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The Sokol space suit: the ultimate onesie!

The Russian Sokol suit has been fun to draw and adapt for Soyuz Blue!

The original Soyuz spacecraft was designed to maintain a “shirt sleeve” environment where the cosmonauts launched to space and returned without needing space suits. After the disaster of Soyuz 11, when a faulty valve accidently vented the spacecrafts atmosphere into the vacuum of space and killed the unprotected crew, the Russians developed a new kind of “soft rescue suit.” Sokal is fairly comfortable and compact, yet still provides protection to crews during critical phases of their mission — launch, docking and landing.

The suit is one-piece and entered through a “V” shaped opening in the chest. Once the cosmonaut steps into the opening and draws the suit around him or herself, the excess material is gather together and sealed with a rubber band, then the suit is zipped shut. Boots are integrated with the suit, but gloves are removable and attach by aluminum locking rings. The visor can open on hinges mounted near the ears. When the visor is closed it seals with an aluminum flange. When the visor is open the hood, or ‘soft helmet,’ folds away. The classic suit is designed to be worn up to two hours when inflated and 30 hours when deflated.

When I designed the Soyuz Blue moon suits I included an additional layer of distinctive blue radiation shielding. A flight to the Moon takes the cosmonauts beyond the protective layer of Earth’s’ radiation belts, so they may need to wear their suit more often, and for longer periods. The boots are removable so that a cosmonaut can wear the suit up to a week, if needed, with relative comfort. I made my Moon design a little more aggressive looking, inspired by Zuni Indian costumes I saw on display at the Chicago Field Museum.

If you want a first hand look, space tourist Denis Tito’s sokol suit on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

More Russian space trivia included in the hard science fiction thriller Soyuz Blue, on sale now on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Yes, they pee on the tires.

Male Soyuz crew members do indeed urinate on the tires of the transport bus that drives them to the launch pad.

According to retired astronaut Chris Hadfield in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. “Much is made of this as a tradition, but really, if you’re going to be locked in a rocket ship, unable to leave your seat for quite a few hours, it’s just common sense. The only problem is that, when clad in a launch suit, one cannot simply unzip one’s fly. The suit techs on board had to help us undo all the tricky fasteners they’d painstakingly closed not an hour before, so we were able to urinate manfully on the tire without spoiling our plumage.”

I have detailed this and a handful of other Russian pre-launch rituals in my novel, but there are even more rites:

  • A visit to Yuri Gagarin’s office to autograph a book
  • Planting a tree in the cosmonaut grove
  • Custom matryoshka dolls are commissioned for each crew member
  • Coins are flattened under the train that transports the Soyuz to the launch pad (Cosmonauts must not watch this roll out – it is bad luck –  and get their hair cut instead)
  • The night before the launch the crew watches the Russian 1969 movie White Sun of the Desert (an action film set during the 1917 revolution)
  • The crew poses with women in traditional Kazakh costumes for photographs
  • No mission can take place on 24 October since it is the anniversary of a catastrophic missile failure in 1960 (this is subject of a future blog post: “Biggest space screw-up ever”)
  • There is also a welcoming ritual of bread and salt for visitors arriving to the ISS

Not to be outdone, American crews have their superstitious rituals as well:

  • On the day of launch, NASA astronauts eat eggs and steak in tribute to Alan Shepard, who ate a breakfast of this before the first American launch
  • Before launch, the crew is given a cake – that no one is supposed to eat
  • Contemporary astronauts sit on the same recliner chairs as the Apollo era crews the suit-up room
  • The crew plays five-card poker or Blackjack until the commander loses, only then can they drive to the launch pad (one shuttle crew almost was late to the launch pad because the commander kept winning)
  • No mission has been numbered ’13’ since Apollo 13 failed to land on the moon
  • Jars of peanuts are considered good luck charms for unmanned landings on other worlds
  • Successful manned launchings are celebrated with a meal of beans and cornbread
  • After their first flight, rookies in the team have their neckties cut
  • A ship’s bell is rung onboard the ISS when the command changes to a new crew

More adventures when Soyuz Blue, Volume Three debuts in September at SPX!

“Outside the Space Center, the crew is presented to the Space leadership. Each crew member stands on a square painted on the tarmac and salutes, declaring himself fit and ready for the mi

“Outside the Space Center, the crew is presented to the Space leadership. Each crew member stands on a square painted on the tarmac and salutes, declaring himself fit and ready for the mission.”

“We then bus to the launch pad. Just Outside the final checkpoint, the male members go through another ritual; We ing the tires of the bus.”

“We then bus to the launch pad. Just outside the final checkpoint, the male members go through another ritual; wetting the tires of the bus.”

“Yuri Gagarin did this on the bus ride before the first human spaceflight, and we have observed the custom ever since. The women are Excused from this rite.”

“Yuri Gagarin did this on the bus ride before the first human spaceflight, and we have observed the custom ever since. The women are excused from this rite.”

Lots more adventures ahead! Buy the novel on Amazon:

Mattel’s “Man in Space” flies aboard Soyuz Blue!

Sharp eyed readers of Soyuz Blue, Volume Two, have noted that toy that Colonel Molotov hangs at the top of the space capsule for luck is a famous American astronaut.

The year was 1966. The US was finishing up project Gemini and preparing for the first Apollo Moon missions. The Mattel toy company rolled out an action figure based on the latest designs available in Life, Jane’s Aviation, and Nasa publications.

He was Major Matt Mason, who lived on the Moon with his buddies in a sleek transparent base with a lot of cool plastic hardware. The crew had color coded space suits. Matt looked fashion forward in classic white. Sgt. Storm made a bold statement in red, while civilian astronaut Doug Davis prowled the moon in chrome yellow. Lt. Jeff Long was clad in blue. Jeff was African-American and a member of Mattel’s team almost two decades before Guion Bluford became the first black man in space.


As a toy the Major and his subordinates left something to be desired. Their wire joints had a tendency to snap, and paint would peel off of their black “plastizol” bodies. For astronauts, they broke rather easily.

In the early Seventies, after the peak of interest in the Apollo missions faded, Matt and crew were rebooted as sci-fi adventurers and teamed with a rogues gallery of aliens. The toy line was discontinued in the mid seventies, ironically just a few years before the advent of Star Wars.

Matt Mason is actually rumored to have flown on several Space Shuttle missions as a mascot.

Read it for yourself! Buy the novel on Amazon:

Space weather is not science fiction.

Space weather can be complex and dramatic. In volume one of Soyuz Blue I depict the International Space Station’s orbit degraded by sunspots and solar flares. Solar storms can indeed degrade the orbits of satellites by heating and expanding the upper atmosphere and increasing drag. The erosion of orbit due to solar weather was one of the main reasons that NASA was unable to rescue America’s first space station, Skylab, from a fiery re-entry in 1979.

These kinds of solar events can also generate radiation and put astronauts and cosmonauts at risk. During solar flares they will need to fall back to more shielded parts of the Space Station. As depicted in my novel, these “safe” areas are in the Russian sections.

How bad can space weather be on the Earth’s surface? We only have been aware of this phenomena for 200 years, which is nothing in the life span of our 5 billion year old sun. Thousands of miles of exposed wires in power grids are at risk of overload from storms. Transformers can explode, and once destroyed, are difficult and expensive to replace. Oil and gas pipelines are also at risk, and it is thought that sunspots can increase corrosion and degrade the integrity of the metal.

The worst recorded solar storm is the Carrington Event of 1859. This storm generated intense aurora borealis displays that were seen from Canada to the Caribbean. The auroras were so bright that people were able to read a newspaper in the dead of night. Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed. Sparks flew off pylons. Telegraph operators received electrical shocks. Even when the power supplies were disconnected, some telegraph stations could continue to receive and send messages.

Sun weather comes in 11 year cycles, and in 2014 we were at a period of “solarmax:” a period of intense activity. Fortunately, this “max” seems much quieter than in previous years.

What would a really gnarly solar storm look like?
Read it for yourself! Buy the novel on Amazon:

Soyuz has been in use for almost 50 years!

Soyuz Blue is a two-fisted tale, and as such, full of over the top action and heroics by square jawed men and women. But there is nothing far-fetched about the Soyuz spacecraft featured in the novel.

The Russian Soyuz has been in use for almost 50 years. First launched in 1966, it overcame a series of mechanical glitches, and two fatal accidents, to become a benchmark flying machine. Today it is considered the safest and most reliable way to get astronauts into space. It belongs in the pantheon of successful, rugged, and long lived 20th century inventions, along with the 747, DC-3, and the humble Volkswagen Beetle.

The spacecraft was the brainchild of master aeronautical engineer Sergei Korolev. Korolev was the mysterious Cold War “chief designer” and responsible for the remarkable Soviet space triumphs of the 50’s and 60’s.

Soyuz is a masterpiece of simplicity. The orbital module (OM) provides living and working room while in orbit. The descent module (DM) provides tight quarters for the crew of 3 to launch to orbit and return to earth. The service module (SM) provides air, water, and electricity. The craft is also a product of the “better is the enemy of good” engineering philosophy. This means, outside of a few upgrades, soyuz has remained largely unchanged over the last half century.

In my novel the Cosmonauts use a hybrid spacecraft that is intended for tourist flights around the moon. Outfitted with additional supplies, more powerful engines, a slightly larger OM, this spaceship is entirely credible.

A variant like this (called 7K) was on the drawing board back in 1963. It would have rendezvoused with a supply and propulsion section (launched separately), and gone on a circumlunar voyage. This Soyuz would never have been able to land on the Moon, as a much larger booster was needed to carry a landing craft, but a first manned circumlunar mission by the Russians was a very real possibility in the late 60s.

This soyuz spacecraft configuration was copied by the Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft. In one form or another, Soyuz or Shenzhou, we are likely to see this kind of ship well into the next century.

Read it for yourself! Buy the novel on Amazon: