Shadows of the Soviet Space Age

By Paul Lucas

I thought I'd start off the ESSAYS section with an article I wrote that originally appeared in the ezine Strange Horizons on 3 May 2004. According to Google, its my most popular article written to date.

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We all know of the triumphs and tragedies of America's long and proud history of space exploration. NASA's strides and stumbles on behalf of all mankind have been reported extensively on TV, debated endlessly in newspapers, and hallowed in our school textbooks as legends in the making.

But people sometimes forget that there was another great space program of the last century, one that had an early lead, and one that some say accomplished more for manned space exploration with its low-tech, workhorse approach than NASA ever did with all its PR-hungry high-tech spectacles. The Soviet Union was, without a doubt, an autocratic, ruthless, and corrupt society . . . and yet they beat the US into space and challenged NASA every step of the way until the USSR's collapse in 1991.

This article is not a complete history of the Soviet space program. Rather, it shines a light onto some of the obscure episodes of the Soviet space program that were either quickly forgotten in the West, or never known of until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Context

The Soviet Union was based on a planned economy, meaning that its resources were allocated by a central economic planning bureau, working according to 5-year plans drawn up by the government. For military projects, with which the space program was inexorably intertwined, this was done in overlapping ten year increments, namely a five year planning stage followed by a five year implementation stage. The Soviet space program went through a total of three technological "eras": the first stage of Sputnik and Gagarin that lasted through the '60s; a second stage that began in the '70s and led, most famously, to the Mir space stations; and a third stage that had to be drastically altered to match the Americans' so-called "Star Wars" SDI initiative and that consequently never made it off the ground before the USSR's dissolution.

The history of the Soviet space program is also the history of the militarization of space. Peaceful exploration was never considered a viable option in the early days, and later they pursued scientific and propaganda agendas only to match the Americans' efforts in that arena. Sputniks were designed as military reconnaissance satellites; the Salyut space stations were spy platforms; Mir was to be transformed in the wake of SDI into a weapons testing facility. Early plans called for "global" missile systems, basically orbiting nuclear weapons that could be directed to any target on Earth within hours, as well as manned space battle stations and orbital ballistic missile defenses. The Soviets weren't alone in their vision for the complete militarization of space, as the US had the same Cold War dream, but the USSR held a much more unified vision early on about how to go about achieving it.

In the Beginning, A Dreamer

Inspiration for Soviet space efforts can be traced directly back to a single visionary. The spiritual father of Soviet spaceflight was K.E. Tsiolkovskii (1857-1935), a mathematics professor, researcher, and popular science writer. He became enamored with rocketry at a young age and pursued studies and research into the possibility of space flight until his death at age 78. Independently of western scientists, he laid out many of the principles of modern spaceflight, including orbital mechanics, multistage rockets, the nature of microgravity conditions, and the possibility of space stations and interplanetary travel. He inspired generations of Soviet rocketeers that came afterward, and became that space program's patriarchal figure.

From Labor Camps to Space Giants

The three most significant of Tsiolkovskii's heirs proved to be S.P. Korolev, V.P. Glushko, and M.K. Tikhonravov. During the purges of the late 1930s, they, like many hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of Soviet citizens, ended up in prisons and work camps. In 1938, Korolev and Glushko were arrested and sentenced to hard labor. Then, some time before October 1939, Korolev was sent to work in the notorious Kolyma gold mines, a sentence few survived.

However, the disastrous consequences of the German invasion of June, 1941 forced Stalin to release these talented scientists into less harsh prison design camps. After Germany's defeat, both the Soviets and the Americans scrambled to confiscate their former foe's far-superior V-2 rocket technology, as well as to snatch up any rocket scientists they could get their hands on. Korolev, Glushko, Tikhonravov, and their teams were assigned not only to puzzle out the secrets of German technology, but also to improve it. A number of their protéges went on to develop the first generation of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As the USSR came to depend on their brilliance, these rocket engineers gained a relative degree of freedom, and their influence grew steadily. Rivalries soon developed among the "Chief Designers," as they were called, each seeking funding, manpower, and glory for their own projects. The most significant of these rivalries was between Korolev and V.N. Chelomei. Korolev spearheaded the Sputnik projects, and used his success to garner support for his projects for the Vostok booster and manned spaceflight.

Chelomei, however, had the foresight to hire Khrushchev's son, Sergei, for his design bureau, which was dedicated to developing cruise and ballistic missiles. As a result, Chelomei became Khrushchev's favored designer and was awarded the oversight of the development of a number of military missile and space projects, including the missile system that shot down Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane in 1960. Chelomei spent a great deal of his career trying to usurp Korolev's patriarchal prominence in space exploration.

Glushko, meanwhile, was also developing military missile systems, and found great favor with the Red Army by actually giving them the types of missiles they wanted. As military rocket applications were often given higher priority than space exploration, he found himself butting heads with both Korolev and Chelomei several times.

Korolev died of cancer in early 1966; up to this time, his identity had been a closely-held state secret. However, upon his death, this former prisoner of the gulag was lionized by the Soviet press for his successes in overseeing the Soviet Union's early lead in the space race. The other Chief Designers, while eventually recognized and honored for their achievements, never attained the leading place in Soviet legend that Korolev had.

Early Casualties

Statistically, space exploration's most dangerous profession is not astronaut or test pilot, but rather working the launch pad. On October 24, 1960, the Soviet Union suffered a catastrophic launch-pad explosion as a relatively minor oversight turned a space vehicle into a massive chemical bomb.

At the Baikonur Space Center in Central Asia (now part of Kazakhstan), in an incident referred to as the Nedelin Catastrophe, the second stage on an experimental R-16 ICBM accidentally ignited on the launch pad. Basically, this was the equivalent of pointing a fifty-foot blowtorch right at the fuel tank of the first stage, and the entire rocket detonated. Because of the decades-long cover-up of this incident by the Soviet government, not brought to light until the 1990s, the precise number of casualties remains unknown to this day. Sources quote figures ranging from 54 to over 200.

The cause was later determined to be a poorly designed second-stage control system which lacked sufficient on-pad safeguards. In the press for more propaganda victories in the wake of Sputnik, many safety regulations were completely ignored in order to speed up production of the rocket design.

The Airbrushed Cosmonauts

G.G. Nelyubov was a young and very promising cosmonaut trainee, thought by many to be sure to pilot the second or third manned mission into space after Yuri Gagarin's trail-blazing flight. He was also, by many accounts, brash and egotistical, not necessarily unusual characteristics for a talented young fighter pilot.

However, in late 1961, he and two other cosmonaut trainees were returning from weekend liberty when they ended up in a fight with members of a local army patrol. They were arrested and placed under guard in the station duty officer's office. When it was discovered that they were cosmonauts, the military officials were willing to forget the incident, as long as the cosmonauts apologized to the members of the army patrol they fought. His companions readily agreed, but Nelyubov haughtily and angrily refused.

The army officer, incensed at Nelyubov's attitude, filed his report to the cosmonaut corps commander, N.P. Kamanin, a fierce air force veteran. Kamanin was outraged by Nelyubov's public irresponsibility, and promptly kicked all three trainees out of the program. The other cosmonauts in the program vigorously protested the dismissal of Nelyubov's companions, but they made it clear that Nelyubov himself wouldn't be missed.

Nelyubov was assigned to fighter interceptor duty in Siberia, and because the earlier incident had been suppressed, and his official records altered lest he besmirch the heroic image of the cosmonaut program, few there believed he had once been a cosmonaut. As he watched more and more of his former peers go into orbit, he descended into depression and alcoholism. In 1966, while reportedly in a drunken stupor, he walked in front of a train near the Ippolitovka station, northwest of Vladivostok.

The cover-up of Nelyubov's incident even went so far as to airbrush his image out of the famous "Sochi Six" photo which showed the top members of the original class of Soviet cosmonauts. However, unaltered versions of this photo showed up decades later, and the truth eventually came to light.

Other doctored photos and evidence of "missing cosmonauts" caused endless speculation among Soviet experts in the West. Wild rumors of KGB machinations, covert murders, or dead cosmonaut corpses still in orbit after secret space missions abounded. But the truth was that the Soviet hierarchy had simply wanted to maintain its fiction of a flawless cosmonaut corps; it turned out most of the other "airbrushed" cosmonauts had left or been dismissed from the program for mundane reasons.

Except for one: Valentin Bondarenko.

"Too Much Pain . . . Do Something, Please"

V.V. Bondarenko was the youngest of the Soviet Union's original cosmonaut cadre, only 24 in 1961. He was also its first -- and most tragic -- casualty.

On March 23, 1961, during a routine week-long isolation exercise in a pressure chamber, Bondarenko accidentally dropped alcohol-soaked cotton onto an electrical hot plate. In another environment, it would have been an embarrassing but harmless enough mistake. But the pressure chamber had an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and what would have been a small fire under normal conditions instead exploded and filled the entire chamber.

In such high-oxygen environments, usually nonflammable materials can burn, and Bondarenko's normally fire-proof training suit caught fire. Unaccustomed to dealing with high-oxygen fires, every effort he made to extinguish the flames proved futile.

Bondarenko was brought to a nearby trauma center, barely alive and in great pain. The doctor who treated him saw his mouth moving and bent down to hear the tortured patient mutter, "too much pain -- do something, please -- to kill the pain." The only place Bondarenko wasn't burned was the soles of his feet, thanks to his thick, tough boot soles. It was also the only place where doctors could try to attach an IV, as there were no other intact blood vessels anywhere else on the surface of his body.

Mercifully, Bondarenko died within a few hours of being brought to the hospital. His death was covered up and kept secret for decades, however, until it finally was brought back into the light in 1986, as a result of Gorbachev's glasnost' policy. Bondarenko was survived by a wife, and a young son who grew up to become a distinguished air force officer.

Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee also died in a sealed-chamber, high-oxygen fire in January, 1967. Some have speculated that had Bondarenko's death not been kept secret, the details of his mishap might have prevented this later tragedy.

Yuri Gagarin's Reentry Adventure

Yuri Gagarin was the first human being in space. His name will be remembered throughout history. Yet his return to Earth after his monumental flight was witnessed only by a tractor driver, two schoolgirls, and a few cows.

The Vostok 1 which carried Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, had one very serious design flaw: a parachute-assisted landing of the reentry vehicle would be too violent for a cosmonaut to survive. Instead, Gagarin had to eject from the capsule at an altitude of 7 km and parachute to the ground. To make matters worse, his ejection system didn't kick in right away, and he spent some time in a wild spin before he was able to get clear. However, this harrowing parachute descent was kept secret for years, as the International Aeronautical Federation would not have considered his flight a world record unless he had stayed inside his vehicle until it had landed.

According to a popular but never officially confirmed story, recently recounted in Pravda, Soviet officials only knew the general area Gagarin would be landing in, but not the precise spot. Secrecy being what it was, they failed to inform many members of the local military about what might be happening in their own backyard. So, soon after the cosmonaut landed in a farmer's field, a military vehicle zoomed up, soldiers from a nearby army base approached him, and demanded to see his identification. Apparently the year before a spy plane had been brought down close by, and the personnel at the base wanted to make sure Gagarin was not another foreign infiltrator.

Because the military base and its nearby munitions factory seemed to be an inappropriate backdrop for the first pictures of Vostok 1's return to Earth, the "official" landing site of Gagarin's flight was relocated to a more PR-friendly location before the press and television cameras were brought in. Gagarin's parachute had long since been removed from sight.

Cat and Mouse and ASATs

ASAT stands for Anti-SATellite, and represents a system designed to hunt down and destroy enemy spacecraft in orbit. ASAT systems made headlines in the 1980s when a number of systems were proposed, and a few tested, in parallel to Reagan's controversial SDI program (see below).

However, ASAT systems were researched and deployed as far back as the 1960s, but because of the secrecy both sides placed on such a vital defense project, the general public was largely unaware of them. As a matter of fact, the US test-launched its first anti-satellite weapon as far back as 1959, when a rocket launched from a B-47 aircraft attempted to shoot down the orbiting Explorer 4. It missed by 6 km, and subsequent tests were not much more successful.

The USSR successfully tested its first ASAT system in 1963, using a much different concept than the Americans' air-launched missiles. The IS-A, or Istrebitel' Sputnikov (fighter satellite), was basically a kamikaze device, designed to maneuver close to an enemy craft after a few orbits and then blow itself up, throwing out a cloud of high-velocity shrapnel that would disable the nearby enemy satellite.

However, after the first two tests of this system, politics threw the project into turmoil. The ASAT program was under the wing of Chelomei's design bureau, but when Khrushchev was forced out of power in 1964, Chelomei lost his most influential patron in the Soviet hierarchy. The various sections of the ASAT project were reassigned and delayed, and test launches did not resume until four years later, this time with a much different design.

The new tests proved somewhat successful, and the Red Army adopted the ASAT technology as an official armament system in 1972. Some improvements to the system were made in 1976, but by the mid-1980s, the IS-A system was retired as technically obsolete. There is some indication that by that time the Soviets had developed air-launched ASAT missiles, and that the Russian Army sold such armaments commercially in the 1990s, but the relevant documentation remains classified.

What's most interesting to note about the Soviet IS-A project is the deliberate subterfuge the Red Army used to mislead Western observers into thinking that the system was more unreliable than it actually was. The ASAT vehicles did not always have to destroy its target for the test to be successful; after the optimal shrapnel patterns for the explosions were achieved, the designers saw little reason to detonate them and create potentially hazardous space debris. What they did, instead, was blow the ASATs up far from their targets after the true test was over, or deorbit them with no detonation. Many observers in the West wrongfully concluded from these "misses" that the IS-A system was much more faulty than it actually was. About half of the actual successes of the IS-A tests were discounted by NATO as failures, and it's just as well the West never had to find out the hard way how effective the system actually was.

The Martyrs

Some tragedies in space the Soviets could not cover up. The first public casualty of the cosmonaut program was V.M. Komarov, who died in 1967 after the parachute on his Soyuz 1 spacecraft failed to deploy during final descent.

What's not publicly known was that Soviet officials knew that the then-new Soyuz capsule was still some distance from being designated as fully flight ready. Problems still remained not only with the parachute, but also with the heat shield, thermal control, attitude jets, and system coordination. However, the Kremlin was anxious for a propaganda victory at a time when its space lead was slipping to the Americans, and ignoring the lessons of the 1960 Nedelin Catastrophe, ordered the launch over the protests of the project's Chief Designer, V.P. Mishin.

In 1971, the three crewmembers of the Soyuz 11 mission, G.T. Dobrovolskii, V.I. Patsaev, and V.N. Volkov, died when their reentry capsule depressurized shortly after undocking from the space station Salyut 1. Their deaths were not discovered until after until the capsule had landed on automatic pilot. All four cosmonauts involved in these tragedies were near-deified in public by the Soviet hierarchy.

Pulling 20 Gs

In 1975, Pilot V.G. Lazarev and flight engineer O.G. Makarov encountered a harrowing problem shortly after lift-off: the explosive bolts meant to separate the second and third stage of their rocket did not blow. Later investigation of the incident showed simple miswiring had been at fault.

However, this meant disaster for the mission, and for the first time ever a manned space mission had to be aborted during launch. Their capsule separated from the rest of the vehicle, and the two men had to endure a grueling 20 G deceleration. For comparison, fighter pilots, who routinely pull high Gs, invariably pass out at 9 Gs. For a few brief moments, both cosmonauts' bodies weighed well over a ton. After this, they had to suffer through a brutal reentry and a bouncing descent down a mountainside.

To make matters worse, the capsule came down across the Mongolian border, and Soviet personnel had to risk an international incident by crossing over to retrieve the men and their spacecraft. Miraculously, both cosmonauts survived, and were recovered from Mongolian territory without anyone outside the USSR being the wiser.

Another Disatrous Explosion

On March 18, 1980, 48 technicians died at Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome when a Vostok booster exploded while being fueled. An investigation later revealed that the substitution of lead-based for tin-based solder in hydrogen peroxide filters had resulted in the breakdown of the hydrogen peroxide and the resulting explosion. The incident was reported to the general public only in 1989, almost ten years later, in the era of glasnost'.

The SDI Shuffle

In late 1982 Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, approached President Reagan with a plan to build desk-sized x-ray lasers within five years that could be deployed in orbit to shoot down incoming enemy ICBMs. Reagan was so impressed by Teller's proposals that he initiated a massive research effort into orbital anti-ballistic missile defenses within a year, culminating in his March 1983 "Star Wars" speech. This research effort eventually encompassed not just x-ray lasers, but a wide variety of directed energy and antiballistic missile technology, and became known collectively as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI.

The Reagan administration bought wholly into Teller's scheme, and poured billions into SDI projects. And because the Americans took it so seriously, so did the Soviets. Both the USSR and the USA had been secretly conducting research into directed energy weapons such as charged particle beams and lasers for years, and anti-ballistic missiles were a proven, if still primitive, technology. With a massive push in research, manpower, and money, it did not seem infeasible that the needed breakthroughs could be managed by the end of the decade.

By this time the Soviet space program had more or less achieved parity with its American counterpart. The Americans had peaked with Apollo, but then cut back massively; the Soviets, playing the tortoise to NASA's hare, had continued to plod on slowly but inexorably. The two programs had different strengths and weaknesses, but by the early '80s were neck and neck in overall space capabilities.

However, SDI promised to change everything about not just space exploration, but the entire balance of the Cold War. Soviet space plans were massively restructured to meet this perceived threat, with the goal of full deployment of space-based weapon systems by the end of the millennium. Even though many Soviet experts concluded that the American SDI effort was doomed, due to many technical and economic limitations, the leadership believed it couldn't take the chance that the US might gain a major advantage from a functioning SDI system.

This resulted in the delay of the development of Soviet third generation space systems, as resources were diverted towards the development of SDI technology. These third generation systems included the Buran space shuttle, improved Mir space stations, a new generation of launch vehicles, and a constellation of high-tech satellites. Some of these existing designs were converted for anticipated use in Soviet anti-ballistic missile projects, but many more were scrapped altogether in the rush to meet SDI. The frantic restructuring of the Soviet space program in the wake of SDI effectively killed the USSR's last, best chance to recapture the lead in the space race.

There was another consequence. Reagan's SDI indeed helped to safeguard America from the dreaded Soviet nuclear threat, but in a way no one ever anticipated: the enormous costs of trying to counter SDI is widely believe to have helped to accelerate the Soviet Union's economic collapse and eventual political dissolution in 1991. SDI was perhaps the only weapon system that had never actually existed that nevertheless may have helped to win a major war.

In that same year in Nevada, underground nuclear tests powering an x-ray laser system showed the concept to be unfeasible, proving that Teller's original proposal had been flawed all along. Most other SDI projects in the US were soon abandoned, though some limited research continues to this day.

Target: Challenger

In 1983, in an angry response to Reagan's SDI initiatives, Premier Andropov ordered the Terra-3 laser complex at Sary Shagan to fire a "warning shot" at the orbiting Challenger Space Shuttle. The facility tracked Challenger with a laser on 10 October 1984. This beam has been called "low-powered," but it still had enough oomph to reach up over 200 miles through the atmosphere into space. It caused no physical damage to the spacecraft, but its intensity caused malfunctions in on-board optical equipment and temporarily dazzled some of the crew's vision. The US protested, but the Soviets were unrepentant.

The Last Cosmonaut

On May 18, 1991, Cosmonaut Third Class S.K. Krikalev was launched into space on what promised to be a routine stay on the Mir space station. While his time in space was lengthier than he anticipated -- 7512 hours, encompassing over ten months and 5000 orbits -- it contained no major challenges or disasters.

But on the ground, everything changed. Over the summer, a failed coup against Gorbachev led to the collapse of the Communist party. By autumn, various Soviet republics were declaring independence, and on Christmas Day the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

On March 25, 1992, Sergei Krikalev, along with two companions who had joined him in October, returned to Earth, four months later than originally planned. When he was launched into space, he had been a proud cosmonaut of the Soviet Union. When he emerged from his Soyuz TM-13 space capsule after landing on the snowy steppes of north-central Kazakhstan, he was a citizen of the newly democratic Russia.

End of an Era

The incidents recounted in this article are only a few of the stories associated with the Soviet space program. While much of its traditions, technology, and resources have been inherited by Russia, that nation is too cash-strapped and distracted by other concerns to bother to attempt to recapture the glory of its space heritage.

On March 23, 2001, the last great work of the Soviet space program, the Mir space station, burned up in reentry over the Pacific Ocean. When the last fragments crashed through the atmosphere into oblivion, the final page was turned in the final chapter of the Soviet Space Age.


Article added 9/4/07.