Yesterday, I wrote a post about The New York Times’ praise of the Soviet space program because they launched the first woman into space, and that was more important than the fact that the Soviet Union was a mass-murdering tyrannical police state.
While everyone who reads The New York Times knows that the Soviets put the first man and first woman into space, not many of them know why the Soviets never made it to the moon.
I found an article on NPR that really illustrates, in a heartbreaking way, the reality of the Soviet space program.
So there’s a cosmonaut up in space, circling the globe, convinced he will never make it back to Earth; he’s on the phone with Alexei Kosygin — then a high official of the Soviet Union — who is crying because he, too, thinks the cosmonaut will die.
The space vehicle is shoddily constructed, running dangerously low on fuel; its parachutes — though no one knows this — won’t work and the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, is about to, literally, crash full speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, “cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.”
In 1967, both men were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.
The story begins around 1967, when Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union, decided to stage a spectacular midspace rendezvous between two Soviet spaceships.
The plan was to launch a capsule, the Soyuz 1, with Komarov inside. The next day, a second vehicle would take off, with two additional cosmonauts; the two vehicles would meet, dock, Komarov would crawl from one vehicle to the other, exchanging places with a colleague, and come home in the second ship. It would be, Brezhnev hoped, a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Brezhnev made it very clear he wanted this to happen.
The problem was Gagarin. Already a Soviet hero, the first man ever in space, he and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems — serious problems that would make this machine dangerous to navigate in space. The mission, Gagarin suggested, should be postponed.
He’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.
The question was: Who would tell Brezhnev? Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command. Everyone who saw that memo, including Russayev, was demoted, fired or sent to diplomatic Siberia. With less than a month to go before the launch, Komarov realized postponement was not an option. He met with Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.”
Russayev asked, Why not refuse? According to the authors, Komarov answered: “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead.” That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn’t do that to his friend. “That’s Yura,” the book quotes him saying, “and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.
Once the Soyuz began to orbit the Earth, the failures began. Antennas didn’t open properly. Power was compromised. Navigation proved difficult. The next day’s launch had to be canceled. And worse, Komarov’s chances for a safe return to Earth were dwindling fast.
All the while, U.S. intelligence was listening in. The National Security Agency had a facility at an Air Force base near Istanbul. Previous reports said that U.S. listeners knew something was wrong but couldn’t make out the words. In this account, an NSA analyst, identified in the book as Perry Fellwock, described overhearing Komarov tell ground control officials he knew he was about to die. Fellwock described how Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called on a video phone to tell him he was a hero. Komarov’s wife was also on the call to talk about what to say to their children. Kosygin was crying.
When the capsule began its descent and the parachutes failed to open, the book describes how American intelligence “picked up [Komarov’s] cries of rage as he plunged to his death.”
This is the picture accompanying the article (you’ve been warned):
Imagine that happening in the United States under NASA.
Engineers at Kennedy finding over 200 potentially fatal defects and letting the flight go because they were afraid the FBI would arrest them because the President wanted the flight to happen.
Yes, there was a cultural issue at NASA the lead to the Challenger Disaster in 1986, but nobody the Challenger went up certain in the knowledge that they were going up to die on a poorly built deathtrap, launched to appease a politician.
A casual disregard for human life was a hallmark of Soviet design. Everything from the design of their tanks which make the crews expendable for the survivability of the weapon platform, to the submarines which occasionally sink, leak radiation, or catch fire without warning killing some or all of the crew.
The Soviets proved several times that they could strap a human being to a rocket and put him just outside the reach of the earth’s atmosphere, and usually bring him home alive. The 250,000 mile trip to the moon was a technical challenge that the Soviets were never able to surmount, and they knew it.
So when The New York Times writes “How the Soviets won the space race for equality” what the really mean is “How the Soviets also treated a woman like expendable objects to be launched into space on faulty garbage.” I guess there is equality in known that a tyrannical government treats both men and women as disposable, but I have a feeling that’s not the type of equality that most Americans like to think about.