Engineering Safety for Cosmonauts

The BBC gives a light-hearted look at how the Soviets engineer safety into their space missions.

The story goes that one of the engineers warned the chief designer, Sergei Korolev, that the slightest leak of air would kill those on board.

Korolev’s solution was to appoint the engineer as one of the cosmonauts, figuring that this would help motivate him to make the capsule as safe as possible.

All three cosmonauts survived the mission – although others were not so lucky.

Today’s Soyuz spacecraft does not look much different from those pioneering designs. It is even launched on a rocket that would not be out of place in a 1950s sci-fi annual.

That’s one way to motivate an engineer to take security seriously. One breach and you’re dead.

With the pace of “progress” in consumer technology some might scoff at the above scenario. Soviets use old technology? Primitive technology? Then they will read this.

…in order to dock to the space station the commander uses an optical periscope which sticks out of the side.

“Why not a camera,” I ask?

“Why make it complicated?” replies the colonel.

And that is the great thing about Russian space technology – it may look a bit dated, but it works. I have seen Soyuz launched in a blizzard – the slightest gust of wind delays the Shuttle.

So technically speaking they launch with resilient technology. It is not just functional, but designed to be highly reliable.

Another interesting bit of security trivia is that anyone can get fairly close to watch a Soyuz launch, but the US space program has a giant buffer zone.

Soyuz 2007 Launch
“Damn, I forgot the marshmallows”

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