The political imperative to keep the Soviet space program "failure-free" compelled the leaders of this program to choose the simplest, well-tested, most reliable technical solutions. It is often claimed that these considerations delayed the implementation of computer technology on board Soviet spacecraft and hampered the development of the Soviet space program in general. This web project is aimed to examine critically such views and to document the development of Soviet onboard computers in a larger technological, institutional, and political context.
This project covers the period from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 to the launch of the Buran, the Soviet space shuttle, in 1988. The first piloted spacecraft, the Vostok and the Voskhod, were almost entirely automatic with back-up manual control systems. As the space exploration agenda became more ambitious and included such complex tasks as rendezvous, docking, and lunar landing, the designers of the new Soyuz spacecraft faced the problem of optimal division of functions between human and machine on board (see essays by Vladimir Shatalov and Konstantin Feoktistov). While in the U.S. space program the astronauts were given primary responsibilities for these tasks, the Soviet designers largely continued their reliance on automatic systems (see Comparison of Vostok and Mercury spacecraft). They believed that the reliability and functionality of piloted spacecraft were largely dependent on the technical characteristics of automatic systems, and they conceptualized the automation of spacecraft control as a complete replacement of human activity with automatic devices (see Valentina Ponomareva's essay and interview, and also lecture notes by the cosmonauts Gagarin and Komarov). The cosmonauts strongly argued for the development of manned spacecraft, while many in the military gave preference to automatic spy satellites (see cosmonauts' 1965 letter to the Party leader Leonid Brezhnev).
The failure of hasty, scattered, and underfunded Soviet attempts to catch up with the Apollo lunar program illuminated numerous shortcomings of the Soviet space industry. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union made a strategic turn toward the construction of long-term space stations with an extensive program of onboard research. Cosmonauts gradually began to play a more prominent role in the space program, although numerous failures of automatic systems and unsuccessful manual dockings in the absence of onboard guidance computers significantly slowed down the Soviet program. In the mid-1970s, the Soviets decided to meet the challenge of the U.S. Space Shuttle program with the construction of their own reusable space vehicle, the Buran. Unlike the Americans, who from the very beginning designed their Space Shuttle as a piloted spacecraft, the Soviets decided the make the first version of the Buran fully automatic. This automatic version successfully completed its one and only flight in November 1988 (see Natalia Dubova's essay). After that, the Soviet shuttle program was terminated, and a piloted version of the Buran was never launched.
A particularly important role in the evolution of the Soviet approach to automation belonged to the attempts to develop and use onboard computers. Soviet designers of spacecraft control systems became interested in computers at about the same time as engineers at MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory began working on the Apollo Guidance Computer. In the early 1960s as the Experimental Design Bureau No. 1, led by the chief designer Sergei Korolev, was working on the new Soyuz spacecraft, control system designers attempted to acquire an onboard electronic digital computer for the Soyuz, but none of the Soviet organizations involved in the design and production of computers was able to meet their specifications. As a result, the Soyuz spacecraft was initially designed without an onboard computer.
excerpt AR: What did he tell you about growing up in Smolensk?
EG: That life was extremely difficult at the time. The family – a large family of two parents and four children – were thrown out of their house by the Germans. There was no food, and no possibility of studying for the children. In 1941, aged seven, he attended the first year of the local school, but when the Germans occupied the area, the school was closed, and there was no school for three years. Only after the area was re-taken by the Soviet army in 1944 was the school open again, but life was tremendously difficult. They had almost nothing: there was no paper for example, they had to hunt for bits of wood or scraps of paper from around the town to write on. But they seemed to have very dedicated teachers, who wanted to pass on as much as they could - perhaps because the war made the need greater than ever – and they had a good grounding in maths, chemistry and physics, as well as in literature and history.
My father was interested in literature and history all his life. His love of history was very actual: he knew it as if he were taking part in it himself. I remember his driving me and my sister to Borodino one day – the battleground where Napolean’s army met the Russian army in one of the major engagements of the Napoleonic Wars, during the French invasion of Russia – and it was as if he knew every detail of the battle, re-enacting the events, and showing us what happened where. He also recited the poetry about the battle to us, and I remember being impressed by his knowledge. It was the same when he was a student in Samara, then in St Petersburg and Moscow. He learned as much as he could about the history of the cities - he was curious and interested in everything. One of his friends told me that when he was in Moscow he went to lectures on art at the Pushkin Museum. He was part of a generation that had had so few opportunities open to them, and then, after the war, they were avid to know so many things
Last edited by lakechampainer; 22 Nov 15 at 10:08..
A request for links or info on a topic - I spent 30 minutes looking and couldn't find anything, and have looked before:
What were the specific requirements that led to it taking about 3 1/2 years between launching a satellite into space and putting a man into space?
Clearly there were multiple issues: the weight of the astronaut and life-support, the design of the life support, reentry weight and design, the need to stay below a certain acceleration rate, setting up global tracking and communication systems, etc.
But what were they specifically and what was/were the limiting factors?
Last edited by lakechampainer; 05 Dec 15 at 17:29..