Everybody knows about the Russian Sputnik and everybody knows about the USA’s first walk on the moon. But not everybody knows about everything that happened in-between.
For example, not everybody knows about Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1906-1966) the man who headed the USSR’s space program until his death. Korolev was denounced during the second world war and sent to the gulags to dig ditches until, as the war neared its end, the Soviets realized they needed him for the next war: the war for supremacy in space.
Korolev was released from prison and was the main man responsible for the first satellite in space, the first animal to be launched into orbit (but not returned alive), the first animals to be launched and returned alive, the first man to orbit and the first man to space-walk.
Meanwhile in America our rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun had problems of his own.
There was that hounding issue of his using slave labor to assemble the V-2 in Germany, not to mention the launching of the V-2 against civilian targets in England. Of course by the end of the war the US had dropped the Big Ones on civilian targets in Japan, so the civilian target charge fell by the way-side.
The US kept the holocaust ruckus at bay when president Kennedy saw the space race as a great way to keep America’s attention off Castro’s successes in Cuba and communism’s advance into Viet Nam.
The race was on and it was Korolev in the USSR against Von Braun in the US.
Only nobody in America knew about Korolev, because his identity was kept a strict secret. As far as the world outside of the inner circle of the Soviet elite knew, Korolev did not exist.
Ostensibly kept under wraps for “security,” the real reason for the secret of his existence was to make it impossible for US spies to convince him to flee to America. If US agents could not even identify him, they could not entreat him to come live the life of luxury like Von Braun and the rest of the retired Nazi SS elite who were seeing the USA in their Chevrolets.
All this while Korolev and his lifelong assistant Vasily Mishin lived in Quonset huts on the deserted and desolate prairie in Kazakhstan, 120 miles south of the nearest city, Baikonur. The Baikonur Cosmodrome was their one and only home. The Soviet conquest of space was their only mission.
Both the Soviets and the Americans started with about six or seven astronauts in their first programs. The objective was to get a man into orbit and to get him back down safely. These men were the best of the best, as described in the Tom Wolfe classic, “The Right Stuff.”
Each man was tested in a centrifuge to withstand crushing “G” forces, blasted out of cannons, submerged in flooded containers and tortured with noise and vibration.
When all had passed the tests, Soviet Yuri Gagarin was chosen for the first manned space shot based on the fact that he had “the widest smile.” We don’t know why American Alan Shepard was chosen but it was probably based on some similar incontestable quality.
Gagarin’s re-entry module malfunctioned when the retro-rocket pod failed to completely separate from the manned capsule. The two banged back and forth as they glowed white hot during re-entry, the rocket module finally breaking free. As Gagarin’s module plummeted to the ground he was ejected and floated down separately, barely surviving the entire ordeal. None of this was reported until years later.
Officially, his flight was “routine.”
On Alexei Leonov’s subsequent flight and spacewalk the cosmonaut’s space suit bloated to so large a size in the near-vacuum of space that he could not flex his fingers. Even worse, his suit was too large to get back into the re-entry capsule.
In the end, Korolev barely was able to talk the cosmonaut through the manual release of air from his suit, a harrowing experience floating two hundred miles above earth in zero gravity. He released just enough air to allow him to push back into the capsule just in time to start the re-entry procedure.
Another adventure that went into the official transcripts as “routine.”
These are only some of the stories of courage, determination and heartbreak that are part and parcel of the upcoming national Geographic series. It shows the lives, and deaths, and the victories and the unspeakable disasters that made up both the US and Soviet space programs.
The biggest contest in history to win the hearts and minds of the world. The series is based on the book, “Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space,” (HarperCollins, May 9, 2006, Hardcover) by Emmy Award-winning producer and documentarian Deborah Cadbury. Check them both out, courtesy of National Geographic.
Broadcast Sunday, June 4 and Monday, June 5, 2006 at 9pm ET / 9pm PT (USA)
National Geographic Channel
Runtime: 2 hours broadcast each night