October 6, 2012
When Your Destination Is Unknown, It’s Important Not To Lose Your Way (Part 1)
Ok. So, this will be my first blog post for redOrbit. I decided, “why just stick my toe in the water, first?” So, I’m planning what I hope will be an ambitious history of the Yin to NASA’s Yang, the Soviet (and then Russian) space program.
The idea for this came in light of NASA‘s seeming success with the recent landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars and how and why we can juxtapose this accomplishment with reports that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has been in dire trouble of late, most recently receiving damning criticism from one of their own cosmonauts. (surprise, surprise…he’s out of a job now)
So, let us begin, shall we?
The primary focus for the Soviet space program was exploring the military practicality and applications that could be utilized in low-Earth orbit. Due to the central planning economy that was the centerpiece of Soviet governance, the massive expense involved with this undertaking could only be made if it was justified as a military endeavor. It has been estimated that fewer than 20% of all Soviet launches were done for “national prestige” purposes. These would include missions that were scientific or planetary in nature and also each of their civilian manned missions.
NASA, while finding their early purpose through strictly military application as well, quickly realized the benefits of a well-orchestrated public relations campaign. In 1961, at the same time President Kennedy was ever-so-eloquent about the United States sending a man to the moon “in this decade”, the Soviets were putting together their first long range military force plan. Soviet long range military plans, unlike the 5-year central planning model used for every aspect of Soviet life, from manufacturing to farming, were doubled to 10 years.
Say what you will about the communist ideology and Soviet governance, but it is impossible not to recognize that the advancements that NASA made, not only over the decade of the 60’s but thru until the late 2000’s, were as a direct result of the competition posed by the U.S.S.R.
Take for instance the rocket blast heard round the world. I’m referring, of course, to the first satellite to orbit this rock on which we live: Sputnik I. Launched 55 years and 1 day ago, Sputnik I caught the U.S. science and space community off guard. The United States realized, that day, they were at a distinct disadvantage. A scientific disadvantage. A military disadvantage. A national esteem disadvantage. Something had to be done to not only bring us up to speed on the global stage, but to try to assert our dominance over all on that stage. The space race had begun. The U.S. was ready to do whatever it took to best our enemies in Red Square.
Then April 12, 1961 happened. Yuri Gargarin, aboard his Vostok spacecraft, became the first human to leave the grasp of Earth’s gravity. Gargarin spoke to being the first person to experience zero gravity saying, “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.” This would be the first and only time Gargarin would travel into space. He was selected to be on the back-up crew of the Soyuz 1 mission. Unfortunately for the primary crew, that mission ended in tragedy. Gargarin, himself, recipient of the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, met a tragic end on March 27, 1968 when the MiG 15 training jet he was piloting crashed.
It was apparent, with Gargarin’s (and the U.S.S.R.’s) feat, just 4 years after NASA (as it was now known) had been challenged to a race, the U.S. was still in second place.
So the race was on.
Image Credit: Photos.com