The Soviets’ and Americans’ Approach to Spaceflight

Sputnik 1 expanded: the little satellite that started a big run of firsts for the Soviet Union in space. Credit: NASA

I’ve written a fair bit recently about what Obama’s second term in office might do to help the nation move forward in space. On the surface, Obama’s reelection means his space agenda will remain intact – we should theoretically see NASA return to the Moon and send crews to an asteroid and Mars with the agency’s Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket. But whether or not we’ll see this grand plan come to fruition is another matter. SLS and Orion are costly programs still far from flight ready making them targets for budget cuts. But there’s another factor at play. Obama, like presidents before him, has set audacious and long-term goals that risk losing momentum.

Past presidents have set big goals in space to sway voters and gain support. Notably both Bushes who tried to set the nation on a course for Mars on two different programs that were financially unfeasible and eventually cancelled by their successors. Interestingly, though Obama cancelled the Constellation program Bush Jr. started, he’s retained the goal of a Mars landing with the Orion and SLS. It’s not the Mars goal that strikes me as a problem, its the focus on Mars as the only endpoint.

In the 1960s, NASA laid a solid foundation in space while the Soviet Union designed and launched missions to derail its adversary – I looked into the run of Soviet firsts beginning with Sputnik in my recent article on Discover’s blog The Crux. While the Soviets beat Americans to major goals in space, this demonstration of dominance didn’t pay off in terms of Space Race objectives. It was NASA’s methodical approach to solving the problems associated with spaceflight that gave the agency the technology and skills it needed to complete the Apollo program successfully and on schedule. But again, this was a short term gain.

NASA’s Apollo-era programs gave the agency a knowledge base on how spaceflight works. What it didn’t do was leave NASA with a sustainable, long-term technology. That, and not some placeholder exciting mission of a planetary landing, should be our goal in space. I don’t think NASA is in any way poised to repeat the series of one-off goals accomplished by the Soviets in the 1960s, but looking at the two programs side by side does highlight the importance of a solid, progressive approach to building sustainable technology with long-term applications in space.

Author’s note: This short post is meant as a segue way into the aforementioned Discover article

Comments

  1. says

    As an historian don’t you think you need to be more objective and less prone to Cold War Nationalism and Bias?

    You write in the Discovery article you link too – “the Soviet Union was establishing a pattern in its space flights: missions were designed to stay one step ahead of the Americans, often at the cost of quality and safety—and sometimes fudged for good measure.” If you put yourself in the Russians shoes they would say they were leading the way into space and the Americans were copying them all the way.

    Korolev and his engineers would be highly offended at your suggestion that they had low standards of quality and safety. They did an outstanding job of quality and safety given their political leaders harsh demands and a budget that could never by allowed to match NASA’s. It can be easily argued that the Apollo 1 fire was due to a wide range of lethal design and construction flaws that were the direct result of the Americans rush to beat the Russians to the Moon.

    Your characterization (in the Discovery article) of the Soviet Space Programs methods as reactionary while NASA’s was always wise and measured is more about the idolization of NASA than the real facts of history. NASA was just as reactionary.

    You write in this Blog – “In the 1960s, NASA laid a solid foundation in space while the Soviet Union designed and launched missions to derail its adversary”. Both countries were trying to derail each other equally; it was not a fairytale of Good against Evil.

    In the Discovery article you write – “History shows the wisdom of NASA’s way”. Both Russia and America had brilliant engineers whose innovative methods could have made the Race for the Moon go either way. Korolev could very well have led the Russians to victory on the moon if he hadn’t of died or if they hadn’t of been so grossly underfunded. Both countries had immature political methods but both had sound methodical engineering methods. It’s just plain wrong to compare the Soviet Space Program methods and NASA’s methods and conclude that NASA is the best.

    The US Space Programs tales of glory from the 60’s and 70’s are fun to read but they are deeply entwined in the Propaganda of the times. Good Historians should know how to remove the dross and report objectively. Real lessons are born of that.

    I look forward to a time when these articles become more methodical in their quest for truth and unbiased reporting.

  2. Athanasios says

    Mark, attacking the credibility of a historian on the grounds that you disagree with her interpretation seriously undermines your critique, and indeed your own credibility. I’m not sure how you can expect anyone to take you seriously when you insist on departing from the norms of collegial scholarly discourse.

    As for your allegations of anti-Soviet “bias” on Ms. Teitel’s part: as a long-time reader of Vintage Space, I find it difficult to see how a thorough reading of her work lends itself to your interpretation. In view of the full arc of Ms. Teitel’s substantial work on this topic, I have encountered an exceedingly evenhanded appraisal of Soviet spaceflight. For example, take a close look at the closing paragraph of this very article: to whom do you suppose is ascribed a “solid, progressive approach to building sustainable technology with long-term applications in space” ? This is a consistent theme in Ms. Teitel’s work, and is a far cry from the “Propaganda of the times” of which you speak. If anything, this article is an indictment of the cultural and political configuration surrounding spaceflight missions in the United States.

  3. says

    Athanasios thank you for your comments. Unfortunately you hide behind such a generalization of fandom that it is difficult to reply.

    If you disagree with my critique then you need to refute the points specifically.
    Otherwise you are just a devotee and not objective.

    For example you wrote –“I’m not sure how you can expect anyone to take you seriously when you insist on departing from the norms of collegial scholarly discourse”.
    I thought this was a Blog, not exactly “scholarly” is it. But thanks for the laugh anyway.

    You also wrote – ” In view of the full arc of Ms. Teitel’s substantial work on this topic, I have encountered an exceedingly evenhanded appraisal of Soviet spaceflight”.
    Again your talking in generalities but I am being specific. I don’t claim that all of Amy’s writing is biased only the specific parts I quoted, particularly from the Discover Blog. Your own comments would have much more weight if you knew how to properly refute an argument instead of skirting around the edges. I suggest the following reading:-
    http://www.public.iastate.edu/~goodwin/spcom322/refute.pdf
    I would place your comments in the ‘Glittering generalities’ category.

    You wrote – “For example, take a close look at the closing paragraph of this very article: to whom do you suppose is ascribed a “solid, progressive approach to building sustainable technology with long-term applications in space” ?”
    This is better because your trying to be specific but unfortunately its beside the point because I wasn’t criticizing it.

    Thanks again Athanasios. I look forward to your reply.
    Please make it a valid one this time.

  4. says

    Re-reading this Blog its not clear what its goal is?

    The title would suggest its about comparing the Russian and US space programs of the 60’s and 70’s but the body of the article seems to be more about the problem of sustaining long term goals in NASA?

    As for the theme of sustainability, both countries have had difficulty sustaining long term ambitious goals in Space but unfortunately very little can be learned about sustainability because in both cases it is due more too economic reasons than its methods or Leadership. Basically the goals were unsustainable because they couldn’t afford it. Their respective Political leaders would all, no doubt, have revelled in taking credit for a Moon base, a better Space Shuttle or Manned Mars program but if there isn’t enough money, it simply dies.

  5. Michael H. says

    So far, everything Obama has proposed will happen in the distant future — long after he is gone from public office. Not even Richard Nixon did it that way. To most of us who were there at the time, it looked like the 1960s space race was just that: each side tried to jump beyond the other side’s last event. The sustainability of the American effort was undercut by politics (international and national) and economic events, as was the Soviet effort. The Russian government has been able to continue because it has had less political infighting, and probably because the space program has become a visible element of Russian national identity.

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