Tag Archives: USSR

441. The Last Apollo

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”        Cernan’s closing words on leaving the moon at the end of Apollo 17

Forty-five years ago, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

It was a stunt from the get-go. Kennedy’s speech, setting a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth, was a Trump-worthy brag. If we had failed, it would be laughed at today as just another empty promise made by a politician.

One man laid down the challenge and thousands of men and women carried out the promise.

But it was still a stunt. When Kennedy made his speech on May 25, 1961, Russian had put a man into orbit. We had not, although we had managed a sub-orbital flight. Atlas boosters were still blowing up on launch, so a smaller Redstone was used for Alan Shepard’s flight on May fifth.

NASA had only been in existence for three years. By any real or imagined yardstick, the Russians were far ahead in space.

By herculean efforts, NASA forged ahead through Mercury and Gemini. The fire aboard “Apollo One” set American efforts back significantly, and when launches began again, it looked like the Russians were going to land on the moon first.

There were Soviet problems however, particularly the repeated failure of their N-1 rocket. These doomed their attempt to reach the moon first, but NASA was not aware at the time.

NASA had problems of its own. The lunar lander was not ready when Apollo 7, the first actual manned Apollo flight, left for low Earth orbit in October of 1968. Only a year remained on Kennedy’s timeline, and the Soviets — we thought — were poised to land on the moon ahead of us. Something had to be done.

That something was the Apollo 8 journey to and around the moon, without a lander, for the Christmas season of 1968. We had been to the moon first (by an ad-man’s stretch of the truth), even if the Soviets became the first to land.

Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in low Earth orbit. Apollo 10 (the most frustrating almost in human history) returned to the moon, deployed the lunar lander, and flew it to within wishing distance of the moon without landing.

Apollo 11 landed a man safely on the moon, and returned him safely to the Earth.

Now what?

For the Soviets, the answer was to turn away from the moon. Their N-1 mega-rocket had failed, and their manned modules and lander were stored away. The Soviets began a series of long flights and space stations, studying space from low Earth orbit.

For NASA there were nine more Saturn V rockets waiting to launch Apollo 12 through 20. It didn’t turn out that way. Apollo 12 landed in a different part of the moon, Apollo 13 suffered and explosion, didn’t land, and barely made it home.

Even before Apollo 13, Apollo 20 was cancelled so its Saturn V could be used to launch Skylab. Even before Apollo 14 landed, Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled. Why? Because it was a stunt from the get-go. Apollo 11 met the deadline. To coin-counting bureaucrats, that was enough.

For those of us who see space exploration as the future of humanity, Apollo 11 was only the  beginning. Lunar exploration, a moon base, Mars. Venus — there should have been no end.

Bureaucrats did not agree. On Thursday, 1972, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

more next Thursday, the anniversary of the last liftoff from the Moon


402. Nuclear Spacecraft

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and always, whether I was supposed to or not, I taught the space program.

I grew up with space travel, first in fiction, then in fact. I loved it, and the kids I taught loved it, too. How much of that rubbed off from me, I’ll never know.

By the time I started teaching, the big show was over. When Gene Cernan stepped back into his LEM in 1972, it was the high water mark of manned space exploration. It’s been downhill since.

In the classic science fiction novel I had planned to serialize, Rip Foster is heading out toward the asteroid belt on the nuclear powered spacecraft Scorpius. That’s how we all thought the future would look. That’s how the future should have looked. Chemically powered rockets are simply not sufficient for exploring the solar system.

We have have nuclear power plants for electricity, nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers, even a nuclear cargo ship. Why not nuclear spacecraft? Weight? Do you really think we couldn’t have overcome that problem? Maybe it was the danger, but . . .

Here is a quiz for you. How many nuclear submarines are lying on the bottom of the ocean, tombs for sailors and ecological time bombs for the rest of us? Two from America and six from Russia. An additional Russian nuclear sub sank twice, but was raised both times.

How many nuclear and thermonuclear bombs have gone missing? The U.S. admits to eight. How many more are hidden under the umbrella of security? Your guess is as good as mine. How many have the Soviet’s lost? You ask them, I’m keeping my head down.

Did I mention Chernobyl and Fukushima?

Let me put it another way. When the Soviets launched Sputnik and initiated the space race, then followed up with a man in orbit before we could even launch a sub-orbital flight, we did an end-around and went to the moon.

If the Soviets had launched a nuclear powered space craft, we would have launched a nuclear powered space craft. Technology would not have stopped us. Fear of radiation would not have stopped us.

That was then, this is now. The best thing for manned space exploration today – though not for American interests or world peace – would be for the Chinese to launch a nuclear powered space craft. It wouldn’t even have to be a good one. Just the threat would be enough, and in a few decades ships like the Scorpius would be filling the solar system.

235. 1989 Revisited

This follows Tuesday’s post. 

In the early nineties, my wife and I were traveling on a train in Germany, where we found ourselves sharing a compartment with a young German college student. We congratulated her on Germany’s recent reunification. She became flustered and could not understand why we, as Americans, could be concerned with the reunification of her little country.

Germany is not a little country. It fought the British Empire to a standstill in WWI, then conquered essentially all of mainland Europe in WWII, and today is a leading state in a more-or-less united Europe. But this young woman would have been the granddaughter of people who were there at Germany’s defeat in 1945, and her parents would have grown up in the western half of a nation, whose eastern half had been gobbled up by the Soviets. Her humility made sense, at that moment in history.

Germany was divided in 1945 and reunified in 1990, but the real year of change for Germany and the rest of eastern Europe was 1989. That is why I slid Raven’s Run into that year when I began to post it in the twenty-first century.

**       **       **

On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa (death sentence) against Salman Rushdie. Even before a year of great progress in international relations had fully begun, the sound of the coming world challenges were echoing in from the Middle East. The next day, the Soviet Union announced that the last of its troops had left Afghanistan, ending a fruitless nine year war that some called Russia’s Viet Nam. Unfortunately, America didn’t get the message about the fruitlessness of trying to change Afghanistan.

The Warsaw Pact alliance was getting shaky. For forty five years Russian had maintained its dominance over eastern Europe by military might. It had cost them, in rubles, in the lost productivity involved in maintaining a huge standing army, and in the growing recalcitrance of the peoples under their domination.

There had been other risings during that near half century – in East Germany in 1953,  and in Hungary and Poland in 1956. But by 1989, conditions within Russia itself had deteriorated badly. Russia’s new leader Mikhail Gorbachev was ready for change. When mass protests occurred in Hungary in March, he allowed reforms to begin. It was a far cry from the Russian tanks and guns of 1956.

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 had been put down ruthlessly. Officially, it was not seen as a Hungarian uprising, but as something orchestrated by the West. Now the story was changed, and it was officially accepted as a popular movement. Soon the Hungarians began tearing down the fence that closed off the Austrian border, which eventually had major consequences for East Germany.

Germany was partitioned in 1945 and Berlin, inside the Russian sector, was also partitioned. The two Germanies were fenced apart, and between the two Berlins the East Germans, at Russian insistence, built a massive concrete barrier. The Berlin Wall became the visible symbol for the separation of Europe.

By stealth and guile, innumerable refugees fled from East Germany to the west, but no defections got as much attention as those that broke through, over, and under the Berlin Wall.

With loosening of restraints in Hungary, East Germans defections intensified. For decades, they had vacationed in Hungary. Now they went to Hungary by the thousands and crossed from there to Austria. By September, 30,000 had escaped. When the East German government closed that route, East Germans flocked to Czechoslovakia where they descended on the Hungarian and West German embassies. In October, the East German government closed the border with Czechoslovakia. Those East Germans who had not been able to escape, turned to protests, which grew weekly in size. A shoot to kill order was given, then retracted under pressure from Gorbachev. By late October, the crowds of demonstrators numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The East German government relented and opened the Berlin wall. East German people then tore it down.

Throughout eastern Europe, variations on the theme played out. Dozens of countries were freed from Soviet domination, but there was one massive casualty. Yugoslavia, a conglomeration of smaller states since WWI, disintegrated shortly after the breakup of the Warsaw Pact nations, leading to wars throughout the nineties.

Germany reunified in 1990 and the Soviet Union dissolved into its component states in 1991.

168. A Woman in Space

53 years ago today, the first woman flew in space. Her name was Valentina Tereshkova. The Soviets hailed her as a hero of the People (see131. Chasing Cosmonauts), and as proof that Russia was ahead of the US in social advancement as well as in space travel.

The US treated her as a joke.

Both assessment were wrong, although both contained kernels of truth. Even today, half a century after the event, it is difficult to come to a balanced appraisal of the flight of Vostok 6. Russian propaganda and American dismissal still cloud the picture.  I am taking a shot at accuracy here, but a workman is only as good as his tools, so keep a measure of skepticism in mind.

Tereshkova’s father was MIA during WWII, leaving her mother to raise Tereshkova alone. She left school early to join her mother working in a state textile mill. There she joined a parachute club, which was a military auxiliary, and became an expert parachutist as well as secretary of the local Komsomol.

Early in the Soviet space program, there was a movement to add female cosmonauts, mostly for propaganda purposes. Candidates did not need flight experience since the Vostok craft were fully automated, but the did need extensive parachute experience, since at that early stage cosmonauts finalized their landings by personal parachute (see130.  First Into Space). Tereshkova was one of fifty-four candidates interviewed, and one of five who made it through training.

Tereshkova was personable, doctrinally sound in communism, from the peasant and workers class, hard working, willing, and an expert parachutist. She was not well educated nor an experienced pilot. Ponomaryova and Solovyova, female cosmonaut trainees who had those additional qualifications, were scheduled for a later, more sophisticated flight, and Tereshkova was scheduled for the Vostok 5/6 dual flight.

Vostok 5, crewed by  Valery Bykovsky, was launched on June 14, scheduled for an eight day flight, but a low orbit forced it to be shortened to five. Vostok 6, crewed by Tereshkova, was launched on June 16 and remained in orbit for three days. They passed within five kilometers while in space.

During the flight, Tereshkova discovered that the automatic orientation system had her flying sideways in orbit, an error that would have been fatal during reentry. Ground control confirmed and corrected. Whether she activated her final reentry personally or not is still unclear.

In those early days, landing accuracy had not been perfected. When she ejected from her craft, she found herself coming down into a large lake, and was only saved from downing by a strong wind that carried her to a rough landing on shore.

American astronauts, all of whom were test pilots, had little respect for the skills of Soviet cosmonauts. They used Tereshkova’s flight to justify their ridicule, saying that the Russians had simply pulled a woman off the line in a factory and sent her up into space as a glorified passenger. There was a bit of justification in their assessment. It was a propaganda stunt, but that didn’t mitigate the dangers. Tereshkova was uneducated, but by six years later she had taken advantage of her situation to earn a degree in engineering. She was not a pilot when chosen for training, but by the time of Vostok 6 she had learned to fly jets and had made 120 additional jumps to hone her skills as a parachutist.

Alan Shepard was a superb test pilot when he flew his Mercury mission, but he had almost no control over his capsule and nobody called him spam-in-a-can. Well, actually, Chuck Yeager did, but that’s what too much testosterone will do to your thinking.

Tereshkova’s contribution to space flight was real, but the Soviet commitment to equality was not. Ponomaryova and Solovyova’s flight was cancelled, and it would be nineteen years before another Soviet woman flew in space. It would be twenty years before the first American woman, Sally Ride, entered space, even though thirteen American female astronauts had been chosen and trained during the early sixties. Like Ponomaryova and Solovyova, they never flew.

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.