The Spacecraft Tarot: Soyuz

The Hierophant leads us through ceremony.

As a spiritual leader, the Hierophant serves as a conduit of faith. He carries us through the important milestones of life: The baptisms. The weddings. The funerals. The Hierophant recognizes the value in traditions: our connections to the past are what help guide us through 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 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 F. Kennedy announced his intention to land an astronaut on the Moon by the end of the decade. The Soviet Union and the United States were in the thick of the Cold War, each trying to outdo each other at everything from sports to military technology to the so-called “Space Race.” The Soyuz was the Soviet Union’s reaction to the President’s announcement.

The first design of the Original Soyuz was approved by Soviet Union rocket scientist Sergei P. Korolev in 1962. It was a sign that the Soviet Union had its own plans to land humans on the Moon; Soyuz was originally designed to carry Russian cosmonauts to the Moon’s orbit, where a separate lander would bring them down to the lunar surface.

When President Kennedy announced the United States’ intention to land boots on the Moon, the Soviet Union had already successfully launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into Earth’s orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Although the feat had been veiled in secrecy, Gagarin became the first human in space when he completed an 108-minute orbital flight in a Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. In contrast, the United States at this point had only put a human in space for about fifteen minutes, when NASA astronaut Alan Shepard launched on board Freedom 7 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Soyuz has a distinctive five-booster formation that gives it a flared shape at the bottom, not unlike 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 further. On Nov. 28, 1966, the Soviet Union launched its first test uncrewed mission of the spacecraft under the cover name Kosmos 133. However, the spacecraft’s systems failed as it was reentering orbit, and as a result, the empty crew module broke apart. The mission was considered a failure.

Soyuz suffered another tragedy five months later when Colonel Vladimir Komarov launched on Soyuz’s first crewed mission on April 23, 1967. The spacecraft missed its intended orbit and the solar panels did not deploy correctly. The cosmonaut managed to the vehicle, but sadly his parachute failed as he and the spacecraft plummeted to the ground.

Finally, success arrived for Soyuz on Sept. 15, 1968 when Zond 5 launched into space en route to the Moon. Zond 5 wasn’t carrying any humans on board, but it did have a crew: two tortoises, worms, and some plants. After completing a three-day journey to the Moon, the spacecraft flew about one thousand miles over the lunar surface and began the trip back to the Earth. When the scientists recovered the spacecraft and saw that the tortoises were in more or less good health — despite the fact that they had been given no food during their journey, in order to test the effects of spaceflight and nothing else — the tortoises became the first living organisms to complete a circumlunar trip.

Shortly after, two cosmonauts successfully docked or connected two separate Soyuz spacecraft on January 16, 1969 — a necessary step for building to landing humans on the lunar surface. However, they were too late. By that summer, the United States beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. 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. Soyuz would be used 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.

Tragedy struck once again for Soyuz. After becoming the world’s first space station crew, cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, were found dead in their capsule after landing back on Earth in the Soyuz 11 spacecraft on June 29, 1971. The cabin had depressurized too quickly and the crew had suffocated. They 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 a NASA Apollo vehicle 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: An Apollo capsule meeting with a Soyuz.

After the success of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first international human spaceflight, the third generation Soyuz-T spacecraft evolved to have solar panels and 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 Sept. 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 International Space Station (ISS).

Soyuz was the first spacecraft to ferry a crew to ISS. Expedition 1 arrived to the space station on Nov. 2, 2000, and since then, there have always been at least a couple of humans on board the ISS, establishing a continuous human presence for over twenty years and counting.

Crews arrive to the ISS in increments of a couple of months to over a year at a time. The Soyuz is like the heart that pumps blood into the space station — it 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. The private American company SpaceX successfully ferried two NASA astronauts, Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, to and from the ISS in the summer of 2020. When the two astronauts returned safely after two months on board the station on Aug. 2, 2020, the Crew Dragon was officially certified to fly humans. This vehicle has since carried one mission to the station, Crew-1, which is currently on board. 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, there is a traditional prelaunch blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest.

Although the Soyuz spacecraft began as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s achievements in spaceflight, it 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. These astronauts are connected through their shared commitment to space exploration and discovery. The Soyuz is what facilitates this bond.

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.

Every week I will be sharing a new card from the Spacecraft Tarot. For more information about the series, read this.

aka Thalia Patrinos. Science writer by day, fire dancer by night. Views are my own.

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