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The Language of Russian Space Travel

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for…человечество! Before the American space program had even dreamed of getting a man on the moon, the Russians were well on their way around the Earth! In fact, April 12th marks the 50th anniversary of the first ever manned space flight, taken by Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Let’s take a look at some common names associated with Russian space programs.


Sputnik was the line of satellites of robotic spacecraft, or satellites, launched into space starting in 1957. The launch of this first satellite was a total surprise, especially to the US. They were currently trying to get their own equipment to get out of orbit when their heated rivals in Russia got their little robot up.

“Sputnik” literally means “companion” or “traveling companion.” Perhaps more appropriately, it also means “satellite.” The original meaning of the word was more akin to someone who was always orbiting around someone else, hence the reasoning for those little blips of light we see each night.


Of course when we think about the Russian space program, we generally think about the Russian astronauts, or “cosmonauts” that braved the emptiness of space. However, that word is an Anglicization of the Russian term “kosmonavt,” which literally means “space traveler” or, even more directly, “space sailor.”

Astronauts and cosmonauts are synonyms, or the exact same thing. The only time anyone really used “cosmonaut” was for political reasons, or perhaps making a joke. Since those early days, there have actually been “American cosmonauts.” Norman Thagard was the first in 1995, riding into space onboard a Russian launch vehicle.

Recently, information has come to light about the peril early Russian cosmonauts faced. Reports indicate that the Russians downplayed the number of space-travel related fatalities

This video is purportedly a recording of astronaut Vladimir Komarov, “crying in rage” seconds before his spacecraft crashed to earth. (Warning: Not for the faint of heart.)

Whether “astronaut” or “kosmonavt,” it’s clear that space was pioneered by brave men and women.


The Soyuz is a line of launch systems developed in Russia, and is the most frequently used and most reliable system in the world. It was first introduced in 1966 and grew in popularity exponentially for years after, especially the early 1980s. It’s become known for it’s low cost yet superior design.

Soyuz translates to “union,” as in “Soviet Union.” Considering when it was first created, you can imagine where the name originated!


Mir is the space station most think of when the term comes up, as it was the biggest space station in orbit until 2001 when the International Space Station was constructed. Mir was then out of operation. Until that time, however, it saw crews conduct major experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, and even spacecraft systems to develop permanent occupation of space.

The term “Mir” means “peace” or “world.” As it was first operational in 1986, near the end of the Cold War, it showed a big turning point when it came to the space program and world events. Soon the US and Russia were friends, or at least not enemies, and the International Space Station planning was about to begin. счастливый день (happy day)!