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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reading List: Challenge to Apollo

Siddiqi, Asif A. Challenge to Apollo. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000. NASA SP-2000-4408.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, accounts of the Soviet space program were a mix of legend, propaganda, speculations by Western analysts, all based upon a scanty collection of documented facts. The 1990s saw a wealth of previously secret information come to light (although many primary sources remain unavailable), making it possible for the first time to write an authoritative scholarly history of Soviet space exploration from the end of World War II through the mid-1970s; this book, published by the NASA History Division in 2000, is that history.

Whew! Many readers are likely to find that reading this massive (1011 7×14 cm pages, 1.9 kg) book cover to cover tells them far, far more about the Soviet space effort than they ever wanted to know. I bought the book from the U.S. Government Printing Office when it was published in 2000 and have been using it as a reference since then, but decided finally, as the bloggers say, to “read the whole thing”. It was a chore (it took me almost three weeks to chew through it), but ultimately rewarding and enlightening.

Back in the 1960s, when observers in the West pointed out the failure of the communist system to feed its own people or provide them with the most basic necessities, apologists would point to the successes of the Soviet space program as evidence that central planning and national mobilisation in a military-like fashion could accomplish great tasks more efficiently than the chaotic, consumer-driven market economies of the West. Indeed, with the first satellite, the first man in space, long duration piloted flights, two simultaneous piloted missions, the first spacecraft with a crew of more than one, and the first spacewalk, the Soviets racked up an impressive list of firsts. The achievements were real, but based upon what we now know from documents released in the post-Soviet era which form the foundation of this history, the interpretation of these events in the West was a stunning propaganda success by the Soviet Union backed by remarkably little substance.

Indeed, in the 1945–1974 time period covered here, one might almost say that the Soviet Union never actually had a space program at all, in the sense one uses those words to describe the contemporary activities of NASA. The early Soviet space achievements were all spin-offs of ballistic missile technology driven by Army artillery officers become rocket men. Space projects, and especially piloted flight, interested the military very little, and the space spectaculars were sold to senior political figures for their propaganda value, especially after the unanticipated impact of Sputnik on world opinion. But there was never a roadmap for the progressive development of space capability, such as NASA had for projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Instead, in most cases, it was only after a public success that designers and politicians would begin to think of what they could do next to top that.

Not only did this supposedly centrally planned economy not have a plan, the execution of its space projects was anything but centralised. Throughout the 1960s, there were constant battles among independent design bureaux run by autocratic chief designers, each angling for political support and funding at the expense of the others. The absurdity of this is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that on November 17th, 1967, six days after the first flight of NASA's Saturn V, the Central Committee issued a decree giving the go-ahead to the Chelomey design bureau to develop the UR-700 booster and LK-700 lunar spacecraft to land two cosmonauts on the Moon, notwithstanding having already spent millions of rubles on Korolev's already-underway N1-L3 project, which had not yet performed its first test flight. Thus, while NASA was checking off items in its Apollo schedule, developed years before, the Soviet Union, spending less than half of NASA's budget, found itself committed to two completely independent and incompatible lunar landing programs, with a piloted circumlunar project based on still different hardware simultaneously under development (p. 645).

The catastrophes which ensued from this chaotic situation are well documented, as well as how effective the Soviets were in concealing all of this from analysts in the West. Numerous “out there” proposed projects are described, including Chelomey's monster UR-700M booster (45 million pounds of liftoff thrust, compared to 7.5 million for the Saturn V), which would send a crew of two cosmonauts on a two-year flyby of Mars in an MK-700 spacecraft with a single launch. The little-known Soviet spaceplane projects are documented in detail.

This book is written in the same style as NASA's own institutional histories, which is to say that much of it is heroically boring and dry as the lunar regolith. Unless you're really into reorganisations, priority shifts, power grabs, and other manifestations of gigantic bureaucracies doing what they do best, you may find this tedious. This is not the fault of the author, but of the material he so assiduously presents. Regrettably, the text is set in a light sans-serif font in which (at least to my eyes) the letter “l” and the digit “1” are indistinguishable, and differ from the letter “I” in a detail I can spot only with a magnifier. This, in a book bristling with near-meaningless Soviet institutional names such as the Ministry of General Machine Building and impenetrable acronyms such as NII-1, TsKBEM (not to be confused with TsKBM) and 11F615, only compounds the reader's confusion. There are a few typographical errors, but none are serious.

This NASA publication was never assigned an ISBN, so looking it up on online booksellers will generally only find used copies. You can order new copies from the NASA Information Center at US$79 each. As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and a scanned online edition (PDF) is available. This is a 64 megabyte download, so unless you have a fast Internet connection, you'll need to be patient. Be sure to download it to a local file as opposed to viewing it in your browser, because otherwise you'll have to download the whole thing each time you open the document.

Posted at April 16, 2008 22:53