NASA and China May Dominate Mars, but the Soviets Are Still Kings of Venus, Here's Why

The Soviet space program post-1966 is somewhat of a cruel joke. It's as if the tragic, untimely death of Sergei Korolev in 1966 doomed the Soviet Space Program to endless failure from the N1 to the Buran. Those two flagship programs combined share exactly one successful space flight.
Venera Probe 14 photos
Photo: Reimund Bertrams (own work)
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The thing is, though, this wasn't the case 100 percent of the time. The prevailing memory of this era in the Soviet Space Program may have been the Luna 15 probe passing over Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar surface before crashing. Still, there were indeed some bright spots and profound triumphs mixed in with the N1 exploding four times in a row. And people wonder why Artemis I's SLS scrubbed four times in 2022.

In any case, if the Americans and Chinese basically have Mars all to themselves, the Russians, or should we say, the Soviets, did and still dominate the exploration of Venus. As of the 2020s, only the Soviets, the European Union, the United States, and Japan have successfully sent probes to Venus. The Russians haven't been able to manage the feat since the collapse of Communism in 1991 to 1992.

With that in mind, it's important to remember that while Roscosmos was at an all-time low in the 1990s, the opposite was the case in the early 1960s. With accolades like the first human-manufactured space probe, the first living being in space, and the first man in space by the end of 1961, the Soviets were kicking NASA where the Sun's charged particles could only hope to reach.

Mixed in with it all was a mission designated by NATO-aligned countries as Sputnik 7. Behind the Iron Curtain, this mission was dubbed Tyazhely Sputnik (Heavy Satelite), or Venera 1VA No. 1. These CCCP naming schemes roll right off the tongue. Launched from an Energia Molniya quad-stage medium booster rocket, it took off mere months before Yuri Gagarin. After the pump for the first-stage oxidizer feed gave out, the probe crashed over Siberia.

Venera Probes
Photo: Wikimedia Commons Russian User
It was the first attempt at an interplanetary exploration mission to another heavenly body. The beginning of a series of Venusian space probes that'd be the toast of the Iron Bloc's contribution to space exploration. Admittedly, the first probe to attempt a flyby of Venus and make it there in one piece was American. The Mariner 2 mission originated from Launch Complex 12 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, which is now part of the U.S. Space Force, in 1962.

Between then and 1967, the Soviets attempted eight more launches of Venusian probes under the Sputnik, Kosmos, Zond, and Venera programs. All were mechanically similar and could be classified as under the same program, despite the cryptic naming system. All failed either during launch or while in transit to Venus. Three of these failed probes carried lander vehicles that would have surveyed the Venusian hellscape had they made it in one piece.

It wasn't until October 18th, 1967, that the Venera 4 manufactured by the Lavochkin design bureau finally made it to Venus orbit. It then entered the planet's atmosphere and collected scientific data before the descent into the hellish nightmare world of the lower atmosphere melted and crushed the probe. It was the first time any human-made probe successfully entered the atmosphere of another world and lived to tell the tale.

Venera 4 proved Venus to be a world most unlike Earth, even if they looked similar from a distance. A gloomy place with an atmosphere of dense, supercritical carbon dioxide with a consistency more like soup than what we on Earth would define as air. Venera 5 and 6 followed up 4 with back-to-back successful atmospheric surveys of Venus in 1968, which also proved this point.

Venera Probes
Photo: Wikimedia Commons Russian User
By 1970 the Soviets believed themselves ready to try and land right on the surface of our sister planet. Launched from the Molniya-M variant of the famed R7 ballistic missile, Venera 7 touched on the Venusian surface and rolled slightly down a shallow embankment. With an advanced=for-the-time, composite-metal construction, the Venera-series probes came in a variety of shapes and sizes starting as small as one meter across for atmospheric probes and much larger for landers.

The probe's heat shields were rated to withstand thousands of degrees Celsius and up to 25 time's the Earth's atmospheric pressure for brief periods with its internals housed in a pressurized safety capsule. As such, the Venera-series Venus landers were some of the heartiest machines ever built by humanity. This was demonstrated with Venera 7 when the spacecraft touched down on Venus at a speed of 37 miles per hour (59 km/h).

For reference, 40 miles per hour is the speed at which automotive crash tests are often conducted. This is because that's the speed threshold where the human body starts to take a real pounding. With this in mind, Venera 7 impacted the ground, skidded down an embankment, then rolled onto its side. Its instruments were somewhat compromised, but the ship was alive.

It was the first soft landing on another world in which the probe didn't wind up as a pile of interplanetary scrap. In 1975, the Venera 9 probe snapped the first images taken on another world, beating NASA's Viking series of Martian landers for the title by a mere two months and some change. The first probe to record audio from the surface of Venus was the Venera 13 probe in 1981.

Venera Probes
Photo: Russian Federal Archives
None of the photographic or audio data recorded by Venera probes pointed to a world anyone would want to visit. No matter how tough these Soviet probes may have been, they all succumbed to the horrors of Venus in anywhere from minutes to a couple of hours. But it can't be argued this meager time spent on Venus wasn't put to good use.

By 1984, the Venera program merged with the fledgling Gallei-program to explore the comet 1/P Halley, better known as Halley's Comet. Under the combined VeGa (Vega/Galei) program, a plethora of nations, both NATO and Communist, took part in the dual missions Vega 1 and 2. Nations like France, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland played a vital role in the daring mission. It was perhaps the most collaboration between nations of any mission outside of Apollo-Soyuz.

It's a pitty, then, that with Vega 1 and 2, the party officially ended. Glasnost and Perestroika were just as destructive to the advancement of spaceflight under Communism as it was to Communism itself. The Russian Federation does have plans to revive the Venera lineage under the Venera D mission in 2029. But with recent events in Eastern Europe, that's very much up in the air.

Still, you can't help but be amazed that, in spite of not existing for the last three decades, the Soviet Union still has by far the largest historical presence on Venus of any of Earth's great superpowers. Beating the U.S. to the number one spot on the list with 15 successful missions to NASA's meager six, and the E.U. and Japan's single successful mission each.

Venera Probes
Photo: Alexxx1979 - Own work
At a time when not very much at all was going right in Eastern Europe, the Venera probes were a point of international pride from Russia to Ukraine and from Romania to Cuba. Now that Communism's been gone for a generation, we can at least start fondly to look back upon this admittedly meager silver lining.

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