3203333333 and 1/3 Cans of TaB Cola to the Moon

A short meditation on the space race. Was a better future ever possible? Probably, but like most things, commitment to an ideal superseded an uncomfortable, high-stakes admission of failure.


Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was the Chief Designer of the Soviet space program. Of no formal engineering background on the scale required for such a program, he did however lead the rocket design (based on his aircraft design training), that the Soviets beat the United States to space, but never managed a successful manned moon landing before losing interest in the endeavor, is unsurprising, but it speaks to the suggestibility of the Americans militarily, and to the absolute farce of the American intelligence state being better informed, or otherwise more effective (unless a coup was concerned), than the other major superpowers of the era.

The strength of the Soviet space program’s PR was the dual powers of building the most powerful rockets they could (and worrying about targeting later) to achieve a given goal, and the deep secrecy with which launches were conducted; if information leaked, the interpretation was intended to seem incomplete. This is how they managed to be first with Sputnik and the Vostok programs, but also the botched attempts at a Luna program landing (though the LK vehicles did perform flybys, and more ambitious program models I will discuss in a moment have their legacies in the post-Soviet Russian space program) as a result.

I bring this up for context; in the modern era, the current vehicle servicing the ISS, for example, the Soyuz line of craft, and its unmanned counterpart for resupply missions, have its origins in these botched attempts, however, the Buran is the key piece of technology I think bears a closer look amongst a field of joint US-Russian space ventures in the decades since.

It is well-established that the Buran shuttle was an approximation by the Russian program to emulate the US Space Shuttle’s reusability, and while it sacrificed something in this regard, it did have its own benefits from being reiterated by a second set of scientists as glasnost in the Soviet Union proceeded in the 1980s. The Space Shuttle, by contrast, was hindered by the commitment to reusability, and ultimately, this is the “routine” part of “making space flight routine” that held NASA back in the post-Apollo era. I partly attribute this to Clinton-era policy that put the final nail in the coffin of developing other manned space exploration projects, but certainly not helped by Reagan-Bush-era cuts to the sciences, while publicly expressing support for things like an Apollo Applications Program-era Venus flyby.

The Apollo Applications program was, after Apollo 17, an attempt to make use of the unusued Apollo Program rockets and equipment. Part of the program was planning to make use of the various stages of the rockets to create “wet” and/or “dry” laboratories and modules in orbit, and to provide this space for a longer-haul mission, things like massive space stations, and at the most outlandish, a lunar base; ultimately, this would mostly culminate in the SkyLab, but also manifested the first US-Russia venture of docking the Apollo and Soyuz capsules in orbit before the former program ended, and STS-1 would be the first shuttle flight in 1981.

The Venus Fly-By while not officially a part of these plans, was ultimately a last-ditch effort to make use of amibitions and protocols developed to various degrees by both programs (the planned uses for the Soviet LK module equipment after the failed Soviet moonshot) that also had second life as the US explored this idea again as the USSR collapsed, and George H.W. Bush’s presidency rolled on. The original, most develop iteration, however, began development in the late 60’s, before the first moon landing, with an intention of occurring in 1973-1974 in an Apollo-derived spacecraft.

A Saturn V rocket would be launched, its third stage used to create a “wet” lab (the first attempt at cost-effective reuse of a rocket stage, which might either be recovered as it fell back to Earth, or discarded in orbit before proceeding to the moon, and now Venus) for living space, etc. This would be accomplished using the same manuever for attaching the Command Module to the Landing Module used for a Moon landing, but instead, a living module not unlike the one eventually used for SkyLab. Once this was completed in orbit, it would proceed to Venus, then after releasing a probe that would enter the planet’s atmosphere, use the planet for a gravity assist for the return trip. The Soviets had a similar plan for the TMK program, which was to perform a similar operation to Mars, then to Venus in an effort to return to Earth, which, because of the aforementioned rocket design failures of the Chief Designer, was amongst a string of failures.

This is valuable context in, both, the politics of the space race, but also the relative plausibility of each program’s approach to these problems, and the attempt to arrive at a viable Shuttle design. I’d argue the American program, while it became routine, was neither cost effective, nor particularly a driver of additional types of flight (we saw the end of the Shuttle program, and the beginning of the retirement of ISS while the disposability of Russian launch vehicles remains the primary means of transit and resupply, SpaceX’s attempts at this on behalf of NASA notwithstanding). We saw decades of routine spaceflight, but the vehicle never became more efficient, and even in light of significant design flaws in the form of the Challenger explosion, even the preeminence of scientists like Richard Feynman could change the PR-first mindset of admitting this was a failure (the Buran was destroyed— the Shuttle had no real competitor, there was nothing to lose in 1986; the Soviet Union was already, by this stage, in decline becuase of accelerationist leadership in an effort to meet the west where it was).

Was reusability being accomplished? Was it actually worth this cost? In a previous piece, Musky Emanations, I discussed the outcomes of this line of thinking for NASA; forthrightness in this matter would have threatened their budget, the confidence from the public, none of which justifies that it had the result of ushering in an era of civilian spaceflight being privatized for corporate ends, making the American taxpayer a patron to a defense contractor creating a commerical product, rather than the contractor, well, contracted to do work on behalf of the public. By rejecting Feynman’s critique, but also doubling down on the notion that the ethos of the Space Shuttle program was fundamentally correct, created a situation where history could only happen one way; the American space program’s manned spaceflight ambitions would ultimately pay the price, and in the case of the crew of Challenger, they paid the most. They took a risk, but not the risk they thought they were, and not one that, in Feynman’s estimation, was ethical for NASA to have taken.

Part of the problem is that the US space program took the opposite extreme of Soviet utilitarianism, and neither, paired with the scientific rigour each exercised, was compatible, ultimately, with the lofty ambitions of colonizing space:

I think Russia had no chance to be ahead of the Americans under Sergei Korolev and his successor, Vasili Mishin…Korolev was not a scientist, not a designer: he was a brilliant manager. Korolev's problem was his mentality. His intent was to somehow use the launcher he had.

These were the words of Sergei Khrushchev, reflecting on this experience from the view of the public (albeit as the son Nikita). Korolev was determined to maximize impact, the Americans needed to be correct (not merely first), and ultimately, neither proved all that consistent an ideology for applying the sciences at play— consider the brilliance, for example, of those in Mission Control during Apollo 13, the interplay of NASA and the contractors to solve the mechanical problems required for a successful return; this became an impossibility as a mainstay of their culture amidst the politics of the Cold War, but also the economic and social culture of how the US supports the sciences— this is another problem that manifests in the present day that I’ve written about before that has, partly, its origins in this period.

In the time since these programs, there’s been varying levels of cooperation between the various global space agencies, but nothing approaching the sort of co-development that would decouple itself from nationalism in the manner required to meld these processes and protocols for true successful manned space exploration, at least in the frameworks we’ve established politically and socially, and history has demonstrated exactlywhy this has manifested the way it has. However, consider if history had occurred some other way, cooperation had manifested, and where the past, let’s say, 50 years’ deficiencies were filled by the same half century of successes.



Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:

Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon: Tales of a Soviet Scientist - Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky

Recorded Jazz: A Critical Guide - Rex Harris, Brian A. L. Rust

The Revolutionist - Keith Gessen

Seeking Derangements Podcast ft. Brace Belden

Two-State or One-State? This is not a task for the American government - Mila Ghorayeb