Soviet Space Program Stamps

These are some of my favourite Soviet-era space stamps. Certainly not a complete catalog or a complete account of all Soviet space achievements. Just the stamps that interest me for one reason or another. A mix of subject matter and imagery. Overly artistic renditions and soviet symbolism are very common on these stamps. Stamp artwork that is sometimes more science fiction than science fact. It's easy to look back at history and declare the United States the winner of the space race. But the early achievements of the Soviet space program should not be dismissed in any way. There was much intelect and imagination behind all of the politics and propaganda.

This one souvenir sheet issued in 1966 summarizes the early accomplishments of the Soviet space program. The text on this sheet says something like "Glory to the Soviet People - the victorious people! The path to the stars paved by the communists".

Sputnik Program

There were three satelites successfully launched into orbit as part of the Sputnik program. The first was nothing more than an 84kg radio transmitter. Sputnik 1 was launched on 4 October 1957 and remained in orbit for 22 days. It's main purpose was simply to be the first man-made object in orbit and the achievement was a huge political win for the Soviet Union.

One month later Sputnik 2 was launched. It was a considerably larger satellite carrying more complex instrumentation and it carried the first dog into space. A stray named Laika was placed in a sealed cabin in the satellite and monitored during the flight. There were no plans for a safe re-entry but it didn't matter because the poor thing perished a few hours after lift-off.

Sputnik 3 was launched during the International Geophysical year on 15 May 1958. It weight over 1300kg and carried twelve instruments for collecting scientific data. It stayed in orbit for nearly two years.

This Sputnik 3 stamp has been in my collection for a long time. The tab says "In accordance with the program of the International Geophysical Year, the Soviet Union launched the third artificial earth satellite weighing 1327 kg to an altitude of 1,880 kilometres"

Luna 3 Imaging the Moon, 1959

It is impossible not to think of the US Apollo missions when you think of moon exploration. But long before Americans set foot on the moon the Soviets were sending probes there. Luna 2 was the first object to land on the moon (crashing into it is probably a better way to describe it). And the following year Luna 3 became the first probe to circle the far-side of the moon and transmit images back to Earth.

This is not a big stamp but they crammed all kinds of stuff onto it. The main image is a chronological description of the probe's flight path.

First Mars Probe, 1962

A number of unmanned Soviet spacecraft were sent towards Mars between 1960 and 1973. The first to actually break Earth orbit was named simply Mars 1, launched on 1 November 1962. Somewhere between here and Mars contact with the probe was lost. Presumably it silently flew past Mars around 19 June 1963 but nobody really knows for sure.

A bit of artistic freedom taken with this stamp. The probe leaving the final stage of the rocket looks like a bullet shot from a gun barrel. And there's no mistaking Mars as the intended destination.

First Woman in Space, 1963

The Vostok program was responsible for putting the first man into space in 1961. There were six Vostok missions between 1961 and 1963 and the last mission carried the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into orbit for a period of nearly 3 days.

Just like the previous Vostok 3 and 4 flights, Vostok 5 and 6 were joint missions. Both capsules were in orbit at the same time allowing the cosmonauts to communicate with one another. Valery Bykovsky was in Vostok 5 which had been launched 2 days earlier. The distance between Bykovsky and Tereshkova's capsules was at their closest 5kms apart.

Valery Bykovsky was in Vostok 5 and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, was in Vostok 6.

Voskhod 1, 1964

The Voskhod 1 capsule launched 12 October 1964 and carried a crew of three for 16 orbits around the earth over a 24 hour mission. It was the first space mission to carry more than one astronaught into orbit. The capsule was only designed for a crew of two but under political pressure the program was expanded to carry three instead. To do so, the crew had to go up without pressure suits and had to loose weight to squeeze into the capsule. Design of the launch vehicle was such that there was no way to escape until 3 minutes after launch. It was an risky mission.

During the flight, Khrushchev spoken to the crew via radio phone. By the time the crew returned to Earth he had been removed from power and replaced by Brezhnev.

The artwork on this stamp was common across a number of Soviet spaceflight stamps at the time: an artistic rendering of a rocket zooming through space with crew head-shots in the background.

Voskhod 2 and the First Space Walk, 1965

Pavel Belyayev and Alexey Leonov manned the Voskhod 2 on 18 March 1965 for 17 orbits (26 hours). After completing the first orbit Leonov performed a 12 minute EVA becoming the first astronaut to leave his capsule during orbit.

The capsule had an inflatable airlock outfitted to the hatch to allow Leonov to leave while maintaining air pressure within. A camera on the outside of the airlock captured Leonov's EVA but he was unable to activate a camera on his space suit because the suit ballooned and became stiff after he left the capsule. Apparently he also had trouble re-entering the capsule and had to bleed air from his suit to regain mobility.

Their re-entry was not perfect. A delay at the beginning of the decent put them off target and they landed in dense forest. They had to spend the night in their capsule without heat, surrounded by deep snow and under the possible threat of wild animal attacks before rescuers could reach them. Hard to imagine a space crew surviving a landing only to be threatened by bears and wolves. Apparently they started carrying survival pistols in Soviet space capsules after this incident.

An almost cartoonish rendition of what Leonov's EVA would have looked like. The capsule looked nothing like the one in the stamp above. The door wasn't open during the EVA. And their pressure suits were white.

A bit more accurate than the souvenir sheet perhaps but still lots of artistic creativity.

First Soft Landing on the Moon, 1966

The first probe to make a soft landing on the surface of the moon was Luna 9 on 2 February 1966. Other missions had simply crashed probes onto the surface. The Luna 9 probe transmitted the first images taken from the lunar surface. The mission ended three days after landing when contact was lost.

The complete Luna 9 mission is summarized on these three stamps. The stamp on the left shows the journey from Earth that started on 31-1-1966 and the Oceanus Procellarum landing site. And the stamp on the right shows the probe on the surface and the image it returned on 4-2-1966.

First Remote-Controlled Moon Rover, 1970-71

Lunokhod 1 was the first rover to successfully reach the moon. It was carried to the moon aboard Luna 17 and landed on 17 November 1970 in the Sea of Rains. It operated for almost 11 months despite its 3 month lifespan. The rover was battery powered and during the day a lid covering the tub-like rover would open to expose solar cells on the underside of the lid. At night the lid would be closed and a heater activated to maintain proper operating temperatures within.

My favourite part of this stamp sheet is the image in the top left stamps, showing a technician back on Earth piloting the rover. A brawny arm with with a rolled up shirt sleeve.

The Venera Program

I've always been fascinated by the Soviet exploration of Venus. The Venera probes were the first and only probes to ever land on the surface of Venus. There were 27 probe launches in this program over a 22 year period. Of those, only 16 were considered successful enough to be designated Venera launches. Ten of those missions landed probes on the surface. The surface of Venus is unforgiving to say the least. Sulphuric acid rain. Crushing atmospheric pressure. Extremely high temperatures. Life expectancy of a probe on the surface was measured in minutes. The record went to the Venera 13 lander which lasted a little over 2 hours on the surface.

Some of those probes were able to return images from the surface and there is something surreal about them. Although they show nothing more than rocks and dirt, it's rocks and dirt on an alien world.

The first image from the surface of Venus is shown on this stamp commemorating Venera 9.

Orbiting Space Stations

The Soviet Union was the first to put space stations into orbit. The first program was known as Salyut (salute) and it resulted in the successful launch of six civilian and military stations between from 1971 to 1986. These early stations spent a limited amount of time in orbit. Crew visits were short in duration until the launch of the final two Salyut stations designed for long-term habitation. Salyut 7 was in service for nearly 9 years.

Lessons learned were applied to future stations, including the ISS. From 1986 to 2001 the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation operated the Mir (peace) space station. It was the first continuously inhabited station and remained in orbit for 3644 days. Previous Salyut stations consisted of a single module that was launched from Earth. But Mir was made up of several modules that were assembled in Orbit. Modules from the planned Mir-2 space station found their way into the ISS.

Several spaceflight records were set on these stations including several mission duration records. Postage stamps were issued during this time to commemorate these achievements.

This stamp commemorates the first Salyut 1 crew to successfully inhabit that station. They spent 23 days there in June of 1971. Sadly all members of the crew: Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov, were killed during re-entry.

There is so much information crammed into this stamp pair. But what I like most is the little cut-away diagram of the station. These stamps commemorate the longest-duration visit aboard Salyut 6 by Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin. They spent 185 days on the station in 1980. During that time four other crews visited the station.

Tenth anniversary of the first Salyut station.

Cosmonaut Day stamp. Mir Station.

Buran test flight, 1988

Buran was a shuttle-like spacecraft and the name of the Soviet shuttle program which ran from 1971 to 1993. There were several prototypes, mock-ups and test-beds created including a test version that could fly (glide) in the atmosphere under its own power. But only one Buran shuttle actually made it into space. On 15 November 1988 Buran made 2 unmanned orbits before completing a fully automated landing.

But Buran never flew again. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to funding cuts and the program was put on hold. Some of the remaining Buran systems have found there way into museums and parks. Some are still rotting in hangers at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Bits and pieces can sometimes be found for sale on Ebay. As for the actual Buran shuttle that was launched into space, it was destroyed in 2002 when it's storage hanger collapsed.

Return to my Blog