rocket history
Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy
Hermann Oberth
Robert H. Goddard
Wernher von Braun
Sergei P. Korolev
principles of rocketry
early U.S. rocketry
Nazi Germany’s Space Bomber
postwar U.S. rocketry
Thor, Agena, and Delta
the Titan Launch Vehicle
upper stages of rockets
solid rocket propellants
Orion Project
Russian launch vehicles
launch vehicles of other nations
the Sputnik triumph
early Soviet spaceflight
Mercury space programme
Gemini space programme
Apollo space programme
Soviet race to the Moon
Soviet space stations
Skylab space station
Apollo-Soyuz test
Space Shuttle history
the Challenger Accident
the Columbia Accident
Shuttle launches
Space Station
automated spacecraft
Lunar robotic missions
Inner planet exploration
outer planet exploration
exploring other bodies
return to Mars
solar-terrestrial physics
astronomy from space
Earth observation satellites
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remote sensing satellites
early warning satellites
intelligence satellites
ballistic missiles
Energia and Khrunichev
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Comsat and Intelsat
International space agencies
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Vandenberg Air Base
astronauts and cosmonauts
Scaled Composites
space flight chronology

Russian launch vehicles

Korolev's R-7 Semiorka rocket, similar to the one that launched the Sputniks.

Since the era of spaceflight began in 1957, the (now former) Soviet Union has introduced several generations of launch vehicles for putting spacecraft into orbit around the Earth and into deep space.

As a rule, the Soviets used common “base” rockets equipped with a variety of upper stages to “build” different satellite launch vehicles. Nearly all of these “base” rockets were military ballistic missiles.

The most common “base” rocket was the famous R-7 (or SS-6) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) developed in the 1950s under the leadership of Chief Designer Sergey Korolev at the OKB-1 design bureau (now known as Energia). Since 1957, the Soviets and Russians have launched more than 1,600 R-7-derived rockets, more than any other launch vehicle in the world. The R-7 launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957.

The R-7 consists of a core rocket (what the Russians call the second stage) surrounded by four boosters (what the Russians called collectively the first stage), each shaped like a tapered cylinder. The first and second stages ignite simultaneously at lift-off. Each of the strap-on boosters has one engine that produces about 100 (metric) tons of thrust at sea level. The four strap-ons separate from the core about two minutes after lift-off, leaving the core to continue firing. After the core finishes firing, additional upper stages fire to insert the payload into orbit.

There have been numerous variants of the “R-7-plus-upper-stage” combination. Each upper stage was traditionally known as a “Block.” For example, the Vostok launch vehicle, introduced in September 1958 (in its original version), used an R-7 with a “Block Ye.” This launch vehicle, which was used to send the first Soviet cosmonauts into space, was capable of sending about 5 tons into Earth orbit. An upgraded version known as the Vostok-2M has launched a variety of spacecraft including Meteor weather satellites, Zenit-2 reconnaissance satellites, and Tselina electronic intelligence satellites.

On October 7, 1957, this rocket inserted the first USSR sputnik (satellite) into a circular orbit above the atmosphere, causing a great commotion throughout the world.

The R-7-plus-Block I combination was introduced in November 1963 for launching reconnaissance satellites. This rocket was known as the Voskhod launcher. A slightly modified version, known as the Soyuz rocket, was introduced in November 1966. Soyuz rocket variants-such as the basic Soyuz, the Soyuz-L, the Soyuz-M, the Soyuz-U, and the Soyuz-U2-have launched hundreds of payloads into orbit, among them the Zenit and Yantar reconnaissance satellites and the Voskhod and Soyuz crewed spacecraft. The Russians continue to use the Soyuz, which can put about 7.5 tons into Earth orbit, for launching the Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. The Russians are also introducing new Soyuz rocket versions such as the Soyuz-Ikar, the Soyuz-Fregat, and the Soyuz-FG that use new upper stages or new engines.

Four-stage versions of the R-7 were first introduced in October 1960. Typically these rockets, known as Molniya, have been used to launch Molniya communications satellites and the early deep space probes such as Luna, Venera, and Mars. Later versions, capable of launching 1.6 to 1.8 tons to highly elliptical orbits, have included the Molniya-M.

All R-7-derived launch vehicles, including the Soyuz and the Molniya rockets are produced by a company called the TsSKB-Progress.

Other Russian launch vehicles based on military missiles include the Kosmos-3M rocket, which uses as the first stage, the 1960s-vintage R-14 (or SS-5) medium range ballistic missile. With the addition of a second stage, the Kosmos-3M was introduced as a satellite launcher (in an early version) in August 1964. These launchers, capable of lofting 1.5 tons into low Earth orbit, are manufactured currently by the Polyot Production Association. Over the years, the Kosmos-3M has launched several different types of small military satellites (Strela, Sfera, Tselina, Parus) as well as international payloads. The Russians are introducing a new version of the Kosmos-3M known as Vzlet.

A related precursor to the Kosmos-3M was the Kosmos-2 launch vehicle, which is no longer used. It was produced by adding an upper stage to the R-12 (or SS-4) intermediate range ballistic missile. Used between 1961 and 1977 to launch small military satellites, the Kosmos-2 was able to put about 450 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

A much more powerful launcher, the Tsiklon-3, is derived from the two-stage R-36 (or SS-9) ICBM. It was introduced in 1977. The Tsiklon-3 uses a restartable third stage to insert about 3.6 tons into polar orbit around the Earth. Its payloads have included Meteor (weather) and Tselina (military) satellites. A different two-stage version named Tsiklon-2 has launched high security military payloads such as anti-satellites and ocean reconnaissance satellites since 1967. Both the Tsiklon-2 and Tsiklon-3 are built by Yuzhnoye, a Ukrainian company.

Several recent Russian launch vehicles are derived from decommissioned ICBMs no longer used by the Russian missile forces. These include the Start and Rokot launch vehicles. The Start, derived from the Topol (SS-25) ICBM, was first test-launched in 1993. Since then, this solid-propellant rocket has flown in four- and five-stage versions. The five-stage variant can put about 1.3 tons into Earth orbit. The Rokot (often called Rockot) is a three-stage booster derived from the UR-100N (SS-19) ICBM for launching up to 1.9 tons into low Earth orbit. Rockot, first launched in 1990, is being offered commercially by a joint German-Russian company known as Eurockot.

The Russians have also tried to convert submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) for use as commercial satellite launchers. The Makeyev centre, the developer of Russian SLBMs, has developed the Shtil class of launch vehicles based on the R-29RM (SS-N-23) SLBM. In July 1998, a three-stage Shtil rocket became the first submarine-launched rocket to launch a satellite into orbit.

Four classes of Soviet launch vehicles designed from the beginning as space launch vehicles rather than for use as ballistic missiles: the Proton, the Zenit, the N1, and Energiya.

The Proton is probably the most well known Russian launch vehicle of all. It is currently the largest Russian launch vehicle in use. The basic launch vehicle, known as the Proton-K, consists of a first-stage with six engines that are fed propellants from a single, centrally located oxidizer tank surrounded by six outer tanks. The second stage has four engines and the third stage has one-each of them similar in design. For geostationary or deep space launches, the Proton-K uses a fourth stage. The most common fourth stage is the Block DM (and its numerous sub-variants). The restartable Block DM allows the Proton-K to boost 4.7 to 4.9 tons into geostationary transfer orbit. Over the years, the 4-stage Proton-K has launched a wide array of important Soviet and Russian deep space and communications payloads.

Lockheed Khrunichev Energia International (LKEI) Proton launch vehicle erection on pad, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan

Three-stage versions of the Proton are used for launching heavy 20-ton payloads such as the Zvezda and Zarya modules of the International Space Station. In the 1970s and 1980s, all the major components of the Mir and Salyut space stations were launched by the three-stage Proton-K.

Khrunichev, the makers of the Proton booster, have begun introducing new upgraded models of the rocket. These include the Proton-M with improved engines, a Proton-M with a new liquid hydrogen high performance upper stage known as the KVRB (replacing the Block DM), and a new upper stage named the Briz (also called Breeze). Most of these efforts are aimed at lessening the dependence of Khrunichev on the Block DM upper stage, which is built by the Energia corporation.

International Launch Services (ILS), a cooperative partnership between Khrunichev, Energia, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, offers the Proton on a commercial basis.

Less well known is the Zenit launcher produced by the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye company. The two-stage version has been launching a variety of military payloads into Earth orbit since 1985. It is capable of launching nearly 14 tons into low Earth orbit. Perhaps the most interesting modification of the Zenit is the three-stage Zenit-3SL used as part of the SeaLaunch project. Since March 1999, Yuzhnoye, in cooperation with Boeing Commercial Space Company and the Anglo-Norwegian Kvaerner Group, has launched the Zenit-3SL from a floating platform in the equatorial regions of the world's oceans. The booster can put about 5.2 tons into geosynchronous orbit.

Zenit-2 being oriented to vertical launch configuration.  

The Zenit booster was originally developed as part of the ambitious Energia-Buran program. Beginning in 1974, the Soviet Union developed the Energia heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of putting about 100 tons into Earth orbit. The Energia used a central core equipped with a variable number of strap-on boosters. These strap-on boosters were very similar to the Zenit launch vehicle. Energia was successfully launched twice in 1987 and 1988 but the project was cancelled in 1993 due to lack of money.

Buran/Energiya on pad.

Besides Energia-Buran, there was one other Soviet launch vehicle that never reached operational status-the giant N1 Moon rocket. The Soviets developed the N1 in the 1960s as part of their effort in the race to the Moon. After four launch failures in 1969-1972, the Soviet government cancelled the project in 1974. The NK company that built the engines for the N1 has been attempting to sell stored N1 engines to international customers although these efforts have not met with great success.