On May 17, Russia launched its final Soyuz-U rocket from the Plesetsk Space Center. The 40 year old launch vehicle family will be replaced by the Soyuz-2 and Angara-A3 carrier rockets.
The Soyuz-U is a medium class carrier rocket that was developed from the R-7 ballistic missile in the mid-1950′s. The first Soyuz-U launched in 1973, also from the Plesetsk Space Center, carrying Cosmos 559, a Zenit military spy satellite. Since that time, it has launched 434 times, carrying 430 spacecraft into orbit. It carried its first crew in 1974, delivering the Soyuz 16 in preparation for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It was later used to launch the Soyuz-TMA capsule that continues to transport crew to the International Space Station, although it last performed this function in 2002.
The Soyuz was developed by the TsSKB design bureau, now TsSKB-Progress. It comes in two version, the Soyuz-U/Ikar and the Soyuz-U/Fregat, and was the basis for the Soyuz-FG which uses a different first stage from the Soyuz-U. The Soyuz-FG is also slated to be phased out. The most prolific launch vehicle in history, the Soyuz-U was known for many years as the most reliable as well. This reputation added to international consternation in August 2011 when a Soyuz-U crashed after launch due to a blocked fuel line.
In its final journey, the Soyuz-U placed Cosmos 2480, a spy satellite, in orbit as part of Russia’s Oko (Eye) orbital missile early warning network of 70 satellites.
The video below reviews the history of the Soyuz rocket family: