Soviet Space History Series: An Introduction / by Adeene Denton

Hello, and welcome back to this small geological and planetary science history blog! After a six-month hiatus, I've returned to this blog with an important purpose: to bring you (the readers), a small analysis series focused on the social and political background of the Soviet space program. The Soviet space program was an endeavor that struck fear into the hearts of Americans for decades, and yet somehow remained shrouded in mystery. Most of us know the basics of NASA and the American space program, from Al Shepard’s first flight to Apollo 11 on the Moon to the rise of the Space Shuttle. The American victory in the Space Race – as symbolized by the landing of two astronauts on the Moon in 1969 – is a cultural touchstone in our society. And yet, what of our competitors? How was the Soviet space program shaped by the society in which it functioned, and how did that affect its approach to the various milestones of the Space Race?

For many of us, the Soviet space program began with the launch of Sputnik, peaked with the orbit of Yuri Gagarin, and from there descended into obscurity, never to exceed the Americans in space achievements again. Before I traveled to Russia myself, I didn’t know much more than that, despite my avowed interest in space history. While I was in Moscow for scientific reasons, I was also able to visit the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, located within the base of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space (Figure 1). It was a wealth of knowledge, but for me it raised more questions than answers, because while much more information about the Soviet journey was available in this space it was clear that this was not the whole story either. The Memorial Museum lionizes the technology, preserves the memories of some of the people who made that technology possible, and stops at that, as museums tend to do. As I ate lunch in the Museum’s café with my advisor next to a children’s birthday party (another truly special moment), I thought further about the lack of knowledge about the Soviet space program that persists, not just in the U.S. but in general, even decades after it ceased to exist. 

Figure 1. The Monument to the Conquerers of Space. 

Figure 1. The Monument to the Conquerers of Space. 

In my research since then, I’ve found that the cause for the lack of knowledge this lack of knowledge is twofold: first, history is written by the winners, and the Americans won; second, the Soviet space program operated on the basis of secrecy and propaganda. Information that left the Soviet Union came sparingly, was designed to intimidate, and could never be truly trusted as fact. This was even true within the Soviet Union! Before the fall of the Soviet Union and rise of the Russian Federation, Soviet historians were stymied by a lack of access to space program records and a State censorship apparatus dedicated to preventing any assessment that cast the program as anything other than a glorious success. Only in the last few decades (post-1988) have researchers truly had access to the Soviet archives concerning the space program. The blog posts written here are an attempt to select relevant pieces from that research concerning the Soviet space program’s rise, tumultuous journey, and transition into Roscosmos. These pieces are:

  1. In the shadow of Stalin: The beginnings of the Soviet space program
  2. Gender, the State, and space: The complex legacy of Valentina Tereshkova
  3. Soviet moonshot: Failure of manned flights meets robotic successes 
  4. Red failure at the red planet: The Mars Program
  5. Becoming Roscosmos: Casualties and crisis after the fall of the USSR

These five areas do not cover the entirety of the Soviet space program’s efforts; no series of blog posts can do that. I have selected these areas based on my survey of the current research, what information is available, and how it aligns with my own interests. Specifically, there will be a bit more of a focus on some of the Soviet robotic achievements and less on the admittedly fascinating journey of cosmonauts with the rise and fall of Soviet fortunes, because I am personally fascinated by the robotic work that the Soviets did and continue to try to do on the Moon. If there is interest, I am happy to get deeper into the world of cosmonauts later. These pieces will differ a bit from previous work on this blog in my approach to collating information. While I have access to some U.S. government documents describing what the U.S. thought it knew about the Soviet space program in the 1960s and 1970s, the bulk of real information comes from the work others have done in translating and interpreting Russian-language archival documents or through interviews of Soviet scientists.

Figure 2. Within the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. The Soviet program made its cosmonauts collossal cultural figures, but at what cost?

Figure 2. Within the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. The Soviet program made its cosmonauts collossal cultural figures, but at what cost?

I hope that you’ll join me on this journey! The history of the Soviet space program is truly fascinating. As we reach a crossroads in the U.S. regarding the future of spaceflight, who gets to do it, and how it will be done, it’s worth looking back at the tumultuous journey that the Soviets took towards spaceflight and building a space program. And it is certainly worth acknowledging that while they may not have done it with people, the Americans weren’t the only nation to go from the Earth to the Moon.

Selected References

Chertok, B. (2011) Rockets and People, Volume IV: The Moon Race. Ed. A.A. Siddiqi. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C.

Siddiqi, A.A. (2000) Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Government, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1971). Histories of the Soviet/Russian Space Program, Volume 2: Soviet Space Programs 1971 – Kosmos, Lunokhod, Salyut, Soyuz, Zond, FOBS, Military Satellites, Mars Attempts, Tracking Ships.