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50 Years of Engineering - 1971: Salyut 1 Space Station



To celebrate Fircroft’s 50th Anniversary, every Monday EngineeringPro will be highlighting an engineering accomplishment made each year from 1970-2020. This week the space race continues with a global first from 1971.

Salyut was the world's first space station and set the stage for future long-term space missions
(Artists impression of Soyuz 10 docking with Salyut 1)

Salyut 1

When Neil Armstrong made his famous small step on to the lunar surface in 1969, many considered the space race over. The USA had beaten the Soviet Union to putting a man on the moon, completing the goal set out just a decade before. 

However this would not be the end of extra-global achievement, with both American and Soviet space programs continuing to take giant engineering leaps beyond the reaches of the planet’s atmosphere.

On the 19th April 1971 the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1 - the first space station of any kind. The station was based on the Almaz reconnaissance platform designed by aerospace engineer Vladimir Chelomey, and adapted for use with the Soyuz manned spacecraft that had been developed by Chelomey’s rival Sergey Korolyov. The name Salyut (“Salute”) was chosen to honour Yury Gagarin’s first Earth orbit 10 years earlier.

Diagram of the Soyuz 10 spacecraft docking with the Salyut 1 space station
(Image via NASA)

The 14.6 metre long, 20 ton vessel had a steeped cylinder shape with a 4.25 metre diameter at its widest point. It featured three pressurised compartments for cosmonauts and one unpressurised area that housed the engines and control equipment. Two double sets of solar panels extended like antennae from each end to provide power to the compartments.

The project was beset by difficulty and disaster. The initial launch was intended for April 12th, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, but technical problems pushed the liftoff back to the 19th. The vessel was launched unmanned from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan, followed two days later by the Soyuz 10 rocket, carrying three cosmonauts who intended to dock Salyut and live aboard it for 30 days. 

Problems with the space station’s hatch, however, meant that although Soyuz 10 was able to dock, the crew were not able to enter Salyut 1, and were forced to end the mission early. The return trip saw further problems when the Soyuz 10 air supply was contaminated and made toxic, causing one cosmonaut to lose consciousness during the re-entry process. Despite this, all three made it back home with no-long term effects.

The only crew to make it on board Salyut 1, living on the station for three weeks
(Image via Wiki)

The second attempt to inhabit Salyut 1 was made on the 6th June, when Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Vokov and Viktor Patsayev were able to rendezvous and dock with the space station in just over three hours. The crew remained on board the station for a record-setting 23 day period, during which they completed 383 orbits of Earth.

However this would not be the end of the disasters that plagued this project. The crew returned to Earth on the 29th June on the Soyuz 11 spaceship. But a ventilation valve was jolted open during re-entry, causing the interior of the ship to depressurise. Soviet protocol at the time did not require cosmonauts to wear spacesuits while in flight, with the result that the three men were killed. They remain the only humans to have died in space.

No further crews would make it to the Salyut 1 space station, as missions were suspended after the disaster to redesign the Soyuz spacecraft. With fuel supplies expired on October 11th 1971, six months after launch, the Salyut engines were fired for the last time, de-orbiting the space station and bringing it to a planned crash in the Pacific Ocean.

The same design was used for future space stations including the Salyut 7, pictured here docked with the Soyuz T-5 spacecraft in the foreground
(Image via Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Despite the tragic complications that beset the project, the Salyut 1 space station itself was considered a success, and prepared the world for further long-term space projects. The design formed the basis of several other space station plans, including the Zvezda Salyut DOS-8 (also known as the Zvesda Service Module) which was the third module launched for the International Space Station (ISS) and remains in active service today.

Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard on the moon in 1971, shortly before playing a round of golf
(Image via NASA)

The engineering world of 1971

Other major engineering milestones from 1971 include:

  • Apollo 14 launched on 31st January carrying three astronauts on the USA’s third successful lunar landing mission. The mission landed on the moon on 5th February. It was followed by the landing of Apollo 15 on 30th July, which saw the first usage of the Lunar Roving Vehicle the following day.
  • On 14th June Norway began offshore oil production from the North Sea for the first time.
  • Future owner of Tesla and SpaceX Elon Musk was born on 28th June 1971.
  • The UK launched its first satellite, the Prospero (X-3) experimental communications satellite, on the 28th October using a Black Arrow carrier rocket launching from Woomera, South Australia. This made the UK the sixth nation to successfully launch a satellite into orbit.
  • Intel launched the 4004 four-bit microprocessor on the 15th November - the world’s first “computer on a chip” with the capacity to execute 60,000 operations per second, making data processing available for hundreds of electronic devices. The chip was used to provide the computing power for NASA’s Pioneer 10 spacecraft that was launched to survey Jupiter.
  • On 18th December the Soviet Union began operations from the Krasnoyarsk hydroelectric dam. The 124 metre high concrete gravity dam continues to supply 6,000MW of power from the Yenisey River. It was the largest hydroelectric dam in the world at the time, and remains the fifth largest as of 2020.

Read last week's look back at 1970 and the discovery of the Forties oil field.

Fircroft has been providing engineering recruitment and workforce solutions since 1970

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50 Years of Engineering - 1971: Salyut 1 Space Station - Time to read 5 min
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