History of Rockets: R-7

Ethan Wong

February 17, 2023

On October 4th, 1957, The Great Space Race officially began, sparking the innovation of space travel and producing some of the greatest feats such as the Moon landing. This day was made possible by a man named Sergei Korolev, who helped develop the R-7 rocket, which propelled Sputnik-1 into space. This is the beginning of a series where different rocket families and their histories will be examined.

The first R-7 rocket was developed in 1953, intended as an ICBM for the Soviet Union to use against the United States. This intended weapon was engineered with four boosters: RD-107 engines, and one main core engine: an RD-108 engine. The rocket measured 112ft and was developed to be a two-stage rocket. Although all 5 engines would be lit at the same time, the four boosters strapped on the side of the rocket would detach after 100 seconds of it being launched.

Sputnik-1 was launched on October 4th, 1957, and was a success. Sputnik-2 followed, carrying Laika (the space dog), who would ultimately die due to temperature malfunctions. More about Laika and other animals launched into space will be covered in a future article. Sputnik-3 launched in May of 1958 with improved engines and a third stage, powered by an RD-105 engine. Although Sputnik-3 had many failures, it delivered several Luna missions to put the Soviet Union ahead in the space race, including Luna 1 (intended for the moon, missed, and became the first artificial object to reach the vicinity of the moon), Luna 2 (first human object to him the moon), and Luna 3 (took photographs of the far side of the moon).

In 1960, the second variation of the R-7 became the Vostok, which replaced its RD-105 engine with a new RD-109 engine, along with increasing the payload for the overall rocket. Additionally, this rocket would eventually send Yuri Gagarin, the first man into space in 1961. Vostok 2 and 2M primarily launched satellites, but the use of the Vostok rocket continued up until the 1990s.

Similar to Vostok, the Voskhod rocket was developed; the only major change being it had completely removed its upper stage. Voskhod proved a worthy rocket, allowing the Soviet Union to have multi crew flights and ultimately allowing Alexei Leonov to perform the first spacewalk in 1965. 

The first death in space flight came with the Soyuz rocket, which was developed similarly to the Voskhod rocket. This vehicle had RD-117 engines and the core engine was swapped for an RD-118 engine. Up until now, the Soyuz rocket has been the most launched rocket with over 765 launches, each being improved.