Russian Cosmonauts launched the Space Race
By Amanda Jermyn

When the Soviets successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4th, 1957, a stunned America took notice. In response, NASA was formed, and in 1961, President John F. Kennedy made space flight a national priority, with the goal of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The Space Race was on!

I recently had the good fortune to attend a special exhibition entitled Cosmonauts, Birth of the Space Age, at London’s Science Museum. The term “Cosmonauts” refers to Russians traveling in space, and the exhibition detailed their achievements and the technological advances that made these possible. The exhibition was particularly illuminating given the top-secret nature of the Russian space program and censorship of its failures during Soviet times. We tend to think it all began with Sputnik 1, but scientific achievements often build on the dreams and discoveries of others. As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In this case, Sergei Korolev and other designers of the Soviet space program took inspiration from early visionaries such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who famously declared: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”

The Space Race was, of course, also fuelled by the Cold War. The Soviets found that the intercontinental ballistic missiles they developed to deliver nuclear weapons could also be adapted to launch the first artificial satellites into low Earth orbit. Meanwhile in the US, during and after World War II, missiles were developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in a program called Jet Assisted Take-Off. After World War II, both sides took on German rocket scientists to benefit from their expertise. Following Sputnik 1’s success, scientists at JPL and the US Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency began collaborating, and in January 1958 successfully launched the first US satellite, Explorer 1. In July of that same year, NASA was established as the coordinating body of the US space program.

Pioneering accomplishments of the USSR’s space program include a number of firsts. A month after the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, came Sputnik 2, carrying the dog Laika, the world’s first animal to orbit the Earth. Sadly, Laika died within hours of the launch. Then on April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human launched into space, traveling on Vostok 1. He returned safely to earth, a hero for the Soviet Union and its leader Nikita Khrushchev. The US launched its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into suborbital flight shortly after on May 5th, 1961.

The Soviet Union also sent the first woman into space. On June 16th, 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was launched in the Vostok 6 spacecraft, flying for three days, a flight longer than all the previous American manned space flights put together.

Another coup for the Soviets was the first space walk, conducted by Alexey Leonov when he climbed out of the hatch of the Voskhod 2 capsule on March 18th, 1965. After 12 minutes in space Leonov had trouble getting back into the spacecraft, and had to deflate air out of his spacesuit in order to fit through the hatch. In 1975 Leonov flew on the Soyuz-Apollo mission, the first joint mission between the United States and the Soviet Union.

A major triumph for the Soviet program was the Luna 2, the first spacecraft to reach the Moon, and the first man-made object to land on another celestial body. Luna 3 produced the first image of the far side of the Moon, and Luna 9, the first unmanned lunar soft landing. Lunokhod 1 was the first space rover, exploring the surface of the Moon, and Luna 16 resulted in the first sample of lunar soil being extracted and returned to Earth. The Soviets also were responsible for the first space station, Salyut 1, established in 1971.

They had their failures too, notably that of their 1960s era manned lunar program, which only came to light in 1989 during a new period of openness in the Soviet government. Beginning in the 1970s they lost their lead because of poor organization and inadequate funding. 1991 saw the demise of the Soviet Union, witnessed from space by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev while on board the Mir space station. Ten months later, Krikalev returned to Earth, a citizen of the Russian Federation. With its new policy of glasnost, a period of collaboration between Russia and America followed, resulting in the establishment of the International Space Station in 1998. Currently, since the retirement of the US space shuttles in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft are the sole means of transportation to and from the International Space Station. So far, despite cooperation on the space front, relations between the two great powers remain chilly.

Join the Springfield Stars Club on Tuesday, February 23rd at 7:00pm at the Springfield Science Museum for a panel discussion on Astronomy in the Digital Age. Discover how the advent of digital technology has brought about a transformation in amateur astronomy and ushered in a golden age of astronomical imaging. I will join the panel, which also includes David Wexler, Richard Sanderson and Alan Rifkin. Dr. Wexler participates in solar research at MIT’s Haystack Observatory, Sanderson is Curator of Physical Science at the Springfield Science Museum, and Rifkin is an amateur astronomer and local telescope dealer. Refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome. The meeting is free of charge for members, with a suggested donation of $2 per non-member.

Also, on Friday, March 4th at 7:30pm, the Stars Club and the Springfield Science Museum will host “Stars over Springfield,” an astronomy adventure for the whole family. Ed Faits will talk on Exploring the Planets… To Pluto and Beyond. A fee of $3 for adults and $2 for children under 18 will be charged.