131. Chasing Cosmonauts

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post First into Space.

I had the great good fortune of being born with the space age, less than two months after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. I was thirteen when Alan Shepard took his first sub-orbital flight and just coming back from my honeymoon when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. (see 27. That Was My Childhood)

I followed the American manned space programs closely, but the Russians were a mystery. They gleefully announced their victories – first satellite in orbit, first living creature in orbit, first man in orbit, first woman in orbit, first space walk, first space station – but there were no details. I developed a curiosity that never went away.

Time marched on. The race to the moon was won – by us, after a painfully slow start. The cold war ended. The pioneers of space drifted mostly out of public consciousness. Everybody remembers Armstrong, but Buzz Aldrin morphed into Buzz Lightyear, and Jim Lovell came to wear the face of Tom Hanks in public memory. And who remembers Gordo, or Deke, or Ed White?

Well, I do, actually. I also remember the Russians, who were pioneers just like we were, and often got there first.

In 1987, Douglas Hart produced The Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft which has been my go-to source for decades. I recommend it highly for information preceding its publication date.

Another book that I recently hacked my way through, like a noxious jungle, is Russians in Space by Evgeny Riabchikov. I found it at the *** Library, my favorite impoverished institution, a public library filed with seventy year old books and few new ones. Russians in Space was written in Russia, for Russians, during the sixties. It’s translation copyright is 1971 and I doubt if this copy has been read ten times in all those years.

Do you remember Chekov from the original Star Trek, who was always telling everyone that Russia invented everything? He was a comic version of late sixties reality, when Russian bombast made everything in Pravda sound like it was written by Donald Trump. Russians in Space is of that type.

I fought my way through the bombast and bad writing in search of the details I had not found elsewhere. No such luck. I took as my touchstone, the chapter on the Voskhod 2 flight, which I had recently researched (see 116. Spacecraft Threatened by Bears). Everything that made the flight memorable was missing. Riabchikov made it seem routine, when in fact, it was the planning and mechanical failures on the mission that spotlighted the incredible courage and skill of the cosmonauts.

Our brave, valiant, plucky boys in space – that could have been the subtitle of Riabchikov’s book. It reminded me of an alternate reality prequel to the Lensmen series. Kimbal Kinnison would have fit in well with the square jawed, sturdy, blue eyed, strong but gentle supermen who made up Riabchikov’s version of the cosmonaut corps. They were comrades who always helped each other, never fought among themselves, and were ready like all good workers to do their part for the USSR. The cosmonauts who welcomed the female cosmonaut group were courteous and supportive, always ready to help them overcome any hurdle. Like big brothers who blushed when their hands touched. That is from a quotation I wrote down, then lost. You should thank me for the lapse.

So why bother telling you about a book so bad? Because something else came through, despite its manifold failings. There was a sense of pride in the Soviet space program, and particularly in its cosmonauts, that was felt throughout Soviet society. Without glossing over any of the failings of the Soviet system, an American reader can see that the Russian people admired Yuri Gagarin in exactly the same way Americans admired John Glenn. It is clear that they felt a pride in Soviet successes that mirror-matched the frustration we felt at American failings during the same era.

The story of the Soviet manned space program deserves better than Riabchikov, and I am still searching for the book that tells that story succinctly and well.

I have some leads. I’ll tell you soon how they pan out.


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