The Plesetsk Cosmodrome, located in northwestern Russia approximately 800 km northeast of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), was for many years the busiest missile launch facility on earth. It has supported over 1,300 launches—or more than one third of all orbital and planetary launches from all other sites in the world combined.(1) Although its output was dramatically reduced after the end of the Cold War, Plesetsk remains a key component of Russia’s ICBM program.
In 1957, the Soviet Union gained the ability to launch a nuclear strike against the United States with its new SS-6 Sapwood (R-7) missile. The most direct path for a missile attack against North America was across the Arctic Ocean, and the Soviet military decided to place SS-6 launch pads as far north as possible to maximize their range. The Soviet Ministry of Defense chose the village of Plesetsk as the location of the first SS-6 base. Two years later, in December 1959, the first SS-6 launch pad at Plesetsk was declared operational. That same month, the Soviet Union created the Strategic Missile Forces within the Soviet Army, which oversaw all launch operations.(2)
In August 1960, the United States gained its first photographs of the launch site using the Corona spacecraft, which revealed railway lines not found on German military maps from the World War II era. Over the next few years, the SS-7 Saddler (R-16) and the SS-8 Sasin (R-9) ICBMs were deployed at Plesetsk, where, in 1962, the Soviets decided to create a range to test solid-fueled missiles, and to provide access to high-inclination orbits for space launches. The existing infrastructure at Plesetsk thereby gained a dual role.
In March 1966, the Plesetsk facility launched its first satellite, the Cosmos-112, followed by the Cosmos-113 in April, and the Cosmos-129 in October. In November 1966, the West announced the existence and whereabouts of the Soviet launch site after a group of British students tracked the three Cosmos satellites and were able to pinpoint their origin. The Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge the existence of Plesetsk, however, until 1983.
In 1968, Plesetsk became the testing ground for the early Soviet efforts to create mobile ICBMs. Twelve launches of the SS-X-15 Scrooge (RT-20) took place. Eight of these launches reportedly failed and that mobile ICBM project was terminated. In 1973, the launch site suffered its first disaster with the explosion of a Cosmos satellite that killed nine people. In 1980 came a second disaster when a Vostok booster exploded, killing 50 people. Nevertheless, work continued with the testing of railroad-based missiles such as the SS-24 Scalpel (RT-23), which was tested at Plesetsk from 1982 to 1985.
The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union brought hard times to the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Despite being in a much better political-economic situation that the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Plesetsk could not escape the severe Russian financial problems of the 1990s. Defense spending was reduced dramatically, and space launches in Plesetsk fell from 47 in 1988 to only six in 1996. Work continued, however, and in December 1994, the first new generation Russian ICBM—-the SS-27 Topol M (RS-12M)—-was launched from Plesetsk.(3)
Russia continues to test ICBMs from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.(4) Reports indicate that it is also considering seeking private sector funding to invest in Plesetsk’s satellite launch capability.(5)
- GlobalSecurity.org, “Plesetsk Cosmodrome,” available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/world/russia/plesetsk.htm, accessed on 29 August 2005.
- RussianSpaceWeb.com, “Cosmodrome Plesetsk,” available at http://www.russianspaceweb.com/plesetsk.html, accessed on 29 August 2005.
- RussianSpaceWeb.com, “Cosmodrome Plesetsk.”
- “Mobile Topol-M cleared for production,” Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, 1 February 2005.
- David C. Isby, “Russia Opens New ICBM Launch Site,” Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, 1 March 2005.