Why Soyuz? (Minor spoilers)


If you’re an anti-spoiler purist, you might not want to read this one, but…

Implicit in some of my posts about “No Children in Space”, is a story choice
some American space fans probably find a little questionable, which is
my decision to have Hiromi and Georgiana go up on a Soyuz launch vehicle
which is (at least superficially) very much the same as today’s Soyuz
launch system and Soyuz-TMA orbiter. Why not an American spacecraft? Are
we (as Americans) being unpatriotic? Is this some liberal PC “world
peace” thing?


Photo Credit: Isaac Mao @ Flickr / CC By

Actually, it’s deeper than that. There are three separate kinds of reasons that
favor Soyuz: production, aesthetic, and plot. So let me handle those
separately.


Production Reasons

We set this story in 2040. Originally, we were going to make it closer to 2020, but as we
examined the backstory we needed to explain the “present” of the story,
we found there was a little too much to fit into just 9 years!

So we had to push back the date. But that has its own problems, because by
2040, the world will have changed in a lot of unpredictable ways, and
we didn’t want to get into a complex set of assumptions about world
politics. Nor did we want to make the naive assumption that nothing
would change (and wind up with the US-Soviet Cold War still raging in
2010, as it was in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, let alone
2010: Odyssey Two
).

I suspect the next star American system for transportation to LEO will be
a commercial one. On the other hand, I don’t really want to “pick the
winner” — which would be an extremely political act in today’s climate.
I did think briefly about trying to do a massive “product placement”
campaign, but I don’t know if we have the clout to get SpaceX or Blue
Origin or Armadillo Aerospace or some other such company to pay us to
use their system in our story. Nor do I really want our show to become
an advertisement for them. I’m very excited about all of these
companies, and I want to see space transportation become a vigorously
competitive marketplace.

More importantly, I suspect that whatever the next hot launch system is, it will not be the same system that is popular in 2040.

Even if we don’t consider the commercial options, though, the history of
American space engineering has always been a serious of complete
redesigns. The Space Shuttle looked very little like a Saturn V/Apollo,
which in turn had only a passing resemblence to the previous
Titan/Gemini and Atlas/Mercury systems. Constellation, if it ever gets
built, is yet again another complete redesign.

What this means for me as a science-fiction producer is that any American
system I come up with will be pure science fiction. It is unrealistic to think that any
American system running today will still be operating in 2040.

Meanwhile, what are the Russian flying now? Soyuz. What were they flying 40 years ago? Soyuz.

Certainly, to the trained eye, the Soyuz of 1967 was a very different creature
from the Soyuz of 2011, and no doubt, the Soyuz of 2040 will be even
more different. However, there’s at least a plausible chance that Soyuz
will still be flying in 2040, even if there are many other options
available.


Photo Credit: J Brew (“brewbooks”) @ Flickr / CC By-SA

Clearly, with Russia and ESA just completing work on a new launch complex for Soyuz-type
launch vehicles at the equatorial launch complex in Kourou,
the Russians are planning to fly some form of Soyuz for quite a few
more years. It’s likely there will more variation on the Soyuz orbiter,
such as the relatively new “Kliper” design, but it’s also pretty likely that
some version of the original Soyuz orbiter will still be around. Soyuz
is the only fully documented, existing spacecraft, which will plausibly
still be flying in 2040. This is not intended as any kind of criticism
of either the American or the Russian approach to space engineering.
It’s just an observation of a real difference in design philosophies,
and from the point of view of minimizing our art design problems, Soyuz
is clearly the more convenient option.


Aesthetic Reasons

Still, we could’ve gone with the science fiction approach and invented a
launch system. Perhaps something that vaguely resembled one of the US
commercial designs, but with a fictitious manufacturer. That would’ve
worked, but it’s undesirable for aesthetic reasons.

First of all, it would immediately throw us into the realm of science fiction before
we leave the Earth. This is conventional and a bit of a cliche by now. I
would prefer to have that transition happen in orbit — what I am
saying by that is that _space travel_ is a present reality. _Settling
the moon_ is the science fiction part.

Secondly, and this is specific to the structure of the pilot episode,
“No Children in Space”, the Soyuz is part of a “progression from the past
into the future” that we see on screen: we start with 19th Century technology
— a train (and we see Camels which hark back to an even older mode of
transportation), we move on to early 20th century technologies of cars and buses,
then to the spaceport where we encounter the late 20th century Soyuz. On
orbit, we meet the early 21st century International Space Station
(though it is known in the story as “Space Station Alpha” and has been
expanded beyond its present design). We transition to the mid-21st
century (and for Lunatics, “state of the art”) “Lunar Transportation
System”.

This is a statement about technological progress and
continuity. Using an existing space transportation system for the
Earth-to-LEO leg of the journey helps to sell that continuity in a way
that I don’t think we could get from any science-fictional launch
system.

There is one more aesthetic reason, too, which is that I
don’t feel anyone has done it well. The Saturn V launch was dramatized
brilliantly in Apollo 13, and Shuttle launches have been
well-photographed in real life and have appeared in more than one
Hollywood movie. But the Russians have historically been secretive about
their launches, and the modern coverage is still somewhat limited. As
far as I know, no movie has really done justice to the Soyuz launch
process, and as it is a really cool design, I think it would just be a
fun thing to animate.


Plot Reasons

While all of that makes sense outside of the story, I still owe you some explanation for
why the choice was made within the story to for ISF to send Hiromi and
Georgiana up on a Soyuz. Fortunately, this is not that hard to justify.

The first reason is simple conservatism. Whatever the hot launch system
is in 2040, it doesn’t exist today — and that means it will have less
than a 30 year track record for safety. Soyuz, will be something like 75
years old. Assuming that the excellent Soyuz safety record continues,
that’s going to make Soyuz the vehicle of choice for nervous space
colonists who are selecting a way to take their seven-year-old daughter
into space. Also, from what I’ve seen from cabin video, Soyuz is a
less-scary ride than some — pretty gentle rocking compared to the
fierce vibration the Shuttle SRBs generated. Coming down is a different
story, but that isn’t an issue for Georgiana.

Secondly, the choice to launch Georgiana into space is a somewhat
controversial one. In the 2040s, there will be some of the same voices
decrying the “irresponsibility” of letting untrained people fly, especially
children, fly into space. This would of course, be a media circus. Flying from a
spaceport in the western desert region of Kazakhstan, with limited media
access, not to mention going there by train (a decision they will not
have announced), could be a good way to duck the paparazzi and the press
— or at least some of them.

Finally, our backstory says that this Soyuz launch vehicle is essentially a
“surplus” vehicle. This flight was promised to Anya Titova’s satellite services
company (“Silver Star Satellites”/”Sputniki Zvezda Serebryaniy“) in a prior
business arrangement. However, the aging Soyuz technology is no longer
the preferred option for her satellite business and Anya, as both a
colonist and a sponsor, has donated this flight to the project.


“Soyuz-SF”

Having said all that, the Soyuz in “No Children in Space” will be an evolved
version of the system. We call it “Soyuz-SF” behind the scenes — I
would love it if somebody could come up with a plausible Russian meaning
for the “SF” part, of course it really stands for “science fiction”.
Looking at the way the Russians have incorporated newer ideas into the
older Soyuz design, I’ve considered some possible improvements that
might be made — more reusability, higher mass-ratio, and so on — the
sort of incremental changes Russian space engineers might be expected to
add over the next 20 or 30 years.

The orbiter will have a newer control panel and avionics system, so the
interior will look somewhat different. Also, this particular vehicle will
need special modifications to accomodate the small frame of a seven-year-old
girl. Soyuz-TMA height requirements would not allow such a short person to
fly, and Georgiana’s spacesuit is not a Sokol-type suit. Instead, she is wearing a
custom-made IVA/EVA convertible suit that has been specially designed
as an ISF project to accomodate a child. This would all involve special
training and equipment.

Hopefully, this makes our thinking a little more clear (and maybe shows that we did think?)