Rethinking Rocket Science

The popular characterization of the space race begins with the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957 catching the Americans with their pants down, not to catch up until landing men on the Moon in July of 1969.  But that view is overly simplistic.

The main events in the early space race are seemingly well established. The Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit in October 1957. This was quickly followed by Sputnik II (famously containing a canine passenger), and was then dramatically surpassed by the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. The USA, in contrast, failed to respond effectively, and it took several attempts and several months before launching its own satellite, Explorer I, in January 1958. Much has been made of the Sputnik ‘shock’ in the USA, and rightly so. But as Bulkeley has so effectively illustrated, this has led to an oversight in the historiography which has omitted the much earlier American interest in space and satellites. As a result most people have heard of Sputnik, but few are familiar with the pre-history to Sputnik and commonly assume that the Americans were simply caught unprepared and as a result were outwitted by the Soviets.

In the early 50s, before man-made objects orbited in space, the CIA determined the nation that first launched a satellite into orbit would “gain incalculable prestige and recognition throughout the world.” Thus, they heavily funded the efforts of US Scientists to launch that first satellite into space as part of the International Geophysical Year collaboration hoping to capture the “psychological warefare value,” propaganda, and espionage potential of such a feat. Not only would the IGY serve as a platform to highlight this great American achievement, the international academic nature of the program would also assuage foreign backlash against US ambitions in space.  The Soviet Union even joined the IGY team before the US failed to beat them into space.

Given all this early US planning and obvious interest in what a satellite launch could achieve, the question arises of how the Soviets beat the US into space. The Soviet success with Sputnik brought to the Soviet Union the very propaganda benefits the US had sought for itself. What, then, went wrong? This is a difficult question to answer. One suggestion is that the Americans may simply have thought their technology was superior and incapable of being beaten by the Soviets. However, in large part it would seem that the Americans were beaten because they were so preoccupied with the presentation of their satellite launch. The prestige and propaganda aspect was considered so important that they were delayed – in particular because they wanted a satellite that contained a scientific experiment in order to prove its ostensible scientific purpose.

In other words, the US Scientists wanted to accomplish science, not propaganda.  The Soviets had no such compunction about their satellite being useful, and Sputnik was little more than a radio transmitter and a battery.  It didn’t take one scientific measurement and the only real value as a data probe was to confirm estimates of the atmosphere’s density at that altitude.  The real and truly terrifying Soviet advancement was the rocket that launched it into space.

Just days after Sputnik the briefing of President Eisenhower suggests that the US had the capability to launch an earth satellite months or years previous to Sputnik but the most promising rocket for delivery, the Redstone–which had been the centerpiece of the original 1954 Project Orbiter proposal to launch an Earth Satellite–was rejected by the administration in favor of the civilian-use-oriented Vanguard project because the Redstone was being kept under wraps for use as a nuclear payload delivery ballistic missile.

Both the US and the Soviets knew that the Germans were decades ahead in rocket technology and the move to capture unfired German rockets, the factories where they were produced, the intellectual property behind their design, and the personnel assets as Germany collapsed foreshadowed and precipitated the Cold War. The Soviets won the race to capture Peenemünde, where the Germans had done most of their early design, testing, and production of rockets, but the US captured Mittelwerk where the program had been moved following the opening of the Russian front.  But the fight for land wasn’t the deciding factor; rather the expected standard of living in the US appealed more to the cream of the crop Germans than did life in Russia.

So we were never really behind the Soviets in the arms race aspect of the space race. We really won that battle, and the eventual space race battle, long before Sputnik ever made it into orbit because the US captured better German Rocket Scientists than our allies the Brits or the Russians.  This is because the United State’s Operation Paperclip was more successful than the UK’s Operation Backfire and the Soviets’ Operation Osoaviakhim and Operation Est (where they actually tried to kidnap German scientists who were in US held German territory.

Brains were the most important assets, and although it seems obvious now, this is something that even Hitler bungled during the war when he dismantled his rocket research divisions, gave them rifles, and sent them to fight the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The surviving scientists and engineers were eventually recalled, but too late to realize the German rocket program’s potential and shift the outcome of the war.

Even though the Soviet’s successor rocket to the German V-2 reached orbit first, the United State’s Redstone was put into service in West Germany just months after Sputnik and would be used to launch Australia’s first satellite, proving the theory that the US’ most advanced rocket was satellite capable. The Redstone was also the direct descendant of the German V-2 rocket which was a major tool of psychological warfare for the Nazis during WWII, although its battle effectiveness was not as impressive given that it killed more German technicians than Allied Civilians and Military personnel in London and Antwerp (the two most targeted cities) during its use.

Likewise, the Russian rocket program had numerous spectacular failures, many of which we’re just finding out about now.  While the US had a very public failure only weeks after Sputnik launched when the Vanguard TV3 spectacularly failed during the US’s first public attempt to launch a satellite, the perception of being caught flatfooted and being significantly behind the Russians is simply false.

But this didn’t stop the media, the scientific community, and the American public from developing a severe inferiority complex over the Soviet threat and the perceived prestige of Soviet science.  There was a lot of reactionary and poorly thought out science carried out in the US following Sputnik and one of those projects is the Super Dog protocol which aimed to create wunderhunden by mimicking what little was known in the West about the Soviet program that put dogs into space.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.