How do Russian and American space missions differ?

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Henry Ludick

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Henry Ludick asked the Naked Scientists:
Hi Chris,
I am in South Africa and catch you on 702 talk radio. And let me say, you sir, are the best thing since the McDonalds milkshake.

Unfortunately I never seems to get an opportunity to get through on the radio to ask my questions.

I have twice already send my question to NASA from two separate of their websites, but have not had any response at all.
I think they take for granted the fact that they are the ones with the knowledge and it seems that we with all the silly and stupid Questions get looked down too. I want to say thank you for not ever make anyone feel stupid, although we mostly are, compared to the likes of you.  
Still I have two space related question that I would please like to ask.
1)  Why is most of the Russian space missions so long (250 days for example) , compared to the Americans missions only a few days?
One would think that the shuttle crews have all the luxury in space and they would have a easier reason for staying longer up there.
Where as the Russians seems to not have luxury at their side, yet the stay out there for weeks and weeks on end!
2)  And then I would like to know why American space travellers are called astronauts, and Russian space travellers are called cosmonauts.
Thank you again for making complicated things easy enough for us to not only understand, but to actually enjoy.
Warmest African regards
Henry Ludick

What do you think?


Offline LeeE

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How do Russian and American space missions differ?
« Reply #1 on: 04/07/2009 21:18:10 »
I don't think there's a single reason for this, and I don't think that the many factors involved can easily be put into any significant order either.

Let's start with the Space Race.  Although the launch craft were military developments, I think we can ignore this as a factor because it applied pretty much equally to both the USA and the USSR.  Now there's a funny bit in the film 'The Right Stuff' where a high official in the USA government asks why the USSR is doing so much better than the USA and the reply is "Their Germans must be better than our Germans" (or words to that effect).  The fact is though that the USSR had a relatively unbroken program of rocket development from the early 1900s whereas no one really followed up on what Goddard had done in the USA and there was a lull in development until the significance of rocketry to military matters became apparent following the success of the V2, especially with regard to nuclear weapons delivery.  Whether the USSR had better Germans or not, they were more advanced anyway, with quite a few homegrown experts (many of whom were no doubt languishing in gulags).

Anyway, this lead in the Space Race allowed the USSR more scope in pure scientific research, although anything learned would of course get back to the military, so that the USSR were sending up relatively sophisticated experiments when the best that the USA could manage were basically simple sounding rockets.

Then came the Moon Race, and we all know what happened there, well except for some people...

The USSR tried to develop a suitable craft for getting to the Moon but afaik, only a single craft was made and it failed catastrophically on the launchpad.  After losing the Moon Race the USSR concentrated on establishing manned orbital stations, which was actually the most useful and practical thing to do.  The USA though, having run the Moon Race largely motivated to save face, were at a bit of a loss as to where to go next (proper science missions for the Moon shots weren't even really planned until after they'd got there - just getting there first was the prime objective).  It was clear to the USA, in the light of the expense of the Saturn V program, that a more economical way was needed to get into space, which led to the Shuttle STS (Space Transportation System, if I remember my acronyms correctly).  While the USA embarked on the lengthy development STS program it still had its old Atlas launch vehicles, which had been used for the Mercury program, and the Titan rockets used in the Gemini program, but neither had the lifting capacity of the USSR vehicles, which had been under continual development and which are still in use today.  The USSR then were able to carry enough stuff into space to make an orbiting station possible, whereas the USA was not, at least not in a single shot.

I think it's fair to say that throughout these periods, the USSR was able to place more emphasis upon purely scientific missions than the USA, simply in part, because it could afford to do so; it already had an economical and reliable launch vehicle.  In the end, the USSR were able to establish manned space stations long before the USA.

Then there are also cultural differences between the two countries to consider.  By and large, I think there was more popular respect for science in the USSR than in the USA, which in turn lead to more popular and national support for science in space, and while the manned space stations were certainly a means whereby the USSR could save some face of it's own after losing the Moon Race, I think it was to a lesser degree than in the USA who at times seemed to be more motivated by being perceived as the best than actually being the best for its own sake.  The USA also seems more fearful of failure than the USSR, and has a propensity to overcomplexity in their engineering which has slowed them down without always making their craft actually any better or safer; I think that the USA have actually lost more people in space flight than the USSR.  Regarding the engineering aspect, you only have to compare relatively modern fighter aircraft from both countries; for example, if you were to compare the Russian SU-30 with the F-22, the USA aircraft will look highly finished whereas when you get up close to the SU-30 you might describe it as being of agricultural construction.  This doesn't stop the SU-30 from being more maneuverable and able to do things that the F-22 simply can't though (and I'm not going to get into a flame war about this - I've had it confirmed that western pilots are warned not to get into close combat with these aircraft and to rely upon distance and stealth, where relevant, for a long-distance shoot-down).

I think that all of these factors, and probably a few more too, have contrived to slow down the USA in comparison with the USSR regarding length of mission stays.  The USSR did it first and there's little to be gained by the USA in simply beating the USSR records.  The primary reason for long mission stays is scientific research and if the USSR is happy to do it there's little point in the USA duplicating the research.
...And its claws are as big as cups, and for some reason it's got a tremendous fear of stamps! And Mrs Doyle was telling me it's got magnets on its tail, so if you're made out of metal it can attach itself to you! And instead of a mouth it's got four arses!


Offline Madidus_Scientia

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How do Russian and American space missions differ?
« Reply #2 on: 05/07/2009 03:02:28 »
A very informative post LeeE, thank you