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In Defense of Russian Rocketry

In response to:

Moon Fever from the August 15, 2019 issue

A Soviet illustration commemorating Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of Earth, 1960s
Getty Images
A Soviet illustration commemorating Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of Earth, 1960s

To the Editors:

I enjoyed James Gleick’s entertaining and informative panoramic summary of humanity’s relationship to Earth’s natural satellite, the moon [“Moon Fever,” NYR, August 15]. There’s much good material there, all presented with Mr. Gleick’s usual economy and wit. I particularly appreciated his endorsements of Oliver Morton’s book, and also Todd Miller’s Apollo film. Perhaps inadvertently, however, the article served to propagate a subtly belittling attitude to the Russian contribution to spaceflight’s history, one that I think has been all too typical of the Western media for decades.

After highlighting the work of American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard, Mr. Gleick writes, “For Russians, rocket history begins with the visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky” (italics mine). After a sentence or two devoted to the man, he proceeds to discuss the German contribution. The fact is, Tsiolkovsky formulated the key concepts behind spaceflight a good two decades prior to German theorist Hermann Oberth’s first published work on the subject in 1922, and almost three before [Robert] Goddard’s first successful test flight of a liquid-fueled rocket. While “rocket history” most likely began in thirteenth-century China, if the subject is rocket-powered spaceflight, that history began—not just for Russians, but for all humanity—with Tsiolkovsky’s theoretical work, much of it published at the turn of the twentieth century.

Working in poverty in provincial Kaluga, Tsiolkovsky calculated the complex mathematical equation proving that multistage, chemically fueled rockets could produce acceleration sufficiently incremental to keep space travelers alive while achieving escape velocity. He also drew detailed depictions of space suits, air locks, and space station observation ports virtually indistinguishable from those in use today. His first such designs saw print in 1903—the year the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. While Mr. Gleick mentions Tsiolkovsky’s equation in passing, in my view he really doesn’t give it its proper weight. It amounted to the E=MC2 of human spaceflight.

Following a discussion of German engineer Wernher von Braun’s critical role—both in the Third Reich, with his V-2 ballistic missile, and in the United States, where he eventually designed the Saturn V moon rocket for NASA—we next hear about the Russians launching the first satellite, Sputnik in 1957, followed by Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in April 1961. He characterizes the Soviet program as “scrappy but underfunded and prone to mistakes. It never announced its disasters. It killed a dog, Laika, by sending her spaceward on Sputnik 2, and celebrated the poor animal with stamps and statues.” Far be it from me to defend the treatment of this brave Moscow stray, who endured three Earth orbits before succumbing to cabin overheating on the fourth. But this was hardly a mistake: no provision had been made for her return. In any case, the record of American postwar rocketry experiments reveals that the US killed off a series of ten monkeys in test flights from 1948 to 1961, the first being a rhesus monkey named Albert who died of suffocation after being launched to the edge of space in a rebuilt V-2. No stamps or statues commemorate these unfortunate creatures.

As to Gagarin’s flight, that epic achievement is accompanied, in Mr. Gleick’s telling, by a disparaging reference to the Soviets “pretend[ing]” that he had achieved a full Earth orbit, and concealing the fact that Vostok 1 was not equipped with soft-landing capability, which meant the cosmonaut had to eject from his capsule and land under parachutes. True, after rocketing eastward Gagarin landed, 108 minutes later, just over one thousand miles west of his launch point in Kazakhstan. And true, he landed sans capsule under parachutes in a potato field (reportedly asking an astonished babushka for directions to the nearest town). The circumference of Earth is about 25,000 miles. Having landed safely, Gagarin was indeed about 4 percent short of a full orbit. Under the circumstances, it would seem churlish to deny him the distinction of being the first to orbit Earth, whatever the usual Soviet penchant for secrecy and obfuscation. Recall that the first US astronaut, Alan Shepard, flew an indisputably suborbital trajectory in his Freedom 7 capsule in May of 1961—a fifteen-minute flight that took him only about three hundred miles from his launch point. That’s 1.2 percent of an orbit. Who’s scrappy but underfunded in this scenario?

Lying behind these Soviet accomplishments was the work of the then mysterious chief designer, Sergey Korolev, the Russian counterpart to Wernher von Braun—a historic figure entirely absent from Mr. Gleick’s piece, perhaps because the USSR ultimately failed to land cosmonauts on the moon. Still, it’s a puzzling omission, given that Korolev’s R-7 rocket lofted both Sputnik and Gagarin, thus inaugurating robotic and crewed spaceflight as genres of human activity. A later Soviet rocket, the Proton, served to transport the first remote-controlled robotic rover, Lunokhod-1, to the lunar surface in 1970. Designed to work for three months, the rover explored Mare Imbrium for 321 days. As highlighted in historian Asif Siddiqi’s invaluable The Red Rockets’ Glare (2014), Korolev and his counterparts in the Soviet equivalent of the pre-war German Society for Space Travel (called GIRD, or the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion) conducted numerous successful experiments with liquid-fueled rocketry throughout the 1930s.

The USSR, it seems, had less need of a Wernher von Braun because it had its own homegrown talent—even if, with typical myopic brutality, Stalin had attempted to kill off Korolev and many of his colleagues in the Gulag just prior to the war. To this day, a variant of the R-7 is used to launch all Russian-crewed missions—meaning it’s currently also the only way for US astronauts to reach the International Space Station, because ever since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has been forced to license rides in Russian capsules for its crewed missions. This is not to deny that von Braun’s V-2 served to “jump-start” both the US and Soviet rocketry programs, in Mr. Gleick’s phrase.

Michael Benson
Ottawa, Ontario