Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

When the Soviets held superiority in space

Bob recounts his visit to some of the sites of the early Soviet space program.

Bob recounts his visit to some of the sites of the early Soviet space program

Bob McDonald with Yuri Gagarin's capsule at the Energia museum outside of Moscow (Bob McDonald)

This week, Quirks & Quarks is exploring the adventures of young scientists working in exotic places over the summer. I had my own exotic adventure during my vacation, with a visit to some of the important sites in the Russian space program. It was kind of a trip back in time to when space technology developed behind the Iron Curtain was the best in the world.

During the Cold War of the late 1950s and 60s, the former Soviet Union and the Americans were engaged in a competitive race to develop new weapons of mass destruction: rockets that would become intercontinental ballistic missiles.

That race ultimately led to landing men on the moon.

While on this side of the Atlantic, we hear a great deal about how the Americans won that space race, if you visit Russia today, you can see how close that race was. Certainly, at the beginning, Soviet technology was way ahead.

Just outside of Moscow is the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, also known as Star City, which, during its early days, was not even on the map. Thousands of people worked and lived there, and cosmonauts like Yuri Gagarin used simulators and other equipment to train for their trips to space. Gagarin, of course, became the first human to orbit the Earth in 1961.

Today, the 1960s style buildings are much the same, but that Cold War competition has evolved into international co-operation.  Astronauts from the U.S., Europe and Canada, still go to Star City to learn how to fly the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which is currently the only way to reach the International Space Station. Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jaques is training there now for his first flight in next December.
Bob with a Soyuz spacecraft simulator at the Cosmonaut Training Centre outside of Moscow (Bob McDonald)

'60s era technology is tough and reliable

The remarkable aspect of the Russian technology is how little it has changed in more than half a century of spaceflight. They got it right the first time, and the Russian philosophy is that if it isn't broke, don't fix it. The Russian rockets that fly today are updated — they're bigger and use modern electronics. Essentially, though, they're using the same basic technology from the '60s and so passengers ride in capsules that are not that different from those used by the first pioneers.

Also just outside of Moscow is the Energia Corporation, where the spacecraft are built. A remarkable museum on-site has the actual capsules flown by Yuri Gagarin on his first human flight; Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space; and Alexei Leonov, who conducted the first space walk. Each of these achievements was a world first — well ahead of the Americans — and so were used as powerful propaganda tools to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet technology.

I also visited the newly renovated Cosmos Pavilion, a cavernous structure located within an enormous park in Moscow dedicated to the technical achievements of the Soviet Union. It shows off even more early space technology, including an example of the Vostok rocket that carried the first satellites and humans into space.
A Vostok rocket at the Cosmos Pavilion in Moscow (Bob McDonald)

The multi-engined beast was larger and more powerful than anything the Americans had. It was not until the Soviet spacecraft it launched started passing over the United States that U.S. politicians began pouring enormous amounts of money into developing larger and more capable rockets for their space program.

When the Soviets started to stumble 

Soviet rocket technology hit the wall with the massive N-1 rocket, which was the key to the secret Soviet moon program. It was meant to rival the mighty American Saturn 5. Development of the N-1, though, was where the space race started to unravel for the Soviets.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pushed his scientists to get the giant rocket off the ground as soon as possible, and they paid the price for their haste. The rocket wasn't adequately tested. Only four of them flew, and all four exploded, including one that destroyed the launch pad. Of course, at the time, all of this was kept secret because the Soviets only publicized their successes, not their failures.

That wasn't the end of the Soviet innovation in space, though. Even as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were making the first human footsteps on the moon in 1969, a Soviet robotic spacecraft called Luna 15 was attempting to land on the lunar surface. It was meant to bring a lunar sample back to Earth, before the Americans returned, to show that the Soviets didn't really need to send people. Unfortunately the mission failed, as Luna 15 crashed on descent.

Soviet space technology has often been portrayed as primitive, but it was ahead of its time in the beginning, with a string of firsts that included not only Sputnik, the first satellite, and Gagarin, the first human in space, but also the first probes to the moon, Venus and Mars.

The Americans have reinvented their space program several times, starting with one-man capsules, then new technology to land on the moon, then space shuttles, all at tremendous cost. Russian rockets have continued to fly without major changes, just incremental improvements along the way, making them the most reliable spacecraft ever built.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.


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