Stephen Walker (2021)

The space race from the American perspective is well-known: this book presents the same race from the Soviet perspective.

The differences are profound, of course, mainly driven by the Soviet programme occurring in complete secrecy to duck the risks that failure would have on the programme’s image. The American programme by contrast was conducted in the open at least as far as the actual “shots” were concerned – and their public failures did indeed endanger their ability to continue, at least in part because neither public nor politicians understood the process of engineering or just how hard each shot was. The deep irony is that the Soviet successes appeared so sudden and dramatic they led directly to the deepening of the American programme and commitment or more money and effort than the Soviets seemed able to maintain to capitalise on their early lead.

There are plenty of revelations even for those with a detailed interest in space history. I remember hearing all through the 1970s that the Soviet spacecraft landed on land, but it turns out that in many cases the cosmonauts were bailing-out and parachuting to earth instead, with this being intensively covered-up even to the extent of falsifying reports to the international organisation responsible for certifying “firsts” in space.

While the achievements of both programmes were profound, they were perhaps doomed in the long term by a lack of vision for what they were actually for. The benefits of space technology are now obvious; those of exploration perhaps less so, although it doesn’t (in my opinion) require much suspension of disbelief to feel that science-driven activities lead almost inevitably to enormously valuable spin-offs. The fact that we can’t quantify these a priori shouldn’t (in my opinion, again) stop us keeping the faith in the value of experiments that advance our science and engineering in ways that wouldn’t otherwise happen.

5/5. Finished Sunday 21 April, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)