Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Cold War (Page 1 of 3)

Seventeen sunrises (plus another 21,915)

The fourth man to fly in space—and the second to orbit the Earth—was Gherman Titov, a 25-year-old pilot from western Siberia. He flew in space sixty years ago today, and his flight lasted a full day, or seventeen orbits of the Earth.

By any account, it was not a great flight. Titov spent much of the flight nauseated by spacesickness. He also tried sleeping, but he had trouble falling asleep and was annoyed by his arms as they floated in front of his face. After 24 hours in space, his spacecraft reentered the atmosphere. As the capsule was descending by parachute, he ejected to land separately under his own parachute. (Human legs are good shock-absorbers, and the Vostok landed too fast for humans. Gagarin had ejected in the same way four months earlier.)

Gus Grissom’s flight had been essentially a repeat of Alan Shepard’s, but Titov’s flight was much longer than Gagarin’s—seventeen times longer, to be exact. This reflected the Soviets’ ambitious approach to spaceflight in 1961 and for the next several years. The Soviets did not want to use their limited resources repeating their previous accomplishments. Instead, every subsequent mission had to be a major step beyond the previous mission. Thus, the next Soviet flight after Titov’s was a dual launch: in August 1962, Vostoks 3 and 4 were inserted into similar orbits 24 hours apart, the first time that more than one man had been in space at the same time. The following June, the Soviets made another dual flight, but with a twist: the pilot of Vostok 6 was Valentina Tereshkova, the first and only woman to fly into space until the 1980s. The pilot of Vostok 5, Valery Bykovsky, set a duration record of five days.

As the Soviet flights became more ambitious, they also became riskier. In October 1964, the Voskhod 1 mission flew three cosmonauts into space in a heavily modified Vostok capsule. In order to fit three men into a capsule that was originally designed for only one, the Voskhod had no ejection seats and the crew did not wear spacesuits, both of which had been important safety features on the Vostok. Had there been a problem with the booster early in launch, the three men on Voskhod 1 would have been doomed with no chance of escape. Similarly, they couldn’t eject out of the capsule at the end of the mission. Instead, the parachute system needed to have retrorockets to slow the capsule down to a safe speed just before impact with the ground. Lacking the resources to build a test article for the Voskhod parachute system, the OKB-1 design bureau took Gherman Titov’s Vostok 2 capsule out of a museum and refitted it with the new system. In a drop test at the Feodosiya testing range in Crimea, the new parachute system failed and the Vostok 2 capsule slammed into the earth at high speed and broke into pieces.

The engineers at OKB-1 diagnosed the problem with the parachute system, and the Voskhod 1 flight went ahead successfully but with considerable risk. The following March, the second Voskhod flight was another risky but ultimately successful mission. Alexei Leonov climbed out of an airlock and became the first person in history to walk in space, just two-and-a-half months before an American, Ed White, did the same thing on the Gemini 4 mission.

By this point, the Soviet piloted space program had begun to run out of momentum, and the Americans took the lead with ten increasingly complex and successful Gemini missions. It was not until two years after Voskhod 2 that the next Soviet space mission flew on an all-new spacecraft, the Soyuz. Although Soyuz 1 was probably less risky than either of the Voskhod flights had been—because the Soyuz had a launch abort rocket—the mission ended in tragedy when the descent module’s parachutes failed to deploy before landing. The spacecraft’s one crewman, Vladimir Komarov, died on impact.

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to fly into space. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to orbit the Earth. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)

It has been sixty years since the first men flew into space. Sixty years is a long time—longer than the median age of the human species (31 years) or the median ages in Russia (39.6 years) and the United States (38.1 years). A minority of the Earth’s population was alive in 1961, and it’s worth reflecting here what that might mean to us as humans.

The pioneering spacefarers of 1961 are all gone now. They died in pairs: two later in the sixties from terrible accidents, and two around the turn of the millennium from disease or old age. Gus Grissom was the first to die; as mentioned in the previous post, he perished in the Apollo 1 fire on the launchpad on January 27, 1967. Yuri Gagarin died a year later in the crash of a MiG-15 jet. Alan Shepard died of leukemia in 1998. Gherman Titov succumbed to cardiac arrest in 2000 at the age of 65.

A lot can change in sixty years, and a lot has. Despite continued tensions between Russia and the United States in the twenty-first century, the Cold War is over, and so is the Space Race. The two leading space powers have cooperated in spaceflight for more than a quarter century. The International Space Station has been continuously crewed by both Russians and Americans since November 2001. Although the ISS agreement is set to expire in 2024 and the future of spaceflight cooperation remains in doubt, US-Russian space cooperation has continued throughout the tensions between the two countries in recent years.

If politics can change in sixty years, then so can culture. I am not equipped to evaluate how Russian culture has changed in six decades, but I can say for certain that American culture has changed immensely in the same amount of time. With immigration reform in 1965, the American population has gotten a good deal more diverse than it was in 1961. In the same time, American culture has had to become more tolerant of diversity (recent backlash against diversity notwithstanding).

This was not the case in the early sixties. As seen in both the book and film versions of The Right Stuff, Alan Shepard delighted in imitating the character José Jiménez, created by comedian Bill Dana. José Jiménez was a Latino astronaut with a thick accent and dull wits. Shepard imitated José Jiménez so much that the other astronauts started to call him by that name. When Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone lifted off on May 5, 1961, Deke Slayton radioed from launch control, “You’re on your way, José!”

In the sixties, for Anglo-Americans like Alan Shepard, the idea of a Latino flying into space was a joke in and of itself. This is, of course, no longer the case. Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and other Hispanics and Latinos have been flying into space since the 1980s. The José Jiménez character was only funny because it was based on negative ethnic stereotypes. The José Jiménez scenes in The Right Stuff are positively cringe-worthy today. (To his credit, Bill Dana retired the character in 1970, only nine years after Shepard’s flight.)

These cultural and political changes over the past six decades highlight something that is all too easy to miss in our discussions about spaceflight: spaceflight belongs to the past as well as the future. So much of our discourse about spaceflight imagines it as futuristic—science-fiction becoming real. Vostok and Mercury were indeed futuristic in their day, but like the Cold War and Bill Dana’s José Jiménez character, they now belong to the past.

The cosmic traveler

Sixty years ago today, for the first time in history, a human boarded a rocket and flew into the cosmos beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The first-ever traveler into space was a 27-year-old Russian pilot named Yuri Gagarin, and he embarked on his cosmic journey from the Tyura-Tam missile range in the Kazakhstan region of the Soviet Union.

By any measure, Gagarin’s flight was a remarkable technical accomplishment. In a matter of decades, Russia had gone from an agrarian country ruled by Europe’s last autocrats to the world’s first space power. In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet engineers had made modest progress with developing rockets, primarily for military use but also to pursue the dream of human spaceflight first expressed by Russia’s pioneering space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who died in 1935. After World War II, captured German rockets and some German engineers provided valuable technical knowledge to the Soviet rocketry program. In the late 1940s, the Soviets flew copies of the German V-2 missile, which they called the R-1. Later, they modified the design of the R-1 into the higher-performance R-2 missile, then set about to make their own wholly original designs. By 1957, the Soviets had the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. After a couple of successful test launches, an R-7 deposited into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite, PS-1 or Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957.

The R-7 had the power only to launch small payloads into orbit, but a modified version with an added upper stage could launch a spacecraft big enough to carry a man. The rocket and the spacecraft were both dubbed Vostok (“East”). The spacecraft consisted of two parts: a spherical crew compartment and a cone-shaped instrumentation module. The crew compartment carried the cosmonaut (“traveler to the cosmos,” a Soviet or Russian astronaut) into space and back down into the atmosphere, while the instrumentation module was designed to separate from the crew compartment and burn up in the atmosphere on reentry.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were preparing to launch people into space in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the two countries took different approaches to their programs in many respects. One of these was publicity. As I’ll write about next month on the anniversary of the first American’s flight into space, the US government conducted its space program in full view of journalists and the public, and the first astronauts were made into instant celebrities.

The Soviets, on the other hand, operated their program in the utmost secrecy. They didn’t even announce the launch of Sputnik 1 until after the satellite had completed its first orbit of the Earth. (Meanwhile, the first American attempt at launching a satellite, Vanguard 1, blew up on television.) While the American astronauts blinked in the daily glare of spotlights and flashbulbs, the first group of Soviet cosmonauts were selected and began training in secret. As the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin would become a celebrity—paraded in Red Square in front of adoring Soviet crowds and sent on international tours—but it was only after his launch that the public even knew his name.

Because of this secrecy, the Soviet public and the wider world could only know about Vostok and other early programs through Soviet propaganda, which portrayed every cosmonaut as a model communist and every mission as a triumph of socialism. It would not be until thirty years after Gagarin’s flight, with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, that the archives would start to open, giving researchers the chance to view actual documents rather than propagandistic distortions.

In the intervening thirty years, as Asif Siddiqi notes in the preface to his book Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974, early Soviet space accomplishments had become mythologized in Russia and dismissed in the West as mere background to the first American landing on the moon in 1969. “It is not surprising that this is so,” Siddiqi writes. “With little film footage, paranoid secrecy, and no advance warning, the Soviets themselves were mostly responsible for consigning these events into that blurry historical limbo between propaganda and speculation. They eventually lost any claim to resonance that they might have had otherwise.”

As the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, April 12 is celebrated as Cosmonautics Day in Russia and by some space enthusiasts around the world as Yuri’s Night (although if you ask me, I prefer to call it Cosmonautics Day). There will certainly be official commemorations of the anniversary in Russia today, and just as certainly there won’t be any commemoration of it on an official level in the United States. Rather than seeing the flight as a human accomplishment—the first time in history that a member of our species left this planet—Americans continue to view Gagarin’s flight through the lens of Cold War competition.

The Space Race continues to dominate American perceptions of the Space Age, even though there has been far more cooperation than competition between Russia and the United States in human spaceflight. The Space Race lasted at most thirty-four years, from the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even during the period of competition, US-Russian cooperation in space began with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. After the fall of the Soviet Union, space cooperation continued with Shuttle-Mir in the 1990s and the International Space Station from 2000 to present. Rather than seeing Yuri Gagarin as a Cold War enemy, it’s time for Americans to start thinking of him as a future friend in space.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project American and Soviet crews

The first joint US-Russian space program was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, launched during the period detente in the Cold War. A Soyuz spacecraft from the USSR and an Apollo spacecraft from the United States linked up in orbit and the crews exchanged greetings and visited each other’s spacecraft. This is a group photo of the two crews, the Americans on the left in brown and the Soviets on the right in green. (NASA photo)

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project illustration

An illustration of the Apollo spacecraft (on the left) linking up with the Soyuz in ASTP. (NASA photo)

Space shuttle Atlantis docked with space station Mir

Space shuttle Atlantis docked with Russian space station Mir during the Shuttle-Mir program, July 1995. The Shuttle-Mir program ran from 1995 to 1998. (NASA photo)

Expedition One crew in Red Square

After Shuttle-Mir, joint crews took up residence on the International Space Station, starting in November 2000. Here the Expedition One crew are seen visiting Red Square in Moscow. The Russian crew members are on the left and right and the American member is in the center looking at the camera. (NASA photo)

Pyramids of waste

“What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? Will America’s pyramids be pyramids of waste?”

–Giles Slade, Made to Break (2006)

I think that Giles Slade meant for this comment to be ironic, not taken literally. In the opening of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Slade compares the landfills of modern America with the pyramids of ancient Egypt. As Slade would have it, it is an indication of our societal decadence that the great mounds that we raise are not tombs for our god-kings but final resting places for our junked PCs, outmoded cell phones, and plastic pop bottles.

Of course, ordinary domestic landfills don’t really look like pyramids. Sometimes they have rectangular ground-plans; often they don’t. But there is at least one waste-containment mound that actually resembles a pyramid. It is in Missouri. And I’ve been there.

Weldon Spring Site is 30 miles west of St. Louis. During World War II, it was home to a munitions plant, which was converted to a uranium-processing facility in the Cold War. Like so many other Cold War industrial sites, Weldon Spring had plenty of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste lying around when it was abandoned in the 1960s. The Department of Energy took over the site twenty years later and began cleaning it up. All the untreatable chemical and radioactive waste from the site was entombed in an enormous mound. With its sloping sides and flat top, the mound looks a bit like a Mesoamerican pyramid, not so much an Egyptian one. (It is also a little reminiscent of the Cahokia Mounds nearby in Illinois, built by the Mississippian mound-builders.)

I should hope that some of modern America’s more inspiring monuments prove as durable as our pyramids of waste. At least what the Weldon Spring pyramid says about us is that we cared enough to clean up the mess we created (albeit twenty years late).

The Weldon Spring waste mound from across the visitor center parking lot.

The Weldon Spring waste mound viewed from the visitor center parking lot.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotiuhuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotihuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

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