Space Race Took a Grinding Toll

Peoples' lives were not valued at all; the competition was more important  
They did not feel concern for people; political priorities were far more important. (A launch once killed about 300 people.) The Soviet city of Gorky (currently Nizhny Novgorod) was a space-technology city. Specialists in the city began revealing their secrets about two years ago, and many Nizhny Novgorod residents were surprised to learn that they lived alongside people who worked with Yury Gagarin — the first man in space — launched the first satellite and were in charge of missiles during the most acute moments of the Cold War.

These people say that they were not aware they were doing something so grandiose — only radio news helped them think so. And they often experienced pity instead of pride. Romuald Suglobov, the chairman of the Nizhny Novgorod Veterans Council and the then-senior engineer in charge of testing propulsion systems, said that there used to be a good joke among space technology specialists that ran as follows:

The Central Committee of the Communist Party calls a cosmonaut and says, "You are to fly into the Sun."

"But I will burn up there!"

"We have thought of that too. You are to fly at night."
Specialists remember that the level of competition in the area of space exploration with the United States was immense. "We are not sorry that the Soviet Union was not the first country to have people land on the Moon," one of them said. "What we are sorry about is that the lunar program was abandoned after American astronauts walked on the Moon. We were about to complete the program, and we just needed more time, but we could not do it. Many other programs shared the same fate. Huge funds were invested in space programs, but then they were simply abandoned. They did not feel sorry either for cosmonauts or for test pilots. I remember that I once worked for 96 hours non-stop."

Sergei Korolev, one of the founders of the Soviet space program, would pick his team of specialists personally. They say that Korolev had many ideas that he shared with everyone, and that he had even began to prepare to travel to Mars and Venus.

Col. Valery Andropov was in charge of a large number of technological secrets at the Baikonur cosmodrome. He says that the first artificial satellite looked like a ball. "They brought it to us, but it was only a transmitter and storage batteries — no circuits, nothing," he remembered. "We launched the satellite on Oct. 4. It was just a ball for us, a piece of our everyday work, nothing much. When they announced the news on the radio, we realized that we had done something grand."
On the subject of Yury Gagarin, Andropov remembers that it was intuition that prompted him to choose the smiling and social young man for the first-ever manned space flight. "I realized at once that it should be Yury Gagarin to fly into space," he said. "However, some of my colleagues thought it was a joke; they even laughed at me. However, Korolev took my opinion into consideration. I remember that Korolev paid attention to Gagarin when Yury took his socks off before stepping into the ejection capsule. Competent people always take their shoes off before examining something from the inside. Korolev liked Gagarin's respect for space technology. And, of course, everyone liked the way he smiled."

Andropov was in charge of the first satellite, the first man in space and the control desk of the missiles that were aimed at the United States during the escalation of the Cuban missile crisis. Andropov remembers the day that WWIII could have started: "We were all working as usual on that day. A nuclear P-7 missile was ready to be launched. We did not have any fear, since we all believed that the war was not going to happen, taking into consideration the fact that it would take four more days to finish all the work needed to launch the missile. Later, we were told that Kennedy and Khrushchev had managed to settle problems, so we could relax."

Andropov says that most the hardest moments were connected with people's deaths. About 300 people were once killed as a result of an unsuccessful launch. (Andropov also adds that Valentina Tereshkova's flight [that of the first woman in space] was the most successful of them all.) That people were dying was simply ignored.

Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev visited the Baikonur cosmodrome on several occasions. They repeatedly tried to convince the Soviet space specialists that the U.S.S.R. was supposed to be first in the field of space exploration. However, the Communist leaders' instructions did not play the decisive role for the specialists. The Soviet space pioneers were interested in their work, in creating something absolutely new, despite the country's lack of technological development.

It was Andropov who discovered how to bring a rocket back to the Earth after it had been launched into space. Before, rockets would burn up in the air before returning, on account of their high speed. "At first, we made a 150-kilogram lead bullet. It reached the Kamchatka peninsula and hit a rock. All the information was scattered around the rock. People brought me piece after piece of the tapes," he said. "I studied all the records and realized that rockets should not have pointed ends.

"I developed several devices to measure technical and biological parameters. We needed new data, but landings would cause all the antennae to burn up, and the telemetry did not work. I put one such device on Gagarin's stomach. No one knew about it, by the way."

A Japanese cartoon recently compared the American and the Russian ways of space exploration. In the cartoon, the Russians launched their rockets manually, by dragging a rocket to the launch site, starting the engine and then having a sandwich after work instead of going to strip bars, like American scientists did.

As an aside, former Soviet space pioneers have a rather negative attitude towards various sensational revelations that allege that Gagarin was not the first man in space — but the first who was lucky to return back to the Earth — that he fainted during his flight, that there was a breakdown during the flight, and so on and so forth. They say that Gagarin was the first man in space and that there were no breakdowns. Period.

Natalia Rezontova
Nizhni Novgorod
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Author`s name Michael Simpson