R-7 Rocket

TMA-12 blasts off yesterday

The basic design of the launcher which took Korea's first astronaut (or is she a cosmonaut as she went in a Russian rocket?) is over 50 years old and is very much a design classic.

The R1 in 1948

The first Russian built rocket was just a re-engineered V2 (or, more correctly, an A4) and was launched in 1948 under the technical management of Sergei Koralev ( properly, Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov) and was called the R-1.

A series of developments of the original R-1 followed (R-1B R-1D, R-1E and R-1V) and they carried the first scientific experiments and the first living creatures (dogs) into space on the very fifties retro-looking (retro rocket?) R-1D in 1951.

The R-1D. The first cool looking Soviet rocket.

Work took place on a series of rockets, or more properly missiles, for a variety of strategic uses but the race was on with the USA to build the world's first inter-continental ballistic missile.

The R5. The first missile to carry a nuclear warhead.

The R5 broke the altitude record for rockets in 1958 reaching 473km.

In 1953 Korolev began work on a ICBM launcher originally called the 8k71 (catchy!). It featured strap on boosters which gave what became the R-7 its distinctive (and very cool) look.

An early R-7 launch

The first three launches, in 1957, were all disasters but the fourth on August 21st 1957 was a success. The R-7 was 34 m long, 3 m in diameter and weighed 280 metric tons, it was two-stage, powered by rocket motors using liquid oxygen (lox) and kerosene and was capable of delivering its payload at around 8,800 km, with an accuracy (CEP) of around 5km. As an ICBM the rocket entered service in 1960 but it was not exactly a success. Only six launch sites were built and each site cost 5% of the Soviet defence budget. The rocket needed 20 hours to prepare for launch and this would have made it very vulnerable to enemy strikes.

Nasty, brutish and short. The R-7 ICBM

However, in parallel to its role as an ICBM the R-7 launcher was used to transport the Sputnik satellite into orbit on October 4th 1957. A brave thing to do for a rocket that had only had one successful and three unsuccessful launches!

The more elegant lines of the current Soyuz FG

Later the same basic rocket, with added extra stages, was used for all the Soviet and then Russian manned flight missions. The Soyuz version was first launched in 1963 and since then there have been around 1,200 launches of that configuration. If the earlier incarnations of the R-7 are included as well then the total number is around 1,700. In the early eighties the Soviets were churning out 60 a year.

Soyuz under construction

The current version is the Soyuz FG with a Fregat booster. A new version is due out this year. The rockets are assembled in a horizontal position which is much cheaper than the typical American vertical build. They are then transported by rail to the launch pad and raised up into the firing position.

TMA-12 in its gantry.

Preparing for launch



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