Skeptics in the Pub February 2016

Michael Lachmann, from the BBC, joins us to tell us all about Adventures with Cosmonauts – An Unofficial History of the Soviet Space Programme

Yuri Gagarin said, “all my life seemed like one beautiful moment” Russia lost 25 million people in world war 2 along with the destruction of hundreds of cities. Just 16 years later they put Gagarin into space. They are still proud of their accomplishments today and there is a memorial to the conquest of space in Moscow.

Joesph Stalin wanted to show that Russia could go toe-to-toe with anybody. Then America developed the A-bomb, showing that manpower alone wasn’t enough. Within four years the Russians had developed their own nuclear bomb. It was just as powerful as the Americans but it was twice as heavy. Since they didn’t have the same air bases, it couldn’t be dropped from a plane. Instead they developed a rocket that was 10 times more powerful than any rocket that had gone before.

Back in the 1930s Stalin had signed the death warrant for the man that had invented that rocket, Sergei Korolev. That sentence was rescinded and instead he was sent to a gulag, where the life expectancy was just three months. When he was released he had to make his own way back to Moscow from Siberia. Six months later he was thrown in jail where he designed bombs with Tupolev to help the war effort. Six years after the war, he was in charge of the state’s missile program.

At the end of the war, the US had taken all of the German V2 rocket scientists back to America. The Russians had to start from scratch. Their first rocket, the R1, is built from V2 parts. Eventually they developed the R7 and by 1957 it could fly 3,000 miles. It was fuelled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and took 48 hours to fill. Hence, it wasn’t a very intercontinental ballistic missile.

However, on October 5th 1957, an R7 was used to launch Sputnik (which means “fellow traveller) into orbit. The US spent thousands of dollars trying to decrypt its signal but all it was saying was “bip bip bip” The Russian leader, Nikita Krushchev, wanted another “first” in time for the anniversary of the October Revolution. Hence, Laika became the first dog in space on November 3rd 1957. Laika had been chosen ahead of other dogs primarily because of her ability to sit still. The air conditioning unit on the craft failed early into the mission and so she only survived for a few hours in space.

In early 1961, the US we’re getting ready to send Alan Shepherd into space but their final mission with a chimp didn’t go perfectly and so his flight was cancelled. Instead, Gagarin got to be the first man in space. Not even his family knew what he was doing until he returned. At the time, his colleague Titov was considered to be a better candidate for the mission. However, his parents were both literature teachers, which was considered to be too bourgeois. Gagarin’s parents were peasants – he was a child of mother Russia.

Only two out of seven Russian test flights were successful i.e. They returned safely. This was important as the French had insisted that there should be “rules” for space flight – you have to land in your spaceship. When Gagarin does land back on Earth, no-one knows where he landed. Even now, Russian spacecraft have a pistol on board in case they land in Siberia in case the cosmonauts need to shoot bears. Fortunately, Gagarin manages to find an old women and he has to phone to be picked up. On the flight to Moscow he is promoted to major. Later, he has tea with the Queen.

Four weeks later Alan Shepherd made it into space with the quote, “I suggest you fix the little problem and light this candle” This was just three days after the Bay of Pigs disaster. James Webb, the head of NASA, suggests the moon and so Kennedy makes his famous speech. In Russia, Khrushchev isn’t that bothered about the moon and so his cosmonauts keep racking up the firsts:

Titov spends 24 hours in space
Two people go into space simultaneously
First woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova)
3 people in the same Vostok capsule
First spacewalk

All of these early cosmonauts were under 5ft2 and were less than 9.5 stones in weight.

Fyodorov believed in re-incarnation. He thought that I’d everyone who had ever been alive came back then there wouldn’t be enough room so we’d have to leave Earth and colonise space. One of his students, Tsiolkovsky started thinking about rockets and invented multistage rockets. This was all part of Russian folklore through the 1910s to the 1930s.

The Russian space programme wasn’t without its serious failures though. Someone mispacked the parachute on Soyuz 1 and the puppet died on landing being Russian, he was given an open-casket funeral. A few months later, Gagarin died in a plane crash. The N-1, Russia’s equivalent to America’s Saturn 5, featured 30 separate engines (compared to 5) but never got off the ground. In the mid-90s, hundreds of the N-1 engines were discovered. They were so efficient that they were sold to the Americans and used to launch satellites.

The US landed on the moon first and declared themselves to be the winners of the space race. At the same time as Apollo 11 there was an unnamed Soviet probe in orbit around the moon. The US landed safely in the Sea of Tranquillity. The Soviet probe landed in the Sea of Crises and was never heard of again. Despite the US fêting their astronauts, the first living things to go round the far side of the moon were two tortoises.

Of course, the Russians weren’t done with space. In 1971, they launched the first space station – the Russians were colonising space. They worked out that you suffered muscle and bone wastage if you spent a long time in space and developed drugs and exercises to counter these effects. In 1986, they launched Mir, the first permanently inhabited space station. In remained in orbit for 15 years – the Russians had “conquered” space.

In 1991, the USSR collapsed. The US offered to pay for Mir in order to keep the Russian scientists out of the hands of states like Iran and North Korea. This led to the development of the International Space Station and even now the only way to get to ISS is in a Russian rocket. Despite what America may claim, the Russians actually won the space race.

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