Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Cold War (Page 1 of 3)

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.)

The Lunar Module of New Delhi

Lunar Module replica at the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi.

Lunar Module replica at the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi.

In one corner of the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi, there is a something a little surprising: a life-size Apollo Lunar Module, the spacecraft that Neil Armstrong and eleven other American astronauts used to land on the moon six times from 1969 to 1972. The replica is nicely proportioned and seems to be complete in its major details, although the paint scheme (white with a little black trim) seems to reflect an earlier design iteration of the craft, before gold-colored foil insulation was added on the descent stage. The IAF Museum LM looks fairly like an Airfix 1/72-scale plastic model kit that has been blown up to life-size. It even has a white-suited astronaut at the bottom of the ladder, ready to step onto the surface of the moon.

What in the world is a Lunar Module doing in New Delhi?

In 1969, Apollo 11, the first moon-landing mission, received worldwide news coverage. At a time when the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams—because of the Cold War struggle between superpowers, proxy wars, and widespread youth protests—Apollo 11 provided a rare moment of unity for humankind. Interest in Apollo 11 was as strong in India as anywhere, as the mission received front-page coverage in national newspapers.

The US government was eager to capitalize on this rare flood of positive coverage. On July 14, just two days before the launch of Apollo 11, the US Information Service (USIS) opened an exhibition in New Delhi about the moon landing. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a purpose-built full-scale model of the Lunar Module—the replica that now stands in the IAF Museum.

The USIS Lunar Module was also on hand in Bombay three months later when the crew of Apollo 11 passed through the city on their round-the-world goodwill tour on behalf of President Richard Nixon. The model was displayed to the public on Azad Maidan until a month after the astronauts’ visit. According to the Times of India: “The 23-foot model rests on a simulated moonscape. With flickering lights and a swinging antenna, the model is exact in every exterior detail. It was built by Indian craftsmen in New Delhi.”

Judging from a photo printed with another Times of India article, the model has changed little since 1969. The astronaut perched at the bottom of the ladder even seems to the same. The only discernible difference is that the flag and words “UNITED STATES” on the descent stage have for some reason been removed.

The Lunar Module at the IAF Museum is a relic of a time when the world was briefly united because of an American accomplishment, and the US government was ready to take advantage of the occasion.

The Lunar Module and astronaut at the IAF Museum.

The Lunar Module and astronaut at the IAF Museum.

Bilingual plaque for the LM at the IAF Museum.

Bilingual plaque for the LM at the IAF Museum.

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