Semyorka (R-7) USSR and the Space Race with the USA

Stalin, in the early 1950s, press the USSR heavy industries along with the Soviet Military, to develop a rocket program that ultimately would lead to the Russian ICBM or Semyorka, also called the R-7. The first successful flight occurred on 21 August 1957. The “chief designer”, whose identity remained a state secret until 1966, was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. After the successful launch of the first Semyorka, Korolev received the green light, from Khrushchev, to launch a long-planned artificial satellite that would demonstrated Soviet technical superiority over the USA. The secret launch of Sputnik-1 on 4 October 1957 was successful and came as a complete shock to the USA as well as the rest of the world. Korolev followed up on 3 November 1957 with a second successful secret launch of Sputnik-2. The weights of these two satellites (184 & 1,121 pounds) far exceeded the capabilities of the then American Vanguard rocket (2.2 pounds). The USA, as an open society, televised the launch attempt of the Project Vanguard on 6 December 1957 but it was a spectacular failure that earned it the moniker “kaputnik”. The Space Race between the USSR and the USA became one of the highlights of the Cold War, with the Soviets ahead for a number of years but ultimately, it was the Americans that landed on the Moon in 1969. The Russians took great pride in all of their space accomplishments.

A Soviet stamp depicting Sputnik-1 with S.P. Korolev on the left side.

After the first Sputniks,the next major goal for the Soviets under Korolev, with the strong support of Khrushchev, was the successful launch of a man into orbit the earth and his safe return. A team of Soviet Air Force pilots, now called Cosmonauts, was assembled and trained. The pilot selected for the first flight was Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin. He was launched, in secret, in Vostok-1 on 12 April 1961 and circled the earth for one orbit, about 100 minutes. Again, the technical superiority of the Soviet state was proclaimed over the Americans. In the style that Khrushchev used in his secret report on Stalin that eliminated the “cult of personality”, Gagarin discussed aspects of his flight in an article “The World in 100 Minutes.”

“After I returned to earth foreign correspondence asked me many questions . . . Our mighty launching pad was the October revolution. It was this that opened vast expanses to the creative forces of the people. It generated the vast energy that in a short time overcame Russia’s former technical and cultural backwardness and that enabled our Soviet motherland to take the lead in mankind’s progress, to break through to stellar heights. We are infinitely proud that it was the hands of Soviet people that built the “Vostok.” The world does not yet know the names of those who created the space rocket; the time for this has not yet come. But it is clear to everyone that such a victory could have been won only by the collective; not individual heroes, but a huge collective of scientists, engineers, technicians, doctors, pilots and workers. In other words, they are people who have been reared by the Soviet system, the Communist Party. Yuri Gagarin, “The World in 100 Minutes”, current digest of the Russian Press, The.1961.

The Semyorka or R-7 booster, first flown in 1957, is still used today to launch the Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) albeit with many upgrades to improve performance. It is remarkable that the basic design for the Semyorka (R-7) Russian booster has remained the standard rocket booster for manned spaceflight over the past 59 years, where as the American space program has gone through 5 different rocket boosters for their manned flights The Samyorka R-7 boosters have been used for over 2,000 unmanned and manned missions for earth satellites and probes to Mars and Venus. For the past 9 years American astronauts, going to the ISS, have had relied on the Russian R-7 booster to get to the ISS. On 27 May 2020, American astronauts will finally be able to be launched to the ISS on the American Falcon 9 rocket and no longer rely on the Russian R-7.

Here is a drawing of the first Semyorka R-7 showing the 20 main rocket engines and 12 vernier or steering rocket engines of the first stage.
This depicts the changes in the Samyorka (R-7) over the years. Note the 4 strap-on liquid fueled first stage engine design has remained the same up to 2020. The Vostok was the first manned Russian spacecraft, followed by the Voskhod and to the current Soyuz manned spacecrafts. There are no structural changes in the Soyuz of 1966 to 2020 but significant up grades in performance that allows for greater payloads put into orbit.

One of the most significant differences between the Soviet and American space programs was the level of secrecy imposed by the Soviets. All Soviet manned launches until 1975 were not acknowledged until the spacecraft was already in orbit so that any launch failures could be ignored and covered up. Until the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, no Russian television coverage showed the live launch of a Soviet spacecraft compared to the total live coverage, by the US media, of all of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle launches. The manned Apollo launches from 1968-1972 drew very large crowds without any secrecy considerations because the USA is an open society. I was invited by NASA to witness the Apollo 14 & 15 launches at Cape Kennedy.

As a personal example of the controlling Soviet culture that related to the Soviet Space program, I was project manager in Moscow in 1996-97 on a program for the startup of a pharmaceutical testing laboratory that verification the integrity of imported drugs from China and India. I worked with Ramil Khabriev, Chief of Inspection, for the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation on the testing protocols for the project. Ramil was in his mid-60s, so he lived under Soviet socialism his entire working life. Interestingly, we both shared an interest in the Soviet space program. In May 1997, Ramil came to Tampa, FL to approve the final design of the laboratory. I told Ramil, that I would take him to the nearby Kennedy Space Center for a tour that included a viewing point stop to see the Space Shuttle on the launch pad. He told me that being a Russian citizen, NASA would never allow him into the Space Center. We drove to the Cape and went to the visitor center without any security checks. At the visitor’s center, we viewed a IMAX movie on the MIR space station, partially in Russian (just my luck), and then we took the bus to the Space Shuttle viewing site. The viewing point stop went very well with the Shuttle sitting about 1 mile away. Ramil was really impressed seeing Space Shuttle directly but I could sense that Ramil came to the realization that the Soviet political system had been lying to him all these years about America. He was able to take the tour and see the Shuttle as close as 1 mile and there was no governmental control preventing him. For him, there was just breathing the freedom that Americans enjoy that he as a life-time Soviet citizen could not and did not enjoy. It was a real awakening for him and I enjoyed being the one that made it possible.


Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge, Asif A Siddiqi, University Press of Florida, 2000.

The Soyuz Launch Vehicle: The Two Lives of an Engineering Triumph, Christian Lardier & Stefan Barensky, Springer Praxis Publishing, 2010

By Tom Patton

Senior citizen scholar auditing classes at Virginia Tech.

7 replies on “Semyorka (R-7) USSR and the Space Race with the USA”

I enjoyed your over view of the Soviet R-7 rocket and your summarization of some of the Soviet space achievements. However, I could not help but notice your continuous recognition of America as a “open society” and of the Soviet Union as some oppressive closed regime. I would just like to say I do not feel like that is a correct characterization of either of these countries. The United States may have been an open society to some in this time period, but to many including minorities and especially “Negros” America was anything but. And the same thing goes for the USSR, while some may have considered it oppressive, for many the Soviet State offered people opportunities they had never had before and greatly improved their quality of life.

Tom, this was a great post concerning the space race between the United States and the USSR! You draw a good comparison between the U.S. openly broadcasting their progress and the total secrecy the USSR had. They seemed to represent opposite ends of the spectrum. I also was not aware that the U.S. had relied on Russia’s R-7 booster designs to get into the ISS.

Natalie, actually for the past 9 years the American Astronauts were launched to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome run by the Russians using their Soyuz/R-7 system.

Thanks for writing about the Soviet space program, Tom – and for sharing your personal experiences with us. I remember you telling me about Ramil at the beginning of the semester (you know, when we could still talk to each other f2f!??). And it must have been awe inspiring to watch two of the Apollo launches at Cape Kennedy! It’s sobering to think that the R-7 remains such a workhorse after all these years and many technical advances later.
I agree with De’Vonte about how we characterize “closed” vs. “open” societies. The point about Soviet secrecy is certainly apt (and Asif Siddiqi has written some fabulous articles about this in terms of the space program), but I also think it’s important to remember that the US in the 50s and 60s was hardly a society of equal opportunity and freedom for all.
Also, (please indulge this tangent to your main point) I can’t help but note that the backstory of the Soviet manned space flight program was largely written by dogs — which the Soviets began using in vertical launches in 1951. There’s much to be said about their choice of dogs vs. the Americans’ preference for monkeys and apes as experimental organisms in this context. (This is one of my areas of research expertise:

De’Vonte, the term “open society”, with regard to the Space Race, refers to the access of information and media coverage of space related events by the respective governments. In the US, the availability and notice of the schedules and coverage of space launches by the media and then awareness of the results of space missions was clearly available to all. We knew the names of the Astronauts and the goals of the space programs before they happened. On the other hand, the Soviets did not make the availability and notice of the schedules and coverage of space launches by the media and then awareness of the results of space missions clearly available to all. We did not know the names of the Cosmonauts before their flights nor the goals of the space programs. The need for secrecy by the Soviets was inherent in their governmental system because they wanted complete control of information that was supported their socialistic system. I know first-hand the history of the space race since 1957 and actually taught a space science course at the time of the Apollo projects.

Dr. Nelson, I am just now reading a rented Kindle book “The First Soviet Cosmonaut Team” that did go into some depth on the selection of dogs for the initial space flights. Some were just captured street dogs so easily obtained and had little value. The use of dogs was strange as their biological similarity was questionable where as chimps were much closed to us biologically. We have always been more cat people for many years with only one dog many years ago.

Tom, thanks for such an interesting post. I had no idea that the Russians were still using the same basic launch platform after all this time. Building such a long-lived workhorse is an incredible feat of engineering.

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