Saturday, June 1, 2024

The Great Aluminum Foil

"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...."

The above was a response to my posting from June 7th, 2016, "Yes, Russia Did Win the Space Race. And How!" The comment prompted me to respond with some details. Rereading it a few days ago prompted me to do a minor edit and repost....

There is some truth to what you state.

The issue is much too complicated for summation through a few simple paragraphs.

But try, I shall.

The USSR's rocket scientists and engineers too went for "tech", but Soviet industry was not always up for the challenge. For instance, in the 1960s the thickest gauge of sheet aluminum that the Republic could produce 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 internal 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.

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.)

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