, Soyuz 1 impacted the Earth at 90 miles per hour, killing Komarov upon impact. Komarov’s death became the first in-flight fatality of spaceflight.

Similarly to how the engineers of the Apollo program regrouped after the Apollo 1 tragedy, the Soviet Union recognized the opportunity in the months following the accident to improve the Soyuz spacecraft. Their efforts paid off. On October 30, 1967, uncrewed Soyuz variants named Kosmos 186 and 188 achieved the first automatic docking in space, a practice that is still in use today aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

After several more successful uncrewed Soyuz flights, including the Zond 5 mission that carried tortoises, worms, and plant on the first circumlunar trip with living organisms, cosmonauts returned to space when Georgi T. Beregovoy launched aboard Soyuz 3 on October 26, 1968. Even though Soyuz 3 failed to dock with an uncrewed Soyuz 2 vehicle, Beregovoy had an overall successful mission and landed safely in Kazakhstan on October 30. The parachutes worked perfectly.

However, despite recent successes with the Soyuz, the Soviet space program encountered more issues in an effort to reach the Moon. Zond 6, which carried a similar biological payload to Zond 5, launched on November 10, 1968. After a three-day journey capturing photographs of both the Earth and the Moon’s near and far sides, a leak from a faulty hatch seal caused a partial depressurization, and the capsule landed at high velocity. Unfortunately, unlike the organisms aboard Zond 5, this biological payload didn’t survive.

Not only that, but the Soviet Union could not reach success with the N1 Moon rocket before NASA was able to launch its first successful lunar landing mission aboard a Saturn V rocket. On July 20, 1969, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on the Moon when the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed a module on the lunar surface.

After losing the race to the Moon, the Soviet Union decided to refocus its efforts on a crewed space station that would exist in low-Earth orbit. Teams used the Soyuz to ferry crew and cargo back and forth between Earth and the orbiting station. On April 19, 1971, the Soviet Union deployed the world’s first experimental space station: Salyut.

The Soyuz 11 mission was a mission of many firsts: cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev became the world’s first space station crew when they flew Soyuz 11 to Salyut on June 6, 1971. Patsayev became the first person to operate a telescope in space with the Orion-1 ultraviolet instrument and he also became the first person to celebrate a birthday in space when he turned 38 on June 19, 1971. The crew also cast ballots in Soviet elections, becoming the first people to vote from space. After three weeks of running experiments aboard the space station and sharing their lives on daily television broadcasts, the crew piled back into the Soyuz 11 to return home.

Tragedy struck on June 29, 1971, just 30 minutes from landing. A pressure equalization valve opened unexpectedly and and the air leaked out of the capsule during re-entry. The crew were not wearing pressure suits, and the rapid depressurization caused all three cosmonauts to rapidly lose consciousness and suffocate. The Soyuz 11 crew were and still are the only people to have died in space; all other casualties associated with spaceflight have occurred in Earth’s atmosphere.

Although the Soyuz had suffered many tragedies, the Soviet Union learned from every mistake and used the new knowledge to inform the next iteration of the spacecraft. The second generation Soyuz Ferry, which included Soyuz 12 through 40, also produced a 7K-TM Soyuz spacecraft. Cosmonauts used this spacecraft on July 17, 1975, to dock with an Apollo spacecraft while in orbit around the Earth. The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project successfully brought together two Cold War rivals, literally merging technologies and cultures in space. As the world watched on television, the cosmonauts and astronauts shook hands between the hatch of their two spacecraft.

After the success of the first international human spaceflight, the third generation Soyuz-T spacecraft evolved to use solar panels and maintain longer design lifetimes. As Soyuz adapted to serve more and more Soviet space stations, the transport proved to be more reliable and safe with each new version. On September 26, 1983, Soyuz T-10a was headed to the Salyut 7 space station atop a Soyuz-U rocket when the fuel spilled and ignited the vehicle on the launch pad. This could have easily been another tragedy for Soyuz — but Mission Control manually activated the launch escape system six seconds before Soyuz exploded, saving crewmembers Vladimir Titov and Gennadi Strekalov.

Fourth generation Soyuz vehicles were used to piece together the space station Mir between 1986 and 2001. When the Soviet Union collapsed on Dec. 26, 1991, the Russians formed the space agency Roscosmos and continued to pursue space exploration. President Bill Clinton invited Roscosmos to be one of the first dozen nations to design, deploy, and operate the ISS.

Expedition 1 arrived to the space station aboard a Soyuz on November 2, 2000, and since then, ISS has maintained a continuous human presence for over twenty years and counting.

Crews can spend a couple months up to over a year aboard the ISS. The Soyuz is like the heart that pumps blood into the space station — the spacecraft carries crew, fresh food, and scientific cargo regularly back and forth between Earth and the orbiting laboratory. The launching and landing of Soyuz is as reliable and steady as a heartbeat. A continuously docked Soyuz spacecraft serves as a lifeboat in case the crew must quickly evacuate.

When NASA retired the Space Shuttle program with the end of its final mission on July 21, 2011, the Soyuz dominated all other spacecraft as the only means of transporting humans to the space station. Only until recently has that changed, when SpaceX began offering flights aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft after the successful Demo-2 mission which launched on May 30, 2020. However, the current Soyuz MS model remains the most reliable and consistent means of flying to the ISS, with dozens of successful flights under its belt.

The launch of each Soyuz space capsule is an event shrouded in ritual. Before the Soyuz is launched to the space station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a Russian Orthodox priest performs a traditional prelaunch blessing.

Although the Soyuz began as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s achievements in spaceflight, the spacecraft has come to stand for international collaboration and success. Just as the Hierophant brings people together in the name of ceremony, the Soyuz flies astronauts from all over the world, connected by their shared commitment to space exploration and discovery.

The Hierophant reminds us to come together not only in times of celebration, but also in times of great loss. The customs we practice hold significance, and we honor our ancestors when we uphold them. Keep them sacred, like the Soyuz.

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