With the success of Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film, Gravity, which features space debris from a Russian missile as a prominent plot device, I am reminded of the fierce 20th century competition between Russia and the US over the cosmos and want to ask the somewhat rhetorical question: who really won the Space Race?
Well for one, let’s acknowledge that the space race is not over (will it ever be?) and that opinions may change in the coming decades as mankind continues to explore the final frontier and gets closer to putting a human on Mars.
Second, the July 1969 breathtaking broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon is understandably considered the triumphal high point of the Cold War-era contest between the USA and the USSR.
It’s also true that the USSR never really stood a chance in the race to put a man on the Moon. Jalopnik just released a fascinating piece explaining in detail why the Soviet Union’s kerosene-fueled N1 rocket was never able to reach the same heights as the Saturn V that launched the crew of the Apollo 11 on their historic mission.
The N1 had four test launches, all resulting in failure:
But, courtesy of the Jalopnik commenters, let’s not forget some important milestones that the Soviet’s did reach first:
- First satellite in space (Sputnik)
- First animal in space (Laika)
- First man in space (Yuri Gagarin)
- First woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova)
- First probe to land on the Moon (Luna 2 in 1959, it crashed)
- First probe to land on the Moon and survive impact (Luna 9 in 1966)
- First rover on the Moon (Lunokhod 1, 1970)
- First to release a film version of the novel Solaris (the George Clooney version was not released until 2002)
So there’s that.
One additional thing to note is that the Soviet’s were extremely cautious with their own Luna program, fearing that sending a man to the Moon would lead to a hazardous Solar Radiation Event.
This caution is atypical, as one reason the Soviets were the first to achieve the milestones noted above is that they often threw caution to the wind. The thinking with the ill-fated Luna 2 probe, the first to ever ‘land’ on the Moon was that “hey, crashing counts as landing!!”