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Long-lived spacecraft like Voyagers 1 and 2 demonstrated the advances of the US in space technology over the former Soviet Union as the Space Race progresses. (credit: NASA)

Trends in technology development in the US and USSR during the Space Race


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The “Space Race” ushered in the era of space exploration with an extraordinary government-led rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their competing political ideologies. This rivalry is rightly regarded as a primary impetus to the early development of space exploration technology. Among the populace, leaving aside politics and even more in the USSR than the US, the inherent appeal of exploring this vast and mysterious “outer space” generated excitement.

It turns out that spacecraft lifespan has been showing a marked trend of improvement starting from the earliest days of deep space exploration, and thus appears to be a useful metric for the rate of technology improvement. However, technologies do not advance of their own accord.

The variety of technologies contributing to the Space Race is immense, but we argue that a useful way to summarize and quantify the data is through the popularly termed Moore’s Law, or the fitting of an exponential curve to a technology to show its rate of advancement over time. There is a large body of work involving modeling improvement in technological capabilities as exponentially increasing trends, as any search using such queries as “Moore’s Law” readily reveals. One focus of our research group has been to see if improvements in spacecraft sent on deep space missions can be modeled this way. We have achieved some intriguing results. For example, tuning various parameters of deep space exploration missions to form a composite score for each mission yielded an exponential trajectory for advances in space travel (Hall et al. 2017) [1]. However, a caution in such work is that multi-parameter tuning of the data to maximize goodness of fit to a curve comes with the risk of overfitting. Focusing instead on a single parameter, spacecraft lifespan, reduces this problem and we investigated it in Berleant et al. (2019) [2]. Yet, lifespan as a metric for advancement of a technology leads to intrinsic problems with proper interpretation of relatively recent data (Howell et al. 2019) [3]. In this article, however, we use lifespan on non-recent historical data to gain insight into the Space Race.

We define spacecraft lifespan as the length of time between launch and the end of a craft’s (or all of its major components’ including orbiters, rovers, landers, etc.) scientific observations. It turns out that spacecraft lifespan has been showing a marked trend of improvement starting from the earliest days of deep space exploration, and thus appears to be a useful metric for the rate of technology improvement. However, technologies do not advance of their own accord. Scientific, economic, and cultural factors are inherent contributors to the overall picture.

Russian cultural precursors

Cultural factors in particular seem to illuminate Russian interest in space exploration and hence the Soviet head start with their famous launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1. Obviously, economic factors in their space exploration efforts also were important. Despite the brutalities of the Soviet regime, the Soviet Union (USSR) was one of the most rapidly developing economies of the 20th century (Davies 1998) [4]. While this rapid pace of economic growth ended with stagnation in the Brezhnev regime beginning in the 1970s (Service 2009) [5], the Soviet Union still held the second highest nominal GDP in the world [6]. However cultural factors, while often overlooked, were critical.

There was considerable early interest in space exploration even prior to the formal beginnings of the Soviet space program in a movement that has come to be known as cosmism. Cosmism was a mixture of the occult, religious philosophy, and serious science driven by a utopian vision of what space travel could ultimately mean for humanity. One of the most influential cosmists was Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (or Fyodorov, 1829–1903), whose ideas were published posthumously in The Philosophy of the Common Task [7]. A devout Russian Orthodox Christian, he advocated strongly for the use of science to bring about immortality, resurrection of the dead, human enhancement, and colonization of the galaxy (Tandy & Perry) [8]. Many of his ideas for achieving these goals bear a striking resemblance in motivation to today’s interests in cloning, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. Fedorov had a profound impact on many Russian intellectuals, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, although he and Tolstoy would eventually become estranged due to religious differences (Zhilyaev et al. [9]; Koutaissoff 1984 [10]).

One of the most important cosmist thinkers was rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. He is famously quoted as saying that Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever. Despite little formal education, Tsiolkovsky was responsible for much initial theoretical work in space travel which later laid the foundations for the Soviet space program[7]. In 1897 he carried out early experimental work on aerodynamics in his apartment. In 1929 he developed the concept of the multistage rocket. His other designs included airlocks, space stations, and rocket fuel. His mathematical model of rocket propulsion, derived from earlier work on motion of bodies whose mass varies over time (since using fuel changes vehicle mass), is known as the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation [11,12]. Tsiolkovsky had met Fedorov at the age of 16 and was deeply impressed (Zhilyaev et al.) [9]. Like Fedorov, Tsiolkovsky had a philosophical bent and believed his work was laying the foundation for an immortal galactic civilization [13].

Viewing changes in lifespan over time as a measure of spacecraft technological progress, this quantitatively illustrates the higher rate of improvement based on which the US is generally viewed as having in some sense “won” the Space Race.

Cosmism later found its way into the “Proletkult” movement in Soviet Russia. The goal of Proletkult was to establish a new kind of culture for the Russian working class (Parkinson 2019) [14]. Proletkult was full of aesthetic appeals made to labor, industry, and space travel (Seifrid 2009) [15]. It remained independent from the Soviet state until 1920, when it was officially adopted by the Ministry of Education. There was a tremendous popular interest in space travel with the Russian media publishing over 250 articles and 30 nonfiction books on the subject between 1921 and 1932 (Parkinson 2019 [14]). 1924 saw the release of the first Russian science fiction film, Aelita: Queen of Mars, which depicts a young man traveling to Mars to begin a proletarian revolution [16]. The burst of public enthusiasm for space travel tapered off in the 1930s in conjunction with governmental actions that discouraged it including the end of the private publishing industry and promotion of the related but much more practical growing field of aviation, and yet enthusiasts coming of age in the 1920s later became key contributors to the launch of the Soviet space program in the 1950s (Siddiqi 2015) [17]. The new ability to really explore space for the first time found ready support among the people, with songs like “14 Minutes to Start” (e.g. [18]) which achieved greatest popularity in 1962 [19].

As a result of the early success of the Soviet space effort, in particular the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, an interesting phenomenon emerged in the form of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during a period of rivalry in space exploration known as the Space Race. We investigated this from a Moore’s Law (exponential advancement) standpoint below. Our data points were restricted to deep space missions with an extraterrestrial body as the destination. Thus, Earth satellites are not included in our data analysis. Therefore we begin with the launch of Luna 1 by the Soviet Union in 1959 and end with Phobos 2, again launched by the Soviet Union, in 1989. Certainly many missions were launched after this date but Phobos 2 was the Soviet Union’s last deep space flight so, at that point, the Space Race was effectively over.

Analysis and results

Lifespans of spacecraft in years were taken from [20] and their logs plotted versus the date of the end of craft lifespan. With logarithmic scaling of the y-axis, an exponential trendline is linear in appearance and thus a linear regression can be fitted for spacecraft lifespan. The x-axis shows date of end of lifespan rather than date of launch because launch date introduces the problem of handling missions that are still in operation, for which the lifespans are therefore not yet known, thus biasing lifespan analyses (Howell et al. 2019 [3]). For example, for the period studied, Voyager 1 and 2 are both still operating. Figure 1 shows the resulting regression curves, one for the United States and one for the Soviet Union.

Figure
Figure 1. Plots of log2 of lifespan in years (y-axis) vs. time point of lifespan end (x-axis) for the United States (blue) and the Soviet Union (red). Regression equations are log2(Lifespan) = -6.9130 + 0.3873*(Year-1959) for the US, and log2(Lifespan) = -6.1794 + 0.2704*(Year-1959) for the USSR.

We can see from the lower left portion of Figure 1 that the USSR possessed an early lead over the US in spacecraft lifespans. Despite this head start, however, the United States experienced a faster rate of progress with spacecraft lifespans increasing by an average 30.8 percent each year [21], for a doubling time of 2.6 years [22], compared to the USSR, which showed a lower 20.6 percent yearly increase, a doubling time of 3.7 years.

Viewing changes in lifespan over time as a measure of spacecraft technological progress, this quantitatively illustrates the higher rate of improvement based on which the US is generally viewed as having in some sense “won” the Space Race. Viewing space exploration as a grand activity of the human race, the small steps and giant leaps of both nations back then, and a growing number of nations today, were sparked first by Russian cosmism and then by the space race rivalry which helped form the technological foundations of the space exploration of today and tomorrow.

References and Notes

  1. C. A. Hall, D. Berleant, R. Segall, and S. Lu, Steps toward quantifying advancement in space exploration, Proceedings of WMSCI, July 8–11, 2017, Orlando, FL.
  2. D. Berleant, V. Kodali, R. Segall, H. Aboudja, and M. Howell, Moore’s law, Wright’s law, and the countdown to exponential space, The Space Review, Jan. 7, 2019.
  3. M. Howell, V. Kodali, R. Segall, H. Aboudja, and D. Berleant, Moore’s Law and space exploration: new insights and next steps, Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science, 73(in press):20-24, 2019/
  4. R. W. Davies, Soviet Economic Development from Lenin to Khruschev, Cambridge University Press, 1998
  5. R. Service, History of Modern Russia: from Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century, Penguin Books, 2009
  6. See for example: List of countries by largest historical GDP, Wikipedia, retrieved Oct. 7, 2019
  7. N. Fedorov, The Philosophy of the Common Task, retrieved Oct. 7, 2019
  8. C. Tandy and M. R. Perry, Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved Oct. 7, 2019
  9. A. Zhilyaev, A. Vidokle, and A. Gacheva, Timeline of Russian cosmism, retrieved Oct. 8, 2019
  10. E. Koutaissoff and G. M. Young, The philosophy of the common cause, The Slavonic and East European Review, 62(1):98-101, 1984.
  11. NASA, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, retrieved Oct. 7, 2019
  12. An easily accessed description may be found in: Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, Wikipedia, retrieved Oct. 8, 2019
  13. The life of Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, retrieved Oct. 8, 2019.
  14. D. Parkinson, Cosmic imagination in revolutionary Russia, Cosmonaut, May 20, 2019.
  15. T. Seifrid, A Companion to Andrei Platonov's The Foundation Pit, Academic Studies Press, 2009.
  16. IMDb, Aelita: Queen of Mars, 1924
  17. A. Siddiqi, Space enthusiasms, in D. Millard, ed., Cosmonauts: the Birth of the Space Age, pub. by The Science Museum, 2015, pp. 28–41
  18. V. Voinovich, 14 minutes to start, popular song commissioned by the Soviet government, 1960.
  19. I believe, friends, retrieved Oct. 31, 2019.
  20. SpaceMissionDurations (spreadsheet), worksheets named NASAmissions and USSR/RussiaMissions, columns C and E, rows 1 to 117, retrieved Nov. 5, 2019.
  21. Without loss of generality one may choose a time point t such that lifespan(t)=20.3873t. Then 1 year later,
    lifespan(t + 1)=20.3873(t +1)
    = 20.3873t + 0.3873
    = 20.3873t * 20.3873
    = lifespan(t) * 20.3873
    = lifespan(t) * 1.308
    = lifespan(t) + 30.8%
  22. To determine the doubling time for the US, the slope was delta y/delta x = 0.3873. Then 1/slope = delta x/delta y = 1/0.3873 = 2.58/1. Each unit on the y axis represents a doubling because it is scaled logarithmically with base 2, so 2.58 years on the x axis is the doubling time.

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