Reliable Russian technology
- May 29, 2009 6:56 PM |
- By Quirks
Watching Canadian Astronaut Bob Thirsk blast off this week in a Soyuz rocket was like watching a re-enactment of history. The TMA-15 rocket that carried him aloft is a design that has not changed much since Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, flew out of the same spaceport in 1961. The Russians live by that old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Russians, formerly the Soviet Union, were the first in space and are still the best at it when it comes to reliability. Like the Americans, they adopted German engineers who had built V-2 rockets for Hitler and improved on their design.
Of course, the rockets were originally designed to carry nuclear weapons around the planet during the Cold War, but by the time they achieved the R-7, a design with four boosters strapped to a central core, they had enough lifting power to send Sputnik, the first satellite into orbit, followed by Laika the dog, and finally a human, beating the Americans by a fair margin.
Since then, these rockets resembling Cossack dancers have grown taller and have better electronics, but have basically remained the same, providing the highest number of launches and best safety record of any spacecraft in the world. This is in sharp contrast to the American space program, which has re-invented itself twice and is about to do it again.
Like the Russians, the Americans used German engineers to improve on the V-2 and developed capsule-carrying missiles that eventually put men on the moon. But rather than improving on that technology, they completely abandoned it for the re-usable space shuttle, which was supposed to lower the cost of getting to space. But the shuttle has turned out to be so complex, it has cost more to fly to a low orbit that it did to reach the moon in the 60s. Plus, two of them have exploded in flight, killing 14 astronauts.
Now the shuttles are being retired and will be replaced by an entirely new system called Orion, which harkens back to the missile and capsule concept, sort of re-inventing the wheel.
Unfortunately, there will be a gap of several years between the retirement of the shuttles and the first flight of Orion, so the only way to get to the International Space Station will be on a Russian Soyuz. The Americans recently signed a $300 million deal to pay for that ferry service. Meanwhile, space tourists are willing to pay $30 million for a seat in a Soyuz.
In other words, by adopting the strategy of using proven technology to keep costs down and charging for rides to space, the Russian space program is almost paying for itself.
Now there is talk that the Russians may be ready to take a giant leap with a new generation of rockets that could reach the moon. Hmmm, is another space race in the works?
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