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“Go!” How the USSR overtook the USA, sending the first man into space, and where earthlings will fly next

April 12, 1961 is considered the official date of the beginning of the space odyssey of Mankind.  Photo: RIA Novosti

April 12, 1961 is considered the official date of the beginning of the space odyssey of Mankind. Photo: RIA Novosti

“The Earth is the cradle of Mankind, but it cannot be in the cradle all the time,” wrote the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky at the beginning of the 20th century.

April 12 marks 60 years since man first left his cradle: on this day, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on board the Vostok spacecraft first entered near-earth space, completing a full revolution around the Earth.

It is this day that is considered the official beginning of the space odyssey of Mankind, which continues today with varying degrees of success.

German “grandmother” of space rockets

One can agree or argue with the well-known expression “War is the engine of progress”, but with regard to the history of space exploration, this is 100% true: the conquest of outer space was only a “by-product” of the development of rocket technologies, which were originally conceived for much less noble goals.

For example, the very idea of ​​developing liquid-propellant rockets (namely, such rockets are the basis of modern astronautics) in Germany appeared due to the fact that the development of solid-fuel rockets was prohibited by the Versailles agreements.

In the process, it turned out that liquid-propellant engines, although much more complicated in design and development compared to traditional solid-propellant missiles for that time (such as, for example, in the famous Katyushas), have a number of important advantages. First of all, such engines provide a greater specific impulse (roughly speaking, ways to accelerate more using the same amount of fuel).

It also turned out that liquid-propellant rockets – at least in theory! – capable of becoming a weapon of unprecedented range and accuracy until then.

This idea greatly interested Hitler, who was planning a war with the island of England – and it is to the aggressive designs of the Nazi leader that we owe the rapid growth of missile technology in Germany. Actually, the V-2 rocket developed by Werner von Braun for the needs of the Third Reich can be considered the first real rocket of a modern type, in which the main familiar technical solutions were already present.

Due to its high speed and trajectory of flight, the V-2 missile was almost impossible to intercept with the then air defense systems, which seemed to make it an ideal “weapon of retaliation” for the British who took refuge on their island.

However, the military effect of this technical achievement was more than modest: during the entire war in London, for example, about 2,000 V-2 missiles were fired, which cost the lives of 2,700 Londoners.

The Minister of Armaments of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, wrote in his memoirs that the stake on the V-2 project was one of the colossal mistakes.

“Hitler could have unleashed three dozen missiles on England with a total capacity of 24 tons of explosives per day, which is the equivalent of a bomb load of just a dozen Flying Fortresses,” Speer wrote in his post-war memoirs. With the help of four-engine B-17 bombers (Flying Fortress), 66,000 V-2s would have to be used, which would have taken 6 years to produce. “

Probably liquid-propellant rockets would have remained Hitler’s expensive toys, if not for another invention made at the same time on the other side of the Atlantic – the nuclear bomb. With its help, only one missile, successfully flying to the target, could inflict monstrous destruction, comparable to the raid of an entire armada of bombers. And if we take into account the actual impossibility of intercepting a missile on approach …

In general, since the beginning of the nuclear era, von Braun’s developments have been actively interested on both sides of the falling Iron Curtain.

And the fact that with the help of rockets designed to deliver nuclear warheads, it was also possible to fly into space, for a long time was only a pleasant addition to their main purpose. One fact alone: ​​the Vostok launch vehicle, which sent Gagarin into space, was nothing more than a modified version of the purely military R-7, whose sole purpose was to defeat targets on the territory of the “imperialist predators.”

Space race: how the USSR managed to overtake the USA

The USSR managed to launch a man into space just 16 years after the end of a monstrous war that turned into ruins almost a third of the country’s territory, moreover, overtaking the United States – the most industrially and scientifically developed power of that time. And this is certainly an astounding and impressive achievement. And this achievement had an impressive military and political overtones.

By the beginning of the Cold War, the USSR was seriously lagging behind the United States and its allies in many areas, including aviation. In essence, the leaders of the Soviet Union understood that it would be practically impossible to “catch up and overtake” the NATO countries in this area.

In this sense, ballistic missiles could become an asymmetric response to an air threat from the “most probable enemy.”

The second factor was geographic. The fact is that the United States could deploy missiles to destroy targets on the territory of its allies in Europe, which reduced the requirements for their maximum range to hundreds of kilometers. The missiles of the USSR, on the other hand, had to cover thousands of kilometers in order to strike at the United States or even Great Britain, so that the Soviet designers faced much larger tasks.

The first American nuclear missile, the Redstone, first flew in 1953, had a range of only 370 kilometers and a payload of three tons. And the Soviet Union, albeit with a lag (1957), launched the R-7 rocket, capable of delivering up to 5.5 tons at a distance of up to 9.5 (!) Thousand kilometers.

And it was here that the most interesting thing became clear. It turned out that Soviet rockets are generally suitable for space flights, but American ones are not: there is not enough power.

So the USSR, having started the space race with a lag and being in much worse economic conditions, reached its finish line with a significant advance. 

“The most unhappy dog ​​in the world”

However, from the previous chapter, the reader might get the impression that the task of sending a man into space by the USSR was solved, as it were, by the way: they put, they say, Gagarin in a ballistic missile instead of a nuclear bomb, and …

Of course no. As a result of the creation of the R-7 rockets, the Soviet Union found itself on the threshold of space travel, but it took a lot of time and effort to cross this threshold.

Let’s start with the launch vehicles themselves. Yes, in terms of power, they were almost suitable for space flights, but almost – it does not count. In order to still go into low-earth orbit, the R-7 required refinement, primarily in order to increase its power. This is how the Sputnik launch vehicle appeared, and later other launch vehicles of the so-called R-7 family, including the Vostok, on which Gagarin flew, and even the Soyuz still flying today.

Just a few months after the first launch of a purely military R-7, on October 4, 1957, its first space modification, Sputnik, took off, launching the very first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik-1, into orbit. After its launch, the fact that the USSR was really capable of flying into space became obvious to the whole world, which caused a considerable public outcry, not too optimistic in the United States.

Michigan Governor Mennen Williams, for example, addressed US President Eisenhower with a poetic message in which he reproached the head of state that “while Uncle Sam sleeps, space belongs to the communists.” But it was not only a matter of the prestige of an advanced space power: the fact that the USSR was able to get into near-earth orbit proved that its missiles were capable of reaching the territory of the United States, which could not but cause alarm in the American leadership.

And in the USSR, they began to prepare for the solution of the following ambitious task: sending a man into space. And for this, first it was necessary to develop a spacecraft capable of ensuring its survival in lifeless outer space and then – a safe return to Earth.

But first, the question needed to be answered: is it possible to survive in space at all? Will not cosmic radiation, for example, be too deadly?

Already on November 3, the second artificial satellite of the Earth went into space, on board which was the simplest life support capsule, and inside it was the first living creature that left the Earth, the dog Laika.

Laika’s fate was, alas, tragic: her ticket to space was a one-way ticket, since the design of Sputnik-2 did not provide for a return to Earth. After the launch, it was assigned about a week of life, after which the life support systems had to exhaust their resource, and the animal had to die (a portion of poison was added to the last dose of food in the feeder to save Laika from torment). But this was not needed: after 5-7 hours of flight, Laika died due to overheating of the spacecraft.

Laika’s sad fate touched the hearts of people around the world. The New York Times in its November 5 issue called her “The Shagiest, Loneliest, Most Unhappy Dog in the World.”

But Laika’s sacrifice was not in vain: in the process, invaluable scientific results were obtained, the key of which was that the technologies that existed at that time were capable of supporting the life of the passenger of the spacecraft.

Already in July 1960, the theoretical and practical issues of creating a reentry spacecraft were resolved, and two more test dogs, Chaika and Chaika, went into space. They were supposed to become the first living creatures to have been in space and returned, but they were unlucky: 19 seconds after launch, one of the booster blocks collapsed, and after 38 seconds the rocket crashed. Both dogs were killed. After this tragedy, by the way, Soviet designers thought about creating a system capable of ensuring the rescue of astronauts at the initial stages of flight.

Just 3 weeks later, in August of the same 1960, the famous Belka and Strelka successfully flew into space and returned.

In total, from 1960 to 1961, the USSR launched 10 astronaut dogs into Space, six of which survived. And only after the four launches of the four-legged space explorers were successful, they decided to send a man into orbit.

The first flight

It must be said that the Vostok spacecraft, on which Gagarin went into space, was a very complex device from a technical point of view: in addition to many systems directly related to flight, return to Earth, control and communication devices, there was even … a full-fledged toilet …

And this was a very extraordinary fact: for example, until 1973, American cosmonauts sent their natural needs into bags and diapers of various designs, which created certain difficulties, including an aesthetic one.

Another feature of Vostok was that, although the flight was supposed to last less than two hours, the supply of everything necessary in life support systems was ten days: the designers feared a failure of the braking engine, designed to “knock” the ship out of orbit. It was assumed that if this really happened, Gagarin had to wait quietly until the ship itself slowed down due to friction in the upper atmosphere – according to calculations, this would take just 10 days. Fortunately, these emergency measures were not needed.

The first flight took place in automatic mode, which gave rise to talk that Gagarin, they say, “just lay there” in his flight and did not differ much from the same Belka with Strelka. This is not true. “Vostok” was also equipped with a manual control system, thanks to which Gagarin could take control if necessary. There was no such need: Vostok successfully completed a full orbit around the Earth, which took the spacecraft for 1 hour and 48 minutes, after which it left orbit and flew back to Earth.

The most difficult – both physically and psychologically – was to be the last stage of the flight: upon entering the atmosphere, the Vostok and its passenger experienced 3-5-fold overloads, for which Gagarin, being an experienced pilot, was, however, ready. The last test awaited the first cosmonaut in the last minutes of the flight: after he ejected from the Vostok, he was almost carried to the Volga.

However, controlling the lines of the parachute, Gagarin still managed to make a successful landing without damage.

What do they have?

Already after the Soviet Union began the first experiments with dogs, it became clear: the “communists” were preparing to send a man into space. The Americans could not afford to lose the second stage of the space race, and NASA is beginning to do everything possible to overtake the Soviets, at least here.

The task they faced was at least a non-trivial one: as already mentioned above, the United States did not have rockets capable of delivering a person to orbit. True, in 1958, the Americans still managed to create a launch vehicle (the so-called Jupiter-C) capable of developing the first space velocity, but it was still a miracle of technology: in fact, the missing power was “obtained” by screwing several bundles of solid fuel to the rocket. missiles Sergeant. Of the three launches of this launch vehicle, two were unsuccessful, but during the third in 1958, they still managed to put the first American artificial satellite Explorer into orbit.

But for delivering a person into space, a device with such reliability was definitely not suitable. It was necessary to look for an alternative, and it was found by … substitution of concepts: if it is impossible to put the astronaut into orbit, then let’s at least “push” him out of the atmosphere and put a tick “done”! In fact, the American spacecraft took off upward, reaching a maximum height of 184 kilometers, after which it deflected and “fell” back to Earth. The entire flight lasted 15 minutes. During which, however, the first American astronaut Alan Shepard was even given a little “steer” the ship, named Freedom 7, checking how it reacts to commands about changing the orientation in space.

In fact, the Americans (in the person of astronaut John Glenn) really flew into space only in February 1962, using their latest development – the Atlas-D launch vehicle. By the way, Atlas-D was also a version of a purely military rocket, the “intercontinental” Convair SM-65 Atlas, upgraded for space purposes.

However, with the appearance of “real” space rockets among the Americans, the situation in the space race changed dramatically: since 1962, Americans began to fly into space much more often than Soviet cosmonauts, and soon the first purely civilian space program, Apollo, with a special and only for it developed super-heavy carrier Saturn V, followed by the Space Shuttle program.

The USSR took two more prestigious trophies in the space race (the first manned space walk and the first manned space station), but the Americans landed on the moon. 

What’s next?

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, mankind’s space odyssey lost its rapid pace taken in the 60s.

The closure of the legendary American Space Shuttle program in 2011 (on the 50th anniversary of cosmonautics!) Became a symbol of the era. It turned out that the Shuttles are too expensive, and for solving existing problems, for example, the delivery of cosmonauts and astronauts to the ISS, there are enough Russian rockets – the successors of the same first Soviet R-7. Astronautics apparently took a step back.

But perhaps she was just taking acceleration for the jump.

An important role in reviving interest in space research was played by the American businessman Elon Musk and his SpaceX with his reusable spacecraft and ambitious plans to fly to Mars and Venus in the very near future.

The governments of the largest world powers are not lagging behind. And in this sense, a very unfortunate exacerbation of the international situation in recent years can play a good service to humanity: in the context of the revival of moods during the Cold War, projects from the Cold War, including the space race, are back on the agenda.

And now both the United States and Russia and China are planning the construction of lunar bases and are considering flights to Mars and to more distant planets of the solar system.

However, the space age is not only about dreams of long-distance space flights. Space technologies have already confidently entered our life: television and mobile communications, the Internet and weather forecasts – it’s even difficult to imagine how much (and strictly for the worse) our life would change if we lost the achievements of the past half century of the space era.

It is unlikely that the engineers and cosmonauts of the 60s could even approximately imagine how much their works and accomplishments would change the world. And in the same way, today it is difficult for us to imagine what unexpected results further progress in this area can lead to.

Unfortunately, Ukraine today is on the sidelines of the path that leads people to the stars. The last time a citizen of our country, Leonid Kadenyuk, visited space in 1997. True, the possibility of sending a Ukrainian cosmonaut to the ISS in 2014 at the expense of Roscosmos was considered, but for obvious reasons this did not happen.

In 2012, the Ukrainian satellite Sich-2 stopped working. In 2014, the Ukrainian-American cooperation on the Antares project was terminated. Currently, the only thread connecting Ukraine with space is the RD-843 engines developed by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and used in the fourth stage of the European Vega rocket. But this thread runs the risk of breaking: after the accident when launching the VV17 rocket, presumably caused by malfunctions in the fourth stage, the Europeans thought about abandoning Ukrainian-made engines in favor of German-made engines.

True, just recently the Cabinet of Ministers decided to finance the creation of the Ukrainian space satellite Sich-2-1.

But this is only a small fraction of the opportunities that the country, with Yuzhmash located on its territory, could have.

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