Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Yes, Russia Did Win the Space Race. And How!

Tonight on Ontario's superlative television network, "TVOntario", plays 'part one' of the fine BBC documentary film Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race.

That great race to the island in the sky was won clearly by the USA, leaving the USSR in Earth orbit.


The contest itself was not only of note but of one note.

The Soviets were never serious about the affair. I won't go into a political history lesson here, but suffice to say, where the Americans hit the moon several times their opposition stayed in town, so to speak, establishing an outpost around Earth in the form of the Salyut (and later, Mir) space stations. On these platforms they learned about human physiology in weightlessness and conducted numerous scientific experiments.

From the Soviet Union's "feigned" moon attempt sprouted the outstanding Soyuz spacecraft, modified versions of which ferry men/women and supplies to the International Space Station today. (This space cadet considers the Soyuz "system" to be one of the great man-made machines.)

Throughout the 1960s the game became the moon: the ice hockey net; the basketball hoop; the goal line and the uprights. Easy to say in hindsight, yes, but there was a whole field to be played.

There's so much more to the story.

Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race
Tonight at 10 p.m. on TVOntario


Tibor said...

I've often wondered about the 2 distinct philosophies to space tech between the two superpowers. The US always seemed to be gunning for more and more complex systems of tech and machinery and the USSR seemed to be more leaning towards "good enough". I think they still use rocket tech that's over 40 years old. Hmmmm....

Simon St. Laurent said...

There is some truth to what you state.

The USSR's rocket scientists and engineers too went for "tech" but Soviet industry was not always up for the challenge. For instance, the thickest gauge that sheet aluminum could be produced at in the 1960s was 13mm, causing major problems for their moonshot heavy-lift rocket, the N-1. (This deficit meant that the skin of the rocket could not be used as an integral part of the fuel tank; separate tanks had to be made, adding to the overall tonnage.) The completed assembly came in seriously overweight, which was a contributing problem for the space engineers in their attempt to deliver a substantial enough moon-landing vehicle.

I won't get into a history piece here, for the issue is much too complicated for summation through a simple paragraph.

The R-7 "Soyuz" rocket's ancestry can be traced back to the 1950s, but, of course, the booster and the Soyuz spacecraft itself have been modified many times since then. Yes, it works; wonderfully, dependably well.

The "open market" of the United States of America -- and much of the West -- definitely encourages great leaps in scientific and technological progress, but it is a myth that the engineers under the Soviet system were somehow backwards, unambitious, and perhaps best suited for reorienting bowling pins produced over the Ural Mountains.

Stone knives and bearskins, not.

You may be right when you say "good enough". Over-engineering is not optimal: the US space shuttle -- in hindsight a machine that was too complex, leading to a ridiculously expensive and often unwieldy program. Hard to believe, in a way, that the space shuttle is now history. (History won't be kind to the US space shuttle program, unfortunately.)