The Big Lie of the Space Race

May 22, 2010

This was originally included in the story I haven’t had time to complete, The Feynman Constant.

When Sputnik 1 entered orbit on October 4, 1957 America’s cold war confidence was badly shaken. The starting pistol had been fired in the space race, and we had faltered badly off the line. But we were determined to sprint the rest of the distance and cross the finish line first, a finish line that everyone came to quickly see as the moon.

A race isn’t a race without an opponent, and without the red menace pitted against us we surely would have leisurely ambled our way to the moon instead of run, just as we are now only leisurely ambling our way to mars. Ask anyone who worked the space program in these early days and they’ll tell you it was the greatest time in their professional lives, an entire lifetime of career fulfillment lived in just a decade. And it was what our country and perhaps the world so desperately needed in that instant, a way out from under all the cold war nuclear anxiety, a way to channel the tension into a more positive and contestable domain.

Not everyone believes it all happened the way it did by accident. Many within NASA felt and I suspect many continue to feel that the many frightening Soviet space firsts were the result of an intentional, passive collusion by the highest element(s) of our own government who saw the great advantage of a population and a congress initially horrified to find themselves in second place, willing to write the blankest of checks in the hopes that it would be enough to restore us to technological preeminence.

We could have gone into space at least a year before we did, but the Eisenhower administration set us on a different course. Project Orbiter which would have placed a satellite in orbit atop one of Werner Von Braun’s V2-descended Jupiter rockets was curiously rejected in favor of a much riskier and more complicated Project Vanguard. It was only a few years later, after Sputnik succeeded and a hastily launched Vanguard TV3 spectacularly failed in an explosion on the launchpad with a nervous American population watching that the Explorer program would get its chance.

In just three months NASA was able to build and launch Explorer I, a satellite hastily built by JPL deployed atop one of the Jupiter-C IRBMs that Von Braun built for the Army. We could have done that earlier. We should have done that earlier. The Soviet rocketry program was being closely watched by the CIA through its network of spies and through reconnaissance flights. Eisenhower was routinely briefed on the Soviet progress. By some accounts Eisenhower had more than six months warning that a Russian attempt to enter orbit was imminent, but he chose to stay the slow Vanguard course. With Sputnik’s launch a cover story was quickly invented by the Eisenhower administration to explain the intelligence gap, according to them, this was a quick and dirty Soviet project begun and completed in less than 30 days, hence the lack of adequate warning. The Soviets were only too eager to adopt and repeat this particular lie as it only made them seem all the more capable, able to so rapidly put together a successful and ambitious mission.

And the Russians were capable. The USSR put the first two satellites in space, Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. The USSR put the first animal in space, Laika the dog. The USSR put the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The USSR conducted the first EVA, via Alexie Leonov. The USSR sent the first probe to the moon, Luna 1. The USSR even sent the first probes to other planets, to Mars (Marsnik 1) and to Venus (Venera 1). But we’ll never know how many of these early first we lost because one of our hands was tied behind out back.

The plan worked beautifully. NASA got its blank check. Kennedy took over from Eisenhower and rallied an entire nation behind the mission to the moon. And we would eventually win the race, handily; the Soviets would never even cross the finish line. And the incalculable investment we made in the technology to get us to the moon has paid dividends and provided jobs ever since. So we won in every way that mattered except one, we were dupes.

I would like to believe that we will grow into a more honorable future, where our leaders do not trick us, because they are better men than that, and where we would not let them, because we are wiser men than that.