Since the retirement of the venerable Space Shuttles, NASA astronauts have relied on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to get to the International Space Station. Take a moment to learn about the rocket and modules our astronauts are using until we develop new crew launch vehicle.

Preparing to Launch

The Russian Soyuz Spacecraft from Launch to Landing

Soyuz TMA-09M positioned to launch Expedition 36 into orbit on May 26th, 2013. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Soyuz rockets are the reliable workhorses of the Russian space program. Aside from helping astronauts commute to and from the International Space Station, the Soyuz rocket recently carried the European Space Agency's new Earth-observing satellite into orbit. The Soyuz rocket carries the Soyuz modules into space — their shared name translates as "union."

Launch

The Russian Soyuz Spacecraft from Launch to Landing

Soyuz TMA-07M rocket launch carrying Expedition 34 to the International Space Station in December 2012. Image credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi.

Soyuz rockets have been in operation since the start of the Russian manned space program. Like in the United States, the earliest Russian rockets were developed from missiles, with an early-model Soyuz launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961.

Launch to Orbit

The Russian Soyuz Spacecraft from Launch to Landing

Long exposure photograph traces Soyuz TMA-12M's path as it carries Expedition 39 to the International Space Station on March 26th, 2014. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The original insertion procedure involves two full days between launch and docking with the international space station, but a new process started in 2013 speeds that up to just six hours. However, it didn't work out perfectly last launch. The rocket over-performed, bumping the craft to too high of an altitude and preventing the automated reorientation burn from taking place. As a result, Expedition 39 was confined in the cramped module for days instead of hours.

Orbit

The Russian Soyuz Spacecraft from Launch to Landing

Soyuz TMA-19 departing from the International Space Station with Expedition 25 on-board in 2010. Image credit: NASA

The Soyuz spacecraft is composed of three modules: a bulbous orbital module in the nose carrying everything it needs to dock with the International Space Station, a center landing module where the astronauts hang out, and a trailing service module packs telecommunications gear, altitude controls, navigation equipment, and oxygen. The service module also couples with the folding wings of solar panels.

Re-Entry

The Russian Soyuz Spacecraft from Launch to Landing

Peeking on Soyuz 05M decent module during re-entry with Expedition 33 in November 2012, as seen from the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

From station to ground takes under 4 hours, using a parachute and retro-rockets to slow the capsule down to 2 meters per second for touch-down.

Landing

The Russian Soyuz Spacecraft from Launch to Landing

Soyuz TMA-06M is at its least graceful post-mission, as in this photograph after delivering Expedition 34 safely home in March 2013 [update: fun story about that...]. Image credit: Sergey Vigovskiy

The module is only 4 cubic meters, and can hold up to 3 crew members. The "A" in Soyuz TMA stands for "anthropometric," a nod to the redesign from the earlier model Soyuz TM that allows for a greater range in astronaut weights and heights. The same upgrades also included a soft-landing system to reduce g-forces from a crushing 12 times the force of gravity to a more reasonable (but still intense!) 5 times the force of gravity during descent.

Want more? Here's an astronaut's views on how tension between the United States and Russia is impacting space, or the history of rockets at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California.