The Soyuz (saw-yooz) is a Russian spacecraft. It was designed by USSR’s Korolev Design Bureau (now RKK Energia) in the 1960s, originally built as part of the Soviet manned lunar programs. The spacecraft remains in service today, and as of November 2017, all expeditions to the International Space Station use Soyuz vehicles (see notes 1). One Soyuz is always remains attached to the station to allow a quick return in an emergency.

The European Space Agency (ESA) published a series of videos titled “Journey to the International Space Station” explaining how astronauts and cosmonauts go to the International Space Station (ISS) and return back to Earth. Here are the amazing three parts videos below.

1. The Soyuz launch sequence explained

The first part of the series contains the answers to the questions:

  1. What are the parts of the Soyuz rocket?
  2. What are the stages into orbit?
  3. What is the launch sequence?

This video has been produced from an actual lesson delivered to the European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut class of 2009 during their ESA Basic Training in 2009-2010. Subtitles are available for English, Italian, Russian and German. Click on the caption button to choose.

What are the parts of the Soyuz rocket? What are the stages into orbit? What is the launch sequence? Watch and find out.
  • Technical Experts: Stephane Ghiste, Dmitriy Churkin
  • Content Design: Stephane Ghiste, Dmitriy Churkin, Pascal Renten, Simon Trim, Matthew Day
  • Video Production & Editing: Pascal Renten, Simon Trim, Andrea Conigli
  • Narration Voice: Bernard Oattes
  • Project Co-ordination: Loredana Bessone, Matthew Day

2. Soyuz rendezvous and docking explained

This second video in the “Journey to the International Space Station” series follows the Soyuz capsule from Earth orbit to dock with the Space Station. Featuring interviews with ESA astronauts Luca Parmitano, Frank De Winne, and Paolo Nespoli, and an introduction by Alexander Gerst, it includes unique footage taken from inside the Soyuz spacecraft.

This second video in the ‘Journey to the International Space Station’ series follows the Soyuz capsule from Earth orbit to docking with the Space Station.
  • Narration: Bernard Oattes
  • Technical experts: Stephane Ghiste, Dmitriy Churkin
  • Content design: Stephane Ghiste, Dmitriy Churkin, Matthew Day, Celena Dopart
  • Animation: Nelson Steinmetz, Yannis Nourrisson
  • Video editing: Celena Dopart, Andrea Conigli
  • Project coordination: Matthew Day

3. Soyuz undocking, reentry and landing explained

How does an astronaut return to Earth from the International Space Station? What does it feel like to re-enter the atmosphere? How does the Soyuz capsule function? Watch the last part of the series and find out.

How does an astronaut return to Earth from the International Space Station? What does it feel like to re-enter the atmosphere? How does the Soyuz capsule function? Watch and find out.
  • Narration Voice: Bernard Oattes
  • Technical Experts: Stephane Ghiste, Dmitriy Churkin (HSO-UT)
  • Content Design: Stephane Ghiste, Dmitriy Churkin, Raffaele Castellano, Matthew Day (HSO-UT)
  • Animation & Video Editing: Raffaele Castellano (HSO-UT), HSO-K
  • Project Coordination: Matthew Day, Stephane Ghiste, Dmitriy Churkin (HSO-UT)

Some interesting Soyuz facts

  • Soyuz is the World’s most-flown rocket to date.
  • All Soyuz spacecraft are launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Notes 2
  • Soyuz is the most reliable spacecraft to date. Over its four-decade career, Soyuz U established a launch success rate of 97.2% (as of February 2017) – becoming a figure for industry standards aimed for by many rockets that followed. As of November 2017, the Soyuz FG, used to launch crews to the International Space Station, has a 100% success rate since its maiden flight on May 20, 2001.
  • The cheapest Soyuz seats NASA ever paid for were $21.8 million in 2007 and 2008. As soon as the NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, Russia sharply raised the cost per seat. By 2018, NASA and its partners will have to pay roughly $81 million per person to ride a Soyuz to the ISS and back again. The total cost to NASA over 12 years will be about $3.37 billion.
  • Before stepping onto the launch pad, every crew members have to undergo hundreds of hours of training, both theoretical and practical, to be able to operate and control the Soyuz spacecraft in any situation.
  • The Soyuz spacecraft is launched on a Soyuz rocket, the most frequently used and most reliable launch vehicle in the world to date. A Soyuz rocket has a total length of approximately 50 meters (164 feet) and a diameter of up to 10 meters (33 feet). The total mass is about 310 tons.
  • A Soyuz rocket consists of three parts called “stages”. On top of the rocket, encapsulated within the structure of the rocket’s nose, stands the Soyuz spacecraft itself.
  • What happens, if anything goes wrong, during the launch? The Soyuz rocket is equipped with a robust and powerful system designed to save the crew called “Launch Escape Tower”, in case the rocket starts burning or explode on the launch pad. The Launch Escape Tower is itself a small and very powerful rocket made up of several engines that use solid propellant. It is capable of quickly extracting the crew compartments from the rest of the rocket in case of an imminent threat to the crew. The mechanism may be triggered automatically or upon command from the ground controllers. In history, this system was put in use on only one occasion: in September 1983, while the rocket was ready to lift off, a valve failed to close and causing the kerosene (see notes 3) to spill onto the launch pad and ignite – just 90 seconds before the final ignition! Fortunately, the grand controllers activated the escape system two seconds before the launch vehicle exploded. Two crew members, Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov experienced a fierce acceleration of 10 to 17 G (137 to 167 m/s2) for around five seconds, but their lives were saved. In the following years, the two cosmonauts would go on to fly several successful missions.
The launch of Soyuz TMA-3 atop a Soyuz-FG rocket.
 The launch of Soyuz TMA-3 atop a Soyuz-FG rocket. Soyuz is the most reliable spacecraft to date. But, if anything goes wrong during the launch, the Soyuz rocket is equipped with a robust and powerful system designed to save the crew called “Launch Escape Tower”.
  • The maximum acceleration that crew members feel is 3.5 G, but just for a few seconds.
  • In only 45 seconds, the rocket reaches an altitude of 11 kilometers (36,000 feet), which is the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner. After almost two minutes into the flight, the rocket reaches an altitude of more than 40 km (131,000 feet).
  • While it is technically possible to launch the Soyuz rocket at any time, it’s most efficient to do so shortly after the International Space Station orbit passes over the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This shortens the amount of time to rendezvous and dock with the ISS from about two days to only six hours. However, if the Soyuz rocket misses the necessary launch window for any reason, the spacecraft has enough extra fuel to revert to a two-day-long rendezvous. This happened in March 2014 because of an altitude control problem.
  • The Soyuz spacecraft has three compartments. Each of them has different architecture and a specific purpose:
    1. Orbital Module: also called the living compartment, it is equipped with sleeping bags, food, water, and a toilet. It has a volume of 230 cubic feet (6.5 m3).
    2. Instrument Compartment: it is not accessible to the astronauts. It houses the oxygen and propellant tanks, thrusters, the onboard computer, and a number of sensors.
    3. Descent Module: it is where the cosmonauts and astronauts sit for launch, re-entry, and landing. All the necessary controls and displays of the Soyuz are located here. The module also contains life support supplies and batteries used during descent, as well as the primary and backup parachutes and landing rockets. While returning back to Earth, the crew occupies this central element. The other two modules are jettisoned prior to re-entry. They burn up in the atmosphere, so only the Descent Module returns to Earth. It has a periscope mounted on the outside, which allows the crew to view the docking target on the station or the Earth below. It also has guidance, navigation, and control system to maneuver the vehicle during the descent phase of the mission. This module weighs 6,393 pounds (2900 kg), with a habitable volume of 141 cubic feet (4 m3). The descent module experiences extremely high temperatures during re-entry. So to protect the crew inside and the module itself, it is fitted with a special protective coating and has a heat shield on its base. Even though it doesn’t have wings, the Soyuz descent capsule is able to change the way it flies through the air after re-entry. The capsule’s lift increases when it rotates in one direction and decreases if it rotates in the opposite direction. In this way, it is able to keep to its planned trajectory.
Soyuz spacecraft compartments
 Soyuz spacecraft compartments
  • The ISS is constantly visited by manned Soyuz vehicles and other unmanned supply ships. As mentioned above, one Soyuz spacecraft is always remains attached to the ISS to allow a quick return in an emergency. Sometimes, it is necessary to undock an attached Soyuz and re-dock it to another part of the station to make room for one of these new ships.
  • The docking phase is fully automated, but astronauts and cosmonauts are also trained to be able to do it manually if anything goes wrong.
  • Returning back to Earth from the International Space Station, which is orbiting Earth from a distance of approximately 400 km (248 miles) at a speed of 28,000 km/h (17,400 mph), takes about 3.5 hours aboard a Soyuz capsule.
  • During the descent, the maximum G-load experienced by the crew is 4G, when the descent capsule reaches an altitude of 35 km (22 mi).
  • Four parachutes, deployed 15 minutes before landing, dramatically slow the vehicle’s rate of descent. Two pilot parachutes are the first to be released, and a drogue chute attached to the second one follows immediately after. The drogue, measuring 24 square meters (258 square feet) in area, slows the rate of descent from 755 feet (230 meters) per second to 262 feet (80 meters) per second. The main parachute is the last to emerge. It is the largest chute, with a surface area of 10,764 square feet (1,000 m2). Its harnesses shift the vehicle’s attitude to a 30-degree angle relative to the ground, dissipating heat, and then shift it again to a straight vertical descent prior to landing.
  • The main chute slows the Soyuz to a descent rate of only 24 feet (2.3 meters) per second or 8.2 km/h, which is still too fast for a comfortable landing. One second before touchdown, two sets of three small engines on the bottom of the vehicle fire, slowing the vehicle to soften the landing.
Soyuz TMA-19M seen docked to the ISS
 Russia’s Soyuz TMA-19M seen docked to the International Space Station. Only the middle, descent module returns to Earth.

The Gravity

ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Paolo Nespoli says: “Gravity is a very, very strong force. We do not understand here on Earth how gravity has such a hold on our bodies and what is around us. You do feel it when you come back from space because you have been in a non-gravity environment for a long time and then you see all these forces grabbing you. You look at stuff and you feel your hands are heavy, you feel your watch weighs a ton, your books, the materials around you, your head is extremely heavy. It is really a very strong feeling.”

Current Soyuz Version: Soyuz MS

As of November 2017, Soyuz MS is the final planned upgrade of the Soyuz spacecraft. Its maiden flight was on July 7, 2016. Major changes include:

  • More efficient solar panels.
  • Modified docking and attitude control engine positions for redundancy during docking and de-orbit burns.
  • New Kurs NA approach and docking system which weighs half as much and consumes a third of the power of the previous system.
  • New TsVM-101 computer, about one eighth the weight (8.3 kg vs. 70 kg / 18.3 lbs vs 154 lbs) and much smaller than the previous Argon-16 computer.
  • Unified digital command/telemetry system (MBITS) to relay telemetry via satellite, and control spacecraft when out of sight of ground stations; also provides the crew with position data when out of ground tracking range.
  • GLONASS/GPS and Cospas-Sarsat satellite systems for more accurate location during search/rescue operations after landing.
Soyuz landing
 Soyuz landing. Left: one second before touchdown, two sets of three small engines on the bottom of the vehicle fire, slowing the vehicle to soften the landing. Right: Russian support personnel with the Soyuz TMA-22 capsule shortly after landing.


  • NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011 and currently developing its next-generation spacecraft, the Orion. The Orion spacecraft will also play an important part in NASA’s journey to Mars. Meanwhile, commercial carriers like SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing are still building, testing, and certifying their spaceships, respectively called DragonSLS (Space Launch System – in a collaboration with NASA), and CST-100 Starliner.
  • Baikonur Cosmodrome is a spaceport located in southern Kazakhstan. The spaceport is currently leased by the Kazakh Government to Russia until 2050 and is managed jointly by the Roscosmos State Corporation and the Russian Aerospace Forces. Baikonur was the scene of two important events of humanity’s space exploration journey: both Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and Vostok 1, the first human spaceflight, was launched from Baikonur. The launchpad used for both missions was renamed Yuri Gagarin’s Start in honor of Russian Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (9 March 1934 – 27 March 1968), pilot of Vostok 1. He was the first human to journey into outer space, when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961.
  • Kerosene, also known as paraffin, lamp oil, and coal oil (an obsolete term), is a combustible hydrocarbon liquid that is derived from petroleum. It is widely used to power jet engines of aircraft (jet fuel) and some rocket engines.


M. Özgür Nevres

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.