Way back in February 2012, I started working on a post intended primarily for my friend Jordan, after we'd had a brief exchange about the naming of the Mercury capsules, because of a thing he'd posted about the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's first orbit. I set out to write a brief summary of the history of spacecraft naming conventions, examining how changes in names have reflected changes in goals and attitudes, but it got out of hand and so it still isn't finished, even though I'm really only looking at names and even though there have been less than 200 human-crewed spacecraft, most of which have not been individually named. Now I've decided I'd better break it into smaller chunks and release them
I should possibly explain right from the start my personal system of categorising spacecraft. I recognise 5 categories: Space Condoms, Space Planes, Drop Ships, Space Ships and Space Stations. These are defined primarily according to how they land on the surface of a planet or moon. I'm also only interested here in vessels that have an onboard pilot and crew, not drones, probes, satellites or automated/remote-controlled tourist carriers.
- Space condoms are single-use, disposable vessels; you use them once, hope they protect you, and then you throw them away (or put them on display in a museum). It's a perfect analogy, and most of our spacecraft so far have been of this type.
- Space planes are reusable vessels designed to fly and land like conventional aircraft using some sort of wings. Pretty obvious. We've had some success with these, but they come with a lot more complications. Vessels that land as helicopters, which haven't been successfully tried yet, would also fit in as a subtype here.
- Drop ships are reusable vessels that can't keep themselves flying aerodynamically, but can still safely land and get launched again. The Apollo LM was arguably an example of this, arguably, and some future designs like the Dragon V2 are supposed to be able to operate like this one day. (Hypothetically, the Intrepid class, relying on antigravity generators to stay airborne, would fit in this category.)
- Space ships are those intended to get you from A to B, so long as neither A nor B involve landing on a planet. You could sub-divide these further into interplanetary, interstellar, intergalactic, etc. But we've never had any of these at all. (Hypothetically, the Galaxy class, unable to land or fly atmospherically, fits this category. Its emergency-landing saucer section may be considered a space condom.)
- Space stations also don't land (on purpose), but are different because they're not supposed to leave A (where A is some constant orbit), with only minimal thrusters to support station-keeping. We've had more of these than space planes so far.
With those basics cleared up, let's look at some Mother Russian spacecraft. Today we'll be limiting ourselves to space condoms, which make up the bulk of Soviet- and Russian-produced spacecraft.
In the Soviet/Russian system, each class of vessel gets a name (e.g. the Soyuz class), each mission gets a name-number combo (e.g. Soyuz 11), but there is (almost) never any unique vessel name, and the radio call sign is attached to the crew members, not the vessel, with each cosmonaut assigned a personal call sign (often something bland like a type of stone or constellation, e.g. Almaz, meaning diamond, or Antares, a star), and with each vessel referred to by its commander's call sign (so, also Almaz or Antares in this example). The other crew members are known
[EDIT: There's also the GRAU index, a standardised coding and recording of all Russian military equipment. Soviet and Russian spacecraft and rockets fall under this system, and so all have GRAU numbers, which would make looking them up super easy if you have a copy of the GRAU index in a language you can read. GRAU numbers usually start with a number and then a letter, and then there can be further numbers and lettes after that to tell apart sub-variants and sub-sub-variants. The Vostok spacecraft was designated 3KA, while the latest Soyuz TMA-M is 11F732A47.]
[EDIT: The designation Kosmos, followed by a number, occasionally comes up with Soviet/Russian spacecraft too. It's their generic term for anything they put in orbit, a catalogue of things they put in space that aren't important enough (or which they don't want anyone to assume are important enough) to get special names of their own. It's unusual for this to apply to something intended to carry humans.]
The class names are all quite interesting and political. They are:
[EDIT: In hindsight, I noticed I'd put a lot more detail into the write-ups of the spacecraft in parts 2 onwards than I did into these ones, so I've come back to add stuff.]
(Space condom. In space service
Meaning 'East', or more accurately the Vostok 3KA variant, as the Vostok 1P, 1K and 2K versions didn't carry people, the 2K satellite version later being renamed Zenit ('zenith'). [EDIT: It's since been revealed that the design was actually intended as the uncrewed Zenit from the start, and the crewed Vostok was actually considered a variant of that.] This name was a pretty explicit "Fuck you!" to the West, shouting ""Hah hah! The East got to space first AGAIN!", after the initial headstart with Sputnik 1. The whole series of unpiloted missions preceding Vostok 1 were known in the ignorant West as Sputniks 4 to 10 (meaning 'satellite'), while the Soviets dubbed the Vostok 1P, 1K and unpiloted 3KA missions as Korabl-Sputnik 1 to 5 (meaning ship-satellite). Some of these also carried dogs,
- 1K #2: Korabl-Sputnik 2, carried the dogs Belka and Strelka, a rabbit, 2 rats, 40 mice and an unspecified number of flies into orbit
- 1K #3: Korabl-Sputnik 3, carried the dogs Pcholka & Mushka into orbit, but was intentionally destroyed to keep it from landing outside of the USSR
- 1K #4: unnamed, carried the dogs Zhemchuzhina & Zhulka on a suborbital trajectory, due to a third stage malfunction. This was the first successful use of a launch abort system on an occupied vessel
- 3KA #1: Korabl-Sputnik 4, carried the dog Chernushka, several guinea pigs, mice and "other specimens" into orbit. Some of the mice and guinea pigs were placed inside a humanoid dummy, which was ejected and landed separately
- 3KA #2: Korabl-Sputnik 5, carried the dog Zvezdochka and a dummy
- 3KA #3 to #8 were Vostoks 1 to 6, with one human crewmember each]
As a neat bit of convenience, all of these Soviet/Russian space condoms are launched on rockets - all part of the R-7 rocket family - that approximately share their name, so the Vostok 3KAs were all launched on Vostok-K rockets and the latest Soyuz
The design of the 3KA was very simple and practical. The dude inside was seated in a spherical descent capsule, probably the most solid pressure-vessel shape, which contrasted with the US's cone-shaped re-entry modules (which have the advantage of not needing a second cone-shaped adaptor around them to streamline them during launch). Attached to the back of this was a second, jettisonable module made up of all the equipment that would only be needed while in orbit. This modular vessel design stood in contrast to the all-in-one-hull Mercury design, but after Mercury this splitting became a completely standard feature of all subsequent space condoms. If you're going to dispose of the whole thing anyway, then you might as well make the landing parachutes' job easier.
Three occupied 1Ks were launched, only two successfully, and one of those two was intentionally destroyed by mission control before landing. Eight occupied Vostok 3KAs flew once each successfully.
(Space condom. In space service 12 October 1964 to 16 March 1966)
|Voskhod 3KV (top) and Voskhod 3KD (bottom)|
Meaning 'Sunrise', and again should properly be called Voskhod 3KV and 3KD in full, to distinguish between the first vessel (which is pretty much a Vostok 3KA with a different interior for more seats and a back-up retro-rocket stuck on the front) and the second (which is the same, plus a jettisonable, inflatable airlock for the first ever spacewalk). The name is in the same theme of giving the West the finger, cleverly sounding as similar as it looked to the Vostok class, but with a slightly more nuanced and poetic touch.
The Voskhod spacecraft was launched on a Voskhod rocket.
Only one of each Voskhod variant went up [with humans], once each, both times successfully. [EDIT: Another 3KV, named Kosmos 110, went up successfully with the dogs Veterok and Ugolyok, after the human flights had ended.]
(Space condom. In space service 23 April 1967 to present)
|Top row: Soyuz 7K-OK(A), Soyuz 7K-OKS, Soyuz 7K-T, Soyuz 7K-TM|
Middle row: Soyuz-T, Soyuz-TM, Soyuz-TMA, Soyuz-TMA-M
Bottom row: Soyuz-MS
Meaning 'Union', there are actually
[EDIT: I'm trying to gradually translate all the letters attached to each Soyuz variant, and my rough guide so far looks like this (if a knowledgable Russian-speaker wants to steer me more accurately, please do):
OK - Orbitalny Korabl - orbital vessel, orbiter
S - ?
T - Transportnyi - transport, or sometimes inaccurately ferry, indicating primarily station service
M - Modifitsirovannyi - modified (I'm not sure if this also applies to the second M in TMA-M)
A - Antropometricheskii - anthropometric, because of a NASA request for expanded crew limits]
[EDIT: I count two Soyuzes where the vessel itself received a name of its own. Soyuz 19 was called Soyuz (to match the American Apollo of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), and this was in place of the usual crew call sign. Soyuz TMA-21 used the crew call sign Tarkhany, but was also named Gagarin, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yuri's flight.]
[EDIT: In a naming policy shift that I don't yet know much about, the crew of Soyuz MS-04 were permitted to name their own vessel for the first time in Russian spaceflight. So while their crew call sign remained Olimp, their vessel got the unique name Argo, which they have explicitly stated is named after the vessel from the myth of Jason and Argonauts.]
The basic design was a 3-module hull, with the spherical re-entry module of Vostok replaced with a bell-shaped one in the center, with a much longer equipment module (with solar panel 'wings') behind it, and a spherical orbital module in front of it, to give the crew more room to work in and to serve as a docking point with other spacecraft. There are also a bunch of Soyuzes that were never put into service (including ones for their aborted Moon-landing project) and an unpiloted cargo version, the Progress class, is pretty much exactly a Soyuz minus the people facilities. It's generally agreed that the Chinese Shenzhou class is another Soyuz variant. There have been several different subtypes of the Soyuz sub-family of rockets that have carried the various Soyuz space condoms into space.
Two of the earliest Soyuz flights ended horribly, with their crews killed. Soyuz 1 crashed to Earth with a faulty parachute, because of incredibly stupid engineering short-cutting. Soyuz 11 had successful docked with Salyut 1, making it the first occupied space station, but on their return to Earth, the Soyuz suffered a fatal decompression when the orbital and descent modules separated. Since then, the Soviets and Russians haven't lost a single person in space, though there have been a couple of Progresses lost recently. [EDIT: Two Soyuzes did have launch failures, but both capsules with both crews actually survived. A Soyuz 7K-T, known by the informal, unofficial mission code of Soyuz 18A or Soyuz 18-1, had a staging failure when it was already in space, so the mission was aborted. Later, Soyuz T-10A (or T-10-1) suffered a fire on the launch pad and the escape system launched the crew capsule free shortly before the launcher exploded. The T-10A re-entry module was later re-used as part of Soyuz T-15, probably the only Soyuz to fly twice, though only once to space.] [EDIT: I keep finding more bits. Apparently, Soyuz 5 experienced a dangerous re-entry incident, but survived.] [EDIT: More bits. Soyuz TMA-1 had a somewhat dodgy re-entry, but then both TMA-10 and TMA-11 both experienced similar near-disasters to the Soyuz 5 re-entry fuck-up. It's hard to judge if the TMAs were just abnormally lucky to have no fatalities, or if it's a compliment to the Soyuz design that even with such major malfunctions, it still brought everyone home.]
Combined, the Soyuz class vessels are by far the most numerous Earth has produced and yet, flying only once each, still flew
Soyuz 7K-OK (23 April 1967 to 19 June 1970): 8 flights, 1 fatally destroyed.
Soyuz 7K-OKS (22 April 1971 to 30 June 1971): 2 flights, 1 fatally destroyed.
Soyuz 7K-T (27 September 1973 to 22 May 1981): 26 flights, all successful [except for the safely aborted Soyuz 18A].
Soyuz 7K-TM (22 December 1974 to 23 September 1976): 3 flights, all successful.
Soyuz-T (5 June 1980 to 16 July 1986): 14 flights, all successful. [Additionally, Soyuz T-10A exploded non-lethally on the launch pad.]
Soyuz-TM (5 February 1987 to 10 November 2002): 33 flights, all successful.
Soyuz-TMA (30 October 2002 to 27 April 2012): 22 flights, all successful.
Soyuz-TMA-M (7 October 2010 to 7 September 2016):
Soyuz-MS (7 July 2016 to present):
I reserve the right to add the list of cosmonaut callsigns to this post at a later date, but frankly they were chosen for their unremarkableness and they were pretty successful. If the point of this exercise is to explore the motives behind names, then we're done. If we want to look at the meanings of names, we're wasting our time in this case, since the meanings are intentionally of random words.
[EDIT: I finally broke down and did the cosmonaut callsign list.]