Cosmic heroics – doers of the math


Soviet Space Composite (all illustrations by the author)

History is strange stuff – and it gets stranger if you pay attention for a few decades, because you begin to realize – “Hey, they’re writing it all down wrong – and then newer people, and those who weren’t here to remember how it happened, are being taught from a lie!”

Once you start pulling on THAT thread – your whole sense of knowing and certainty can start to come undone, because you begin to recognize they’ve always been doing that (telling stories as often as truths) – and much of what you were taught was also a deliberate distortion, or at least a lie of omission.

Follow this outraged skepticism too far – and you can get mired in the universal conspiracy mindset which has had many cycles of popularity while I’ve been watching (some, a lot funnier than others). Very stimulating material if you’re into writing suspense-thrillers, but not such great stuff from which to build happiness, or make big plans.

“Counter-narratives” are popular – promising to refute the “big lies” told by the most powerful (who are usually seen as history’s ultimate authors), and therefore bring one to truth.

But (so predictably as to be hilarious) counter-narratives themselves, like the gross propaganda they purport to oppose, are almost always based upon a simplistic moral conclusion that they want you to accept, along with their story – rather than a clear open relating of things that happened.

Funny thing is – writers (of any sort of narrative) do have an engineering problem in common with designers of spacecraft – if you make the thing too heavy, it can’t get off the ground! You really do have to leave stuff out, even for a grand overview of a period of history and effort like this – which means you can’t help but impose a bias by what you choose to say – and whether it also adequately represents the unsaid matter.

Is the history of space exploration a story of unmitigated wonder and competing national brilliance and glory? Has it all been nothing but a cynical and vastly expensive propaganda tool, intended primarily to sell dangerous nationalism itself, and help the war for profit industry look more like a kindly truth-seeking philosopher?

No (and no). I’ve been studying the history of space for decades, and while I am not an engineer, I am a curious writer and a technician with fondness for design solution, an eye for the reality behind the false front, and a special sympathy for the creative misfit.

So if you ask me about it, the story of human space exploration is best understood as the project of intellectuals and engineers who had the kind of passion and dedication we’re more used to associating with crazy artists – and showed up at the right historical moment to work in the (cold war) aerospace renaissance. Can’t help also recalling Oppenheimer – and his sincere (if frightening) explanation of why they pressed-on with the creation of the atom bomb, despite profound moral misgivings on the part of many, “It was just so technically sweet!”


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was a rare creative genius – deafened by scarlet fever as a child, he was kept out of school, but read books on science and mathematics voraciously. While working as a high-school math teacher in Kaluga (Siberia) he built one of the first wind tunnels ever in his apartment (1897) with which he did much groundbreaking aeronautical research – funded by his own modest salary. In 1903 he published a scientific paper on the “Exploration of outer space using rocket devices” in which he introduced the Tsiolkovsky equation for rocket reactions (still used to this day), and proposed that crew capsules should be lifted by multi-stage launch vehicles, powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen engines – the basic modern recipe for manned rocketry.

He’d been greatly inspired by Jules Verne as a kid – but his math and engineering understanding was as tight as Verne’s imagination was wild – which meant he ended up conceiving a huge range of elegant design solutions like graphite vanes for steering, and using the properties of the liquified fuel gases both for cooling the engines and pressure-strengthening the hull (techniques very widely used) – he even suggested far out stuff we haven’t tried yet and won’t for awhile, like the “Space elevator” (ride straight up to a station in geosynchronous orbit – no rockets at all) which was inspired by the Eiffel tower!

He went on to write about how to create practical life-support systems, methods for controlled gas exchange for safe respiration, water reclamation and processing, food cultivation, even modular space stations and eventual permanently inhabited orbital colonies.

Finally, in the late 1920s he solved the last basic theoretical problems of achieving earth orbit using rocket engines. All without ever building a single test rocket in his life – he retired, still a high-school math teacher!


Robert Goddard (1882-1945) started off much like Tsiolkovsky, a sickly but science-crazy kid (in his case inspired by HG Wells) who began working on solving the practical problems of spaceflight independently, mostly funding his research to create a liquid fuel rocket engine from his small teaching salary – but experimental work burns through cash fast, and though he did enjoy some access to lab facilities where he studied and taught (Princeton, then Clark university), he knew he needed to scale up his funding, to get his research program accomplished.

The National Geographic Society helped him set up his first dedicated rocket laboratory with a promise of five years of funding – later, Lindberg became a friend and supporter, and in 1930 helped Goddard get support from the Guggenheims to press-on with the world changing work – at which time he moved to (drumroll please) Roswell New Mexico – and established the proper rocket laboratory he had long planned.

Curiously, Goddard was always worried that he wouldn’t be taken seriously by fellow scientists, if he revealed the true ultimate aims of his research (human space exploration) – so his public statements were very conservative “Sounding rockets for atmospheric research” sounded sober and sensible, compared to the idea of man in space – especially when so many of the necessary technological fundamentals were considered impossible by his scientific peers.

He set about to prove them wrong – methodically, step by step. In his laboratory he first proved rockets could work in a vacuum, performed static thrust measurements, invented turbo-pumps, achieved controlled reaction combustion, shaped and concentrated the exhaust plume, then even steered that thrust with an early swing mounting for the engine, vanes in the exhaust (for control at speeds too slow for aerodynamic forces to have effect) and a gyroscopic guidance system. So much for the assumed-impossible, being a barrier!

His brilliance was extraordinarily wide-ranging (he even arguably invented the first amplifying vacuum tube in 1910 while studying at Princeton, though Lee DeForest’s later claim is the one recognized) – ultimately, Goddard was awarded 214 unique patents – 131 of them posthumous – many still viable and important ideas to this day. He even sketched out the design which later became the Bazooka – at the end of WWI (not WWII, for which it was actually developed and used) and late in his life worked on JATO (jet assisted take-off) packs to help overburdened aircraft get into the air.

But it was the next generation of keeners who showed up just in time for the cold war – the aerospace equivalent of the patronage of Medics!

Salyut Seven strategy session

Like Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, German Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977) and Russian Sergei Pavleivich Korolev (1907-1966) grew up as science keeners, with relentless curiosity, and so much energy for solving new problems that even during the difficult early 30s (Versailles treaty in Germany, and early revolutionary paranoia in Russia) they formed historically important research groups, which brought whole teams of brilliant designers and practical refinements to new heights.

Korolev was a dedicated glider-pilot in his youth, and when he studied aeronautical engineering, creating a new working glider design as his graduate project – his thesis advisor was the great Andrei Tupolev himself! When GIRD (group for study of reactive motion) was formed in 1931, he became its leader, working alongside Valentin Glushko – the most important Russian rocket-engine designer of all time. But Stalin’s paranoia in the late thirties would be tragic for both – Korolev was denounced on charges of deliberately slowing the team’s work (by Glushko, amongst others) and sent away to a series of prisons, including an extremely brutal Siberian gold mine, worked by forced labour, where many fell ill and died. Changed his temperament forever.

Glushko wasn’t his main accuser (who used the ploy to gain control of the whole research project, and thus set back Russian rocketry by many years) – thankfully for the justice-minded, the jerk who started it was himself executed, and backstabbing Glushko was also denounced and suffered greatly. Hard to imagine how the two of them ever managed to work together again, but though their resentment was lifelong, they not only cooperated, they created enduring masterpieces of engineering!


In 1930, young Von Braun joined the idealistic VfR (Society for Space Travel) which was formed in Berlin in 1927 by the technical advisors for Fritz Lang’s film “Frau im Mond” (the woman in the moon), and conducted test-launches of their own Herman Oberth inspired designs, from a disused garbage dump. While some contend Von Braun poached from Goddard’s work, there is clear evidence this is not so – particularly because his team’s work was so much more specific and practical than Goddard’s rougher, more general ideas. In fact, Von Braun’s (1934) graduation thesis was so advanced, the German government only let him make part of it public at the time, releasing the rest (detailing the creation of a practical missile program) only in 1964!

We all know that his wartime V2 project was terrifying, lethal, built with concentration camp labour – profoundly morally compromised in every way – but it was also an engineering breakthrough, the first useful liquid fuel rocket able to loft a weighty payload, and guide itself to target. Despite his association with this most evil regime, there is some cause to believe his insistence that he was trying to get to the moon, all along.

At war’s end, outside of the top Nazi leadership, there was no one the Americans were more eager to find than Von Braun – not to arrest him for war-crimes (though that would have been an easy case to make, especially by Nuremberg rules) but to give him vast resources and set him to work. (Including White Sands missile range, as his new sandbox)

There were many more steps between, but the ultimate result of his work was the incredible Saturn Five moon rocket (8 million pounds of first-stage thrust) – the project and destination he had been working toward since Wily Ley brought him into VfR three decades earlier!

Not only did Von Braun contribute many critical solutions and design innovations, his systems approach was rigorously careful, with multiple back-ups and tolerances well above anticipated needs – which may have cost America a few firsts in space, but also certainly saved lives.

Of course, huge numbers of scientists, mathematicians and engineers were required to realize a project of such complexity – in 1959, Canada suddenly contributed tens of thousands of brilliant engineering minds to NASA and it’s aerospace contractors all at once, when the Diefenbaker government destroyed Avro Canada, just weeks before the Orenda-engined Arrow could fly, and prove it’s unprecedented capabilities to the world. (A political and economic misstep and brain-drain tragedy from which we have still not fully recovered – since we also exported all of that precious multi-generational scientific mentorship!)


Korolev did not have a good war – like a staggering number of people caught up by Stalin’s lethal paranoia and then the war, he was never the same afterward – but as soon as he was released and set back to work, his brilliance and leadership returned undimmed. He was the driving chief design genius behind the early Soviet space program, just as Von Braun was for America’s answer.

Everyone has heard about Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space – but we rarely talk about the rocket which carried him aloft. Developed from the 1957 Raketa 7 ICBM – which had to be powerful for two reasons – their nukes were heavy (Americans lead in warhead miniaturization for quite some time) and because the USSR lacked a launch site close to the equator, and so couldn’t use Florida’s fat-diameter earth-spin as a free boost!

This brilliant and reliable Korolev design (with Glushko engines) was developed over time into the R7 family of launchers – the safest and by far most numerous human-rated lifting vehicles ever made – still used to lift Soyuz capsules to the International Space Station (ISS) today.

Now let’s rejoin the standard narrative where so many begin to feel a sense of war-creepiness. Kennedy’s declaration that the US was going to the moon (1961) wasn’t just a statement, but in fact a defiant response to unnerving cold war events. At that time, the Soviet Union was shockingly (humiliatingly) ahead of the USA in space accomplishments. The target of landing men on the moon truly was chosen politically, because it was a goal that was still far enough away for both teams, to give America time to catch up to the USSR’s lead. They still had to spend like crazy to do this – and built an extraordinary infrastructure (something juicy for all the key congressional districts) to give themselves the best chance of success.

Salyut Seven smile

Just like Korolev, the Werner-powered team in America had adopted a cumulative building strategy to put the program together – first solo flight – then flights with more crew, then with a spacewalk, to check if humans could operate outside and do spacecraft repairs in flight, then multiple-vehicle docking. Only at that point would they know all of the basic things they needed, in order to reasonably attempt travel to the moon.

The Soviets used their solo Vostok capsules to bring the world’s first spaceman Yuri Gagarin aloft for a full orbit on April 12 1961. Gherman Titov followed, spending a full day in orbit in Aug ’61 (while the American Mercury program was still flying 15 minute suborbital manned ballistic test flights). They did two ships flying at once (no docking) in ’62, then another pair in ’63, including a four day endurance flight, and a two day flight for the world’s first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova.

Next they developed an improved intermediary “Voskhod” capsule, intending it to hold an airlock for spacewalks, and a second crew member (to help the spacewalker, if they got into trouble). The legend here says that one day, a senior official came down to the engineering office and made a proposal to the staff, who were then working on the design of the brilliant three-crew (moon intended) modular Soyuz capsule.

But that worthy ship wasn’t going to be ready for awhile yet – in the meantime, the Americans were moving on from one man Mercury flights into two, with their first Gemini launch (ultimately Mar ’65).

The Soviet leadership really wanted to scoop them, by putting three cosmonauts in space at once, before the Americans could achieve two! Now to be clear – no engineer would ever dream of rushing this for such a reason – the conception of the ‘problem’ was so defective, as to make solving it foolish – but they added an incentive that was truly impossible to resist – the engineer who figures out how to do it with existing Voskhod technology, can join the flight as the third cosmonaut!

Konstantin Feoktistov – one of my favourite space people of all time, was the design engineer who figured it out. After playing with the incredibly confined geometry of the capsule and the bulk of bodies, he realized the only way to do it was to fly without pressure suits!

Sure enough, they managed to jam three narrow crash couches into the capsule, and Feoktistov got his ride into space Oct ’64 on Voskhod1 – the originally intended un-rushed Voskod2 launched in early March of ’65, carrying Alexei Leonov, who performed the world’s first spacewalk during the flight (and was lucky to survive it, when his suit inflated far more than predicted, and almost proved too large for him to get safely back inside the airlock again!)

The whole Voskhod program was completed two weeks before the Americans could get the first manned Gemini flight off the ground. First and second tournament-rounds conclusively won by the team in red.


When Korolev died in 1966, Feoktistov took over as chief designer for the manned space program, and lead the brilliant team which created Salyut 1 to 7 and Mir – a series of increasingly sophisticated and reliable space stations – ultimately leading up to the Zvezda module, which is the heart of the modern day ISS. Originally intended as the central habitation and command module of Mir2.

But it has to be mentioned, their promising Soyuz vehicle did not have a good debut – the first manned flight, flown by Vladimir Komarov in 1967, ended in disaster when the capsule spun too fast on reentry, his parachute lines became tangled, and he hit the ground still doing several hundred miles an hour.

Sadly, the crew of the world’s very first space station – Salyut 1 (1971) also perished in an early Soyuz flight (the only other fatality associated with the capsule and program) – a tragedy which broke millions of hearts across the USSR – because they had been doing live broadcasts during their stay in orbit, and their charm made them greatly beloved to many.

Why did they die? – because they tried the same trick that Feoktistov got away with – not wearing pressure suits – even though Soyuz did have adequate interior volume to allow them. When a small valve opened in error during their descent flight they all suffocated, mere minutes before touching down softly thanks to automatic retro-rockets. Had just one of them understood the complex onboard systems well enough, it is said that they could have covered the valve over with a fingertip and saved the whole crew. Naturally, Soyuz was immediately redesigned for increased redundancy and safety. So was mission planning and crew training.


The Americans had capsule problems of their own around that time – in 1967, the crew which were scheduled to fly Apollo One were lost in a real equipment simulation exercise, their capsule was being tested with pure oxygen, a fire risk in itself, and the interior contained a combination of highly flammable materials. One spark was all it took to ignite a flash fire – the door hatch was too hot to open until it was too late for any of the crew. One reason all genuine Apollo velcro was made out of SILVER! Also back to the drawing board – less rushing – more careful and methodical, just like bossy Wernher had been insisting (to very wide irritation) all along!


The big question – why did the Americans get to the moon first? – actually has a simple answer – the Saturn V worked very well – the Soviet N1 rocket simply did not (exploded on every test flight). The rest of the necessary technology, a complex lunar lander and rendezvous orbiter was not only designed, most of it was actually built – they just didn’t have the heavy lifter to get off the ground in time.

As much as a rocket might just seem like a fancy version of a firecracker – the problems to be solved in making one do exactly what you want, every time you want it to, safely and reliably, really are staggering!

While I’m speaking of Rockets and disasters, I must also mention the Nedelin incident – long hushed-up in the USSR and never widely talked about here, either. It’s important because it is one of the greatest disasters in the history of space research – also a sign of grand and fatal hubris which Nasa too would one day show.

The R-16 was the second generation ICBM (first practical) following the original R7 program. In 1960, the prototype for this highly successful series of military rockets was being readied for launch, and rushed very badly by management. Pre-flight tests and launch preparations both being carried out at the same time. Somehow, the highly caustic second stage ignited, causing the powerful first stage to explode – the resulting fireball incinerated at least 78 people – many against the security fence that blocked their escape from the area, and hundreds more were burned or injured by the toxins released. The program’s leader Nedelin was among those lost, and the project was set back significantly – Mikhael Yangel, one of the few senior missile designers present who survived (though badly burned) just happened to be hiding behind a blockhouse to enjoy a cigarette, where he wouldn’t get yelled at!

Soyuz – Room to stretch!

We all know the Americans took the trophy – got to the moon and planted the flag – and in the process did much (entirely accidentally) to ignite the modern “one-earth consciousness” which is a spiritual power source for so many environmentalists – but then their program got distracted – public interest waned so quickly, they didn’t even launch the last of the planned Apollo missions to the moon – and the incredibly expensive Saturn V rocket built to carry it, was instead turned into an inspiring display for awestruck young visitors to Cape Kennedy (Canaveral, to old timers) like nine year old me.

One last Saturn Five was used in a very cool way in 1973 – instead of filling the third rocket stage with fuel to propel a lander to the moon, they used the first two stages only, to lift the third one into a stable low earth orbit – and fitted it out as a space-station – the well known (and by space standards, luxuriously spacious) Skylab. It helps when you get the dimensions of a big fuel tank to work with, and the penny pinchers can’t start you off with tight minimums! Skylab was nifty – room to try a lot of things – but it was also crippled by problems with its solar panels and cooling, which were repaired just enough to get it working, but kept it from ever coming near to its design specification. This meant they never had enough power for all of their intended experiments, but had to ration and re-plan every last thing they did, extremely carefully.

There are persistent rumours that this detailed micromanaging from ground control lead to the world’s first space strike! Sure, the Apollo guys were a bit curt from time to time, but they were in it for a few days, not four weeks like the Skylab1 crew, or two and three months for the second and third crews to occupy the station. (Its last ever visitors, sadly).

The story says one surly crew switched off their radios altogether and decided for themselves how to ration their time, only submitting again to ground control, when they had decided to take a more respectful tone.

Very similar lessons were being learned in the Soviet program at that time (check out “Diary of a cosmonaut” by Valentine Lebedev – for cool and hilarious first-hand insights). Korolev failed to get the USSR to the moon, but Feoktistov his inheritor, worked on the area where the USSR could still definitely beat the Americans soundly – space stations. Why could they take that prize? Because they had the excellent Soyuz capsule as a reliable transport system, and the Americans, having left off development of all the ambitious follow-on programs to Apollo (by which there would be a permanently manned moon base by now), had absolutely nothing human-rated to fly to orbit – and nowhere especially useful to go when they got there, anyhow.


Skylab – which had to be abandoned in ’79, very wastefully, because of delays with the shuttle, was already an early sign of a problem that would plague the American program for years – yes, high tech industries can be great partners, but when they start going to war with each other over money (just as the services within the armed forces have always competed viciously for appropriations) you can end up making a gigantic mess, trying to make everyone a bit happy in the reconciliation, rather than relentlessly doing it right from a pure engineering mindset.

NASA had been doing key aeronautical research work ever since it was formed in 1915 – called NACA originally, and directly responsible in 1929, with the help of Jimmy Doolittle, for developing the suite of blind flying instruments which to this day allow aircraft to safely navigate through fog, cloud and dark of night (see Doolittle’s awesome autobiography “I could never be so lucky again”). But the USAF had its own serious reasons, plans and ambitions for going to space independently of NASA, and so did the US Navy – which was (between the lines) the main commissioning ‘client’ for Skylab.

Machines like the X-15 rocket plane were capable of flying up into the edge of space and then landing on a runway all the way back in the late 50s – and the USAF had plans for second generation (practical) ground or air-launched, runway-landing space vehicles, capable of reaching orbit reliably, at far lower cost than rocket launches.

The advanced lifting bodies tested at NASA in the 60s like the HL-10 still look wildly futuristic today – but the gee-whiz project that was furthest along in development for deployment was the Dyna-Soar, a USAF spaceplane, with Boeing as lead contractor. The Nixon administration was sincerely hawkish, but the costs of his ruinous and deadly approach to the war in Vietnam, forced him to scrap many advanced aerospace projects in an attempt to save money.

NASA wanted a manned space vehicle for research, and a space lab to engage the public imagination in science with heroic space feats. The Navy wanted a permanently manned station in space, for human directed reconnaissance (Skylab 2), USAF wanted a flyable reusable space-plane, for rapid military access to low earth orbit (LEO) which they now arguably have at last – with the robotic X37 mystery ship!


In true democratic fashion (make all parties equally unhappy with the compromise) – what Nixon gave everyone instead of what they wanted most, was a share of the space shuttle program. To make the Navy happy, they made a gigantic cargo bay in the back, which could hold a sophisticated space laboratory for dedicated research missions. The CIA was also pleased about this – great for satellite deployment and – they hoped, one day – regular satellite recovery also (ours and theirs).

To make the USAF happy, the thing could be flown, and even diverted from NASA’s civilian cape, to land instead at Vandenberg air force base in California, from where far more secretive space projects have long been launched and controlled. (X-37 lives there now, naturally).

Most of all – to make the bean-counters and all the stakeholders happy, the shuttle was supposed to be cheap to fly, reusable, safe and reliable – and to allow such excellent access to LEO that whole infrastructures could be constructed there, at will. Small micro-gravity factories for ultra pure crystals or pharmaceuticals, were widely hyped as commercially viable (even wildly profitable), near-term – three full decades ago!

But there were a few big problems right from the start. Making the cargo bay big enough to please the Navy meant the whole shuttle orbiter was absurdly heavy for a crewed launch vehicle – 109 Metric tons fully loaded – versus 7-10 metric tons for a typical Soyuz, or 34 metric tons for a fully fuelled Apollo payload (lunar lander, orbiter and service module).

Sort of like heaving a winnebago full of books into orbit, instead of a subcompact with a nicely packed thumb drive – clunky way to go – and it called for an incredibly powerful launch vehicle – complete with solid rocket boosters which were to be made by a contractor in Utah, to help win their funding approval for the project – and so were constructed in sections, so they could be shipped by rail (though NASA had sourced far larger one-piece sections in the past, manufactured closer, and/or delivered by river barge). The fact that these solid rocket boosters were made in sections instead of one solid piece added risk for no benefit other than commercial (and political) – the fact that no one senior took appropriate notice of the way the rubber O-ring seals used to join these sections responded to cold weather, was another example of fatal hubris on the part of space management.

When physicist Richard Feynman was asked to investigate the aftermath of the horrible Challenger disaster (this cause exactly), he demonstrated his conclusions to the press very simply, by taking a section of the infamous O-Ring, dipping it in ice-water while making a few general points, then casually shattering it into pieces with a whack against the table. Any more questions? It was reality-first with him, always – (which is why his recorded physics lectures remain delightful, inspiring, informative and surprisingly funny, to this day).

The shuttle program did do a lot of very cool and useful things, even though it’s best in-orbit time ever was a mere seventeen days – it just forced Nasa to do everything in a brute-force and very inefficient way, because of initial design compromises that could never be overcome.

Two others things kept it from being the program that was promised (projected to offer 50 appealingly cheap launch opportunities a year). One was the cost of operations – it never got cheaper than a half a billion dollars per launch – and that’s not even counting the payloads on board, or amortized cost of vehicles – pure launch expenditures – completely ruinous to early plans for an American “Freedom” station.

The other problem wasn’t appreciated at the time the program was conceived – but by the time Ozone depletion was understood (1976), and CFCs were proven to be unacceptably dangerous (early 80s, thanks to Reagan pushback against so many sensible reality-limits), the Shuttle program itself had already done a whole-number percentage of the total damage inflicted on the ozone layer, mostly by bringing it’s virulent solid rocket discharge so high up into the ultra thin atmosphere, in such great volume.

So – we should all be thankful the program was a slow-ball and a compromise, rather than a rip-roaring success – even though I will always remember the many brave souls lost. Especially the first man to play saxophone in orbit – Ron McNair – the second black man in space – first flying on STS 41-B in 1984, then the fatal Challenger flight – a special hero to me. As a small child in 1959, he refused to leave the segregated library in Lake City, South Carolina, unless they let him take out a book! The police were called, so was his mother – he was allowed to borrow that, and many more books – and that library is now named after him!

Mothballed Salyut station as rescue lifeboat for the stricken Mir?
(entirely fictional and fanciful scenario – way fun, too)

All through the Shuttle years, when America was flying crews for a couple of weeks at a time at most, the USSR was sending long duration manned missions into orbit, in increasingly refined space stations – six months, nine months, a full year – even more than four hundred days.

Some of the stations were optimized for military research, some had more general science goals (just as with the US missions), but the two which really captured my imagination were Salyut Seven – which lasted for almost 9 years in orbit, hosting ten visiting crews (six, long-duration) – and was even successfully restarted after being mothballed – itself a very cool space accomplishment – and the legendary MIR!

Mir was launched in 1986, stayed in orbit until 2001, and was continuously crewed for a decade between ’89 and ’99. They hosted space-tourists – many astronauts from nations with no launch capability of their own, journalists – late in the day they even cooperated with the Americans, so that they could have a useful place to dock the shuttle at last, and in so doing finally assembled the ultimate space-nerd play-set!

The amount of systems refinement done on those Soviet (later Russian) space stations, and the quantity of biomedical research accumulated, are precious and heroically won treasures of space science.

Also – harkening back to that early disaster, when the crew of the first Salyut 1 station in 1971 suffocated, because of a minor technical failure – when the Soviet Union itself was breaking apart, the Mir was almost abandoned – one crew member was asked to give up his return flight and extend his mission on Mir indefinitely – even though he wasn’t sure when or even if, he would ever be sent another ship in which he could return – and he’s my number one space person of all time – Sergei Krikalev – who watched from orbit as the Soviet Union crumbled, and later returned to land in a whole different country from the one he’d left.

Why was Krikalev asked to stick around as arguably, the first space freelancer? Because he was the technician! Low man on some lists, but top of the pyramid when it comes to practicality and versatility.

He was also a very mellow, reasonable, unflappable and pleasant guy – which was something that the Soviet program revealed years before the Americans began to figure it out. You don’t actually want any Type A test pilots in space for long duration flights – there is nothing to defeat up there, by being hyper-competitive – far more likely they’ll start a fistfight out of sheer boredom!

After much petty conflict between tough-guys (and their own experience of work-to-rule space strikes) the Soviets finally understood – what works in space is not just smart, relentlessly curious and competent people – but incredibly nice ones! (See Chris Hadfield, Samantha Christofiretti – and even our governor general, former astronaut Julie Payette).

But let me be clear – Krikalev isn’t my all time favourite space person because he started as a tech like me (later director of the whole manned program), or because he was a really nice guy. it’s because he eventually adapted to swim completely naturally in space – learned to push off perfectly, so as to sail with infinite grace through zero gravity with his body, though I’d wager he took no ballet training on earth whatsoever! An early sign of promising emergent adaptations and brand new aesthetic potentials. Nice inspiration-work for a tech!

Sleepy spaceman – Cozy and safe in his Sokol suit.

In the flag-waving patriotic western version, we are often told the space shuttle is the most important thing that ever happened in space exploration – but I think it’s almost the opposite. For all its achievements, the shuttle was a badly compromised design, which displaced a myriad of other proposed Nasa projects with its ruinous costs. The fact that its story is still so front-and-centre is mostly down to the wealthy weapons contractors involved, who continue to derive considerable PR value – and like to use the program to brand themselves great humanitarians (often writing-off the cost of shameless long-form advertising, as if it were public-spirited educational documentary).

To me, the western world owes far more appreciation than it has shown for the excellent and incredibly reliable Russian program – and we could start by recognizing that at the very heart of ISS are Zarya and Zvezda – which together would have been the core of MIR 2 – a fully functioning refined and reliable station all by themselves, used as the main base from which to construct everything else on the ISS – and without which, the rest would not have been possible. The fact that Russia also contributed its scientific crown-jewels – the biomedical research and hard engineering data they’d gathered over decades, and yet are still depicted in American science shows as second-tier, is disrespectful and distressing. Even without their old cold-war budgets, they continue to achieve, where America for all it’s innovation (Musk’s re-usable rockets really are a breakthrough) and the lauded creativity of capitalism, still can’t quite get a human-rated capsule certified, or figure out what it’s doing in space, on a long-term national planning level.

China’s doesn’t have that problem – their plans are clear, very long term and extremely ambitious. They also show far more respect when cooperating with top Russian scientists. You can see a whole new Sputnik moment coming, from about a hundred thousand miles away (extremely close, that is).  ;o)

Small runway-launched and landing crewed ships are long overdue – the old Raketa seven and Soyuz combo – which safely ferries crews to the ISS to this very day, burns kerosene (not pure CFC solid rocket fuel), but it’s still a rather crude way to do it – smashing your way up, instead of easing into it! No one is presently talking about building another rocket-heaved tour-bus, nor are they likely to suggest such a plan for a very long while.

Probably not until we get to the point of offering nostalgia space-flights – inevitable really, should we all manage to survive long enough to become that elaborately silly.

Pray we’ve still got that sort of margin to play with, down here on the beautiful earth.

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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