beating the soviets
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The Soviet Union's space technology was clearly superior to the United States. How are we supposed to believe the United States caught up and seriously surpassed the Soviets?

Conspiracists focus on the late 1950s and early 1960s when comparing U.S. and Soviet space technology. They ignore the middle and late 1960s when the Soviets clearly faltered and the U.S. made some key advances. According to the Encyclopedia Astronautica, the U.S. had accumulated 1,864 hours in space prior to Apollo 11 compared to the Soviet Union's 697 hours at the completion of Soyuz 5 (the last Soviet mission prior to Apollo 11).

Let's examine Bart Sibrel's "important milestones" reached first by the Soviets.

First manmade satellite in orbit. While Sputnik clearly preceded Explorer I, the technology gap was not so wide as the political gap. Wernher von Braun and his team had already developed the Jupiter rocket for the U.S. Army. The Jupiter was an extension of von Braun's V2/A4 rocket developed for the Nazis, and there was quite a lot of opposition to using it to launch America's first satellite. And so it fell to the Navy Vanguard rocket, which was not yet up to such a task but had the political advantage of having been built exclusively by Americans. When Explorer I was launched, it was launched on a Jupiter rocket which had been ready in the wings for more than a year. It's not that the U.S. didn't have a suitable booster -- they were just reluctant to use it.

First man in space. Quite true. The Soviets had a clear advantage in their heavy-lift booster which the U.S. at the time couldn't match. But it was not always to be that way.

First man to orbit the earth. Since this and the previous feat were accomplished by the same Soviet feat, we could complain that Sibrel is padding his list. But we'll see that Sibrel pads it gratuitously later. We see a legitimate distinction between merely getting to space and getting to orbit.

Recently the Soviets have admitted that Yuri Gagarin ejected from his Vostok capsule before it landed. Under the rules by which the U.S. and USSR agreed to compete in setting space records, this invalidated Gagarin's claim. No wonder the Soviets waited nearly forty years to tell that part of the story. According to the rules the pilot was to remain with the craft until it landed. We praise Gagarin's daring flight and feel he should be afforded the historical position of first human to orbit the earth. It is not our aim to be petty-minded. But this is a discussion of technology. Why couldn't Gagarin have landed with his spacecraft? Because its soft-landing mechanism didn't function. The Soviets rushed Gagarin into orbit in an unsafe, uncompleted spacecraft. The U.S. Mercury spacecraft was fully capable of landing with its pilot, so even though it carried John Glenn into orbit some time later than Gagarin, the Mercury capsule was demonstrated to be technologically superior to the Vostok.

First woman in space. There is absolutely no technological advantage to this. Score one for equal rights, but it doesn't belong on a list of "important milestones" for advancing rocket technology.

First crew of three astronauts on board one spacecraft. This would be a good example if the Soviets hadn't simply stuffed a third man into their two-man capsule just to set the record. To make room for the third cosmonaut, they had to take away the crew's space suits and remove other safety equipment. Although the Apollo capsule came a bit later than the Soviet Vokhshod, it was designed for three people and was superior technology.

First space walk. As with the three-man crew, this feat was achieved only at great risk. A makeshift airlock was attached to the capsule (since only one of the astronauts could wear a space suit). Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was initially unable to squeeze back into the airlock after his spacewalk and got inside only by deflating his suit almost to flaccidity.

First two orbiting spacecraft rendezvous. This is simply false. The Soviets staged a facsimile of a rendezvous by carefully timing the launch of a second spacecraft to place it in an orbit to pass very close to the first. This is not a rendezvous as astrodynamicists define the term. A rendezvous is the ability to alter one's orbit to meet and dock with a second spacecraft, regardless of initial conditions. The Soviet spacecraft never got closer than a few miles to each other and had no ability to alter their orbits.

The first bona fide rendezvous occurred on the Gemini 6/7 mission where the spacecraft actually maneuvered to within a few feet of each other. The Gemini program perfected the art of rendezvous with manned and unmanned spacecraft. It also set records for endurance, for altitude, for spacewalk duration, launch turnaround, and other important records. These records, however, were not the glamorous ones and so they don't attract a lot of casual historical attention. But in terms of preparing the American space program for a landing on the moon they were vital. By 1967 these early Soviet records were no longer relevant.

The ability to set records is not equivalent to the ability to create lasting, working technology. And that's why the Soviet space program eventually fizzled. They were trying to set records, while the United States was trying to get to the moon.


After America's initial failure to launch a small, softball-sized satellite on a Vanguard rocket, Nikita Khrushchev quipped in the United Nations that the Soviets would be glad to offer the United States help in launching its "little grapefruit" under their program to assist developing countries. That statement is a lot less amusing now that we've seen the inside of the Soviet space program at the time.

If Kennedy viewed Apollo as primarily a political tool, Khrushchev viewed the Soviet space program as a political weapon. He constantly angered his scientists, engineers, and cosmonauts with demands for foolhardy stunts in unproven technology. Some historians cite this obsession with firstmanship in space as a key factor in his removal from power.

Under Premier Leonid Brezhnev the space program was relegated to a more sedate and productive pace. But a number of high-profile fatal accidents persuaded Brezhnev to stipulate that no manned space flight would be undertaken until the same mission had been performed by a fully-automated spacecraft. This was the death knell to the Soviet plans to reach the moon. Weakened by the early grandstanding and hobbled by the safety constraints, the Soviet space program could not build an automated lunar lander in time.

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