By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This is the first article in a six-part series on the history of Venus space exploration and research, and the possibility of human colonization on Venus.
Venus is often described as a twin sister planet of the Earth because of the apparent similarities between the two worlds. Venus was first discovered by Galileo in 1610.
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In the centuries of early astronomy that followed, we determined that Venus is actually very close to the same size as the Earth, with approximately 95 percent of Earth’s mass. Venus also happens to be the closest planet in our solar system to Earth, which makes a coincidence of this kind all the more striking.
However, apart from Venus’s size and proximity, we have come to learn through modern astronomical research that Venus is quite different from our home planet in ways that make the comparison almost laughable. Most prominently, Venus suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. Thick, insulating gases have saturated the Venusian atmosphere and trapped the Sun’s heat so that the surface temperature of Venus climbs to almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit…hotter than a pizza oven.
It does rain on Venus, though the rain is toxic sulfuric acid. Venus spins in the opposite direction to all other planets in the solar system, and its rate of rotation is so slow that it completes less than two day-night cycles in an entire year.
Then there’s the matter of Venus’s magnetic field — or lack thereof — which leaves it far more exposed to solar and galactic cosmic radiation. In the biggest of pictures, Venus is nothing like Earth.
But an important question remains, one that intrigues space enthusiasts who see moving humans off-world as an important long-term survival strategy. Would it be possible to colonize Venus in any way, shape or form? The answer, interestingly, is maybe.
But colonization will require careful research and thoughtful innovation in order to harness cutting-edge technology for the creation of a safe and sustainable colony.
Initial Efforts by US and USSR Scientists to Collect Data from Venus Suffered Problems
In the past 60 or so years of human space exploration, an impressive number of successful Venus missions have collected a plethora of useful data about the planet and its characteristics. However, space is unforgiving, and initial efforts to study Venus got off to a very rocky and unsuccessful start.
Interestingly, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was the first space-faring nation to pursue exploration and research concerning Venus. The Soviet Union made its first attempt to reach Venus with the launch of Sputnik 7 in February 1961, less than three and a half years after the first-ever orbiting space probe, Sputnik 1. However, Sputnik 7 unfortunately failed due to a fatal problem with the final stage of its launch vehicle.
The USSR would try again just eight days later with the launch of Venera 1. This time, the launch was successful. However, the spacecraft’s communications failed while en route to Venus, and the Soviet Union permanently lost contact with it.
The next attempt would be made by the Americans, with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launching Mariner 1 more than a year later in July 1962. Mariner 1 was planning to conduct a flyby of Venus, but like Sputnik 7, the Mariner 1 launch vehicle unfortunately failed.
The Soviet Union would try again in August and September of 1962 with Sputnik 19 and 20, respectively. These spacecraft both suffered similar fates to that of Sputnik 7. Although they were able to make Earth orbit, the last stages of their launch vehicles failed and so they could not make the hop to Venus.
The USSR would try a third time with Sputnik 21 in September. This time, the rocket’s third stage blew up on ascent before orbit could even be achieved. This string of failures was particularly embarrassing and disheartening for the Soviet space program.
In December of 1962, NASA would achieve the very first flyby of Venus with the Mariner 2 spacecraft, launched in August of that same year. Mariner 2 measured the surface temperatures of Venus for the first time ever (over 800 degrees Fahrenheit) and also determined that there was no water in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately for the Soviets, their run of bad luck with Venus missions was only beginning. In 1964, they would try again with Venera A, Venera B, Cosmos 27 and Zond 1. All four missions failed. The first three launches suffered rocket failures on ascent. The fourth made it into space and on its way to Venus, but mission control lost contact with the spacecraft while it was en route.
USSR Space Program Experienced Better Success with Venera 2 and 3
In November of 1965, the USSR launched Venera 2 and Venera 3. A year later, the USSR achieved its first successes — sort of — in Venus exploration. Venera 2 flew within 24,000 kilometers of Venus, but the Soviets lost communication with the spacecraft just before it reached its closest proximity to the planet.
Venera 3 was designed with a lander probe that was to enter the Venusian atmosphere, parachute to the surface and collect data. The lander was successfully deployed.
However, mission control lost contact shortly after it entered Venus’s thick clouds. It is believed that the parachute failed and the lander crashed into the surface. No data was ever collected from the Venera 3 lander.
However, the USSR was not done yet. Scientists in the USSR space program were determined to continue the pursuit of Venus research and exploration until they were successful. In the next part of this article, we’ll look at the first unqualified successes in Soviet Venus research mission history.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.