Space race: From orbit to the moon

In the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a fierce battle to become the world’s leading space power. Countless books and memoirs (mostly contradictory) have been written on the space race’s tortuous beginnings, but without understanding the spirit of the times and the limits of what was considered possible then, it is impossible to grasp the significance of the first manned spaceflight and all that it has led to. 

It was in the late 1940s that scientists began to seriously contemplate the possibility of using rockets to venture beyond the earth’s atmosphere. During the 1950s, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union conducted suborbital flights to gain experience in flight and telemetry and to study the upper atmosphere.

Between 1954 and 1956, the Soviet rocket designer Sergei Korolev developed a series of projects for manned rocket launches, which he claimed were sure to succeed. Meanwhile, the U.S. was occupied with low-intensity suborbital launches. The Soviet Union had a chance to leap ahead in the space race, and the Soviet leadership took the risk.

The magnificent R-7

The first major step toward launching a spacecraft into orbit came on August 21, 1957. After many mishaps, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile R-7 lifted off from a test facility in Tyuratam (later Baikonur) and fulfilled its flight path. 

Ill suited for use in combat due to its vulnerability during launch preparations, fuelling problems and low accuracy, R-7 proved valuable to the Soviet space program. The USSR now had a tool to win supremacy in space.

The race intensified. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union used the rocket to launch the first man-made satellite, Sputnik. Ordinary Americans were shocked. (The famous American writer, Stephen King, has written about his childhood impressions of the launch.) The Soviets sent Sputnik into orbit, they wondered, and how about us?

It was the triumph of Sputnik that forced the U.S. administration to join the space race in earnest. Latecomers usually make little impact. Few can now remember the date the United States launched its first satellite Explorer-1 (February 1, 1958). But it was a red-letter day for Wernher von Braun, the general designer of the Third Reich’s rocket systems, the man who developed Germany’s V-1 and V-2 “vengeance weapons.” At the same time, the U.S. administration launched the Mercury program in a bid to speed up U.S. efforts toward a manned orbital flight.

But time was running out. In 1959, the USSR set its sights on the moon: first, Luna-1 flew by it (January 2) and then Luna-2 made a hard landing (September 13). By 1960, work was underway at Tyuratam to send a human into orbit on the Vostok spacecraft.

On August 19, 1960, Sputnik-5 returned to earth with the dogs Belka and Strelka inside. It was the first time a living creature returned after being launched into orbit. On January 31, 1961, the chimpanzee Ham made a suborbital flight under the Mercury-Redstone program. The superpowers were now going toe-to-toe in the fight to send the first cosmonaut into orbit. The Americans, however, were the runners-up.

“Two more successful launches and then a man,” Korolev said firmly. His talent as a manager was unique: his decisions, however unconventional, always proved right in the end. The tests of the Vostok spacecraft on March 9 and 25, 1961, went according to schedule. But between these flights, tragedy struck the Soviet cosmonaut team: on March 23, Valentin Bondarenko, a cosmonaut-in-training, burned up in a pressure chamber during a practice session.

On April 12, 1961, Yury Gagarin became the first man in space in a spacecraft with a 50% chance of success. “We just could not see all the risks involved,” Boris Chertok, one of Korolev’s assistants, said later. “Today no chief designer would have given the go-ahead to such a spacecraft.”

A weak reply

On May 5, 1961, the U.S. Mercury-Redstone program finally delivered, but it was too late and the results were too unspectacular to grab the headlines. The Mercury-3 capsule with Alan Shepard on board just scraped the boundaries of outer space, reaching an altitude of only 186 kilometres. The U.S. press for years afterwards tried to tout Shepard as the first astronaut, but a fifteen-minute suborbital flight is nothing compared the Gagarin’s true orbit flight. And besides, Gagarin and the Soviets got there three weeks earlier. In Western countries, space enthusiasts have been celebrating “Yury’s Night” (the equivalent of Russian Cosmonautics Day) since 2001.

On July 21, 1961, Virgil Grissom repeated the flight on Mercury-4. But the first real U.S. orbital flight came on February 20, 1962 when John Glenn spent nearly five hours in orbit.

Meanwhile, the Soviet space effort – fueled by Korolev’s ambition, Soviet engineers’ tireless efforts and Gagarin’s triumph – soldiered on. August 11, 1962 saw the formation flight of Vostok-3 and Vostok-4. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova flew a mission. On March 18, 1965, Alexei Leonov performed the first space walk.

The Americans, meanwhile, were plodding along, making progress slowly but surely. The Gemini program was already preparing astronauts and designers for the great leap looming on the horizon. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy set for America the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely home before the end of the decade.

To the moon!

The Americans had the Apollo program, and the Soviets had Zond. The question was, who will get there first? The Soviet Union was clearly winning the race. Korolev’s team was preparing plans for missions to the moon and Mars.

But on January 14, 1966, Korolev died, and the Soviet space program stalled. Vasily Mishin, who replaced him, did not have Korolev’s ability to weigh the risks based on unerring instincts and a deep understanding of rocketry. Nor was he able to handle the growing conflicts between production men and designers, while at the same time withstanding the pressure of the military and politicians.

As some Russian historians of the Soviet space program have said, the Soviet program stood still throughout 1966. In contrast, von Braun’s team in the U.S. pushed forward.

Of course, the Americans also suffered setbacks. In January 1967, a fire swept through Apollo-1 as its crew was conducting pre-lunch training. It was a grim reminder of the accident that killed Valentin Bondarenko. Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee sacrificed their lives for the U.S. moon program.

In the same year, on April 24, Vladimir Komarov was killed when his Soyuz-1 descent module crashed in the Orenburg steppe. Shortly before, a crewless Soyuz-7K-L1 – a two-seater spacecraft intended for a manned flight around the moon under the Zond program – made its first (and abortive) launch. A group of cosmonauts led by Alexei Leonov, whose goal was to fly to the moon, began to be formed.

Zond spacecraft flew abominably. Delays abounded. On March 2, 1968, Zond-4 self-destructed over the Gulf of Guinea during reentry. This incident was later transformed into the myth that Yury Gagarin was killed in the accident, and that the air crash that was supposed to have killed him on March 27, 1968 was a cover-up.   

On October 11, 1968, Walter Schirra was sent into orbit aboard Apollo-7. The Apollo program had clearly recovered following the death of Grissom’s crew. On December 8, 1968, the Soviet Union decided, after initial hesitation, to launch a manned mission to the moon. But malfunctions in the Proton carrier rocket delayed the launch. On December 21, 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lowell and William Anders left on Apollo-8 for the first manned survey of the moon. On January 20, 1969, the next test flight of Soyuz 7K-L1 ended in disaster when the second-stage engine failed to fire. Fortunately, there was no crew onboard.

In February 1969, the Soviet Union for the first time tested the Zond spacecraft on a heavy N-1 carrier rocket. A monster of Soviet rocket engineering, the N-1 had a long list of shortcomings. The first launch ended after 69 seconds due to the failure of a booster rocket. Later, Alexei Leonov, head of the moon team, said the Soviet Union could have been the first to circle the moon with a human crew. But, with Soviet technology being what it was at the time, any landing would have ended in disaster.

On June 3, 1969, another N-1 launch vehicle exploded, destroying the launch facility and yet another program for an unmanned flight around the moon.

On July 24, 1969, Apollo-11’s landing module Eagle touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong struggled through his prepared speech (in his excitement he misspoke, dropping the indefinite article before the word “man”), and jumped down onto the soft soil, which resembled wet sand. The space race was over.

Apollo 11 was the culmination of years of work, which cost huge amounts of money and the lives of several astronauts. The superpowers, who pushed each other to such great heights in the 1950s and 1960s, went their separate ways and continued to build upon their successes.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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