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N-1 rollout
A rare photo of the Soviet N-1 rocket, developed for its manned lunar program in the 1960s, being rolled out to the pad. (credit: Asif Siddiqi)

Cosmos unmasked: studying Soviet and Russian space history in the 21st century

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The three phases of the study of Soviet space history

Siddiqi also separated the Western study of the Soviet space program into three overlapping phases. The first phase, beginning with the space age itself, largely consisted of a few Western observers trying to determine what the Soviet Union was doing in space using the most basic bits of information, such as announcements in Tass and Pravda and rocket launch times and orbital data. The second phase, which began around the 1970s, was really pioneered by Jim Oberg and involved digging deeper into Soviet sources. What differentiated this phase from the earlier one was the search for what was going on behind the scenes of the Soviet space effort. Not only what happened based upon what could be observed in orbit or Tass announcements, but what the Soviet Union was trying to conceal. Oberg, for instance, documented evidence of “missing cosmonauts” who in fine Soviet tradition had been airbrushed out of official photographs. Perhaps one of the ironies of the study of secret Soviet space history is that this information, which was once so tantalizing, has now been relegated to a footnote in the overall story. But as Siddiqi has noted, one could write volumes about Soviet projects that never happened, as well as cosmonauts who never flew. A bigger problem is making sense of it all.

The third phase, which Siddiqi says really began in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, is typified by persons like himself, Bart Hendrickx, and others who have started to tap into actual Soviet-era documents as well as interviewed the participants. This new phase of research has resulted in many surprising revelations, such as the fact that starting in the mid-1970s the Soviets initiated a number of major space weapons programs which did not gain much funding until after President Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative.

Siddiqi also noted that there is a vibrant space history community within Russia. They actively publish in books and magazines and have enjoyed the benefits of openness. However, he added that to date that community has largely confined itself to memoirs and oral history and paid little attention to documentary research, despite access to substantial archival records.

Sven Grahn, a Swedish space engineer and veteran of a number of spacecraft projects, including the SMART-1 spacecraft orbiting the Moon, presented some video footage he took of several visits to the Chinese rocket launch site at Jiuquan during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Chinese were first seeking Western customers to fly on their inexpensive rockets.

One could write volumes about Soviet projects that never happened, as well as cosmonauts who never flew. A bigger problem is making sense of it all.

Jiuquan is in the middle of the Gobi desert and when the Swedish Space Corporation had to bring its Freja magnetospheric research satellite there for launching, Sven had to plan for the remote location. The spacecraft was flown to an airfield a long distance from the launch site and then shipped by train—pulled by steam locomotive—to the launch site. The train passed huts housing Chinese soldiers with what must be the crummiest job in the Peoples’ Liberation Army: clearing sand from the rails. Grahn also showed launch footage, some of which was taken by Chinese photographers standing far closer to the launch pad than Western safety rules would ever allow. Freja was launched from Jiuquan on October 6, 1992.

Phillip Clark presented information on the Chinese Jianbing-3 reconnaissance satellites. These satellites, weighing approximately 1,500 kilograms and operating in a polar orbit, apparently provide China with a real-time reconnaissance capability, although China claims that the satellites have a civil remote sensing mission conducting mapping, city planning, crop yield assessment, and disaster monitoring. Three of these satellites have been launched, in 2000, 2002, and 2004. Clark also discussed Chinese unmanned space activity from 2001 to the present.

Finally, Ian McNab, from the University of Texas in Austin, discussed past, present, and potential future projects using electromagnetic forces for launching objects into space. Linear motor technology has been demonstrated at velocities up to a few hundred meters per second for applications such as aircraft launch, and has been considered for first stage booster replacement. Various small-scale Chinese experiments are underway on different technologies of this type. For much higher velocities, railguns will be the preferred technology, and Dr. McNab described a research program currently underway at his institute for the Air Force to study this technology. Only two weeks earlier at the 13th Electromagnetic Launcher Symposium in Potsdam, the Russians announced that they are seeking funding for a major ($3.8 billion) effort for a similar system. At the same meeting French and German researchers described similar efforts and are also considering replacing ionospheric sounding rockets with electromagnetic railguns as a first step towards implementation of this technology for launching small packages into space.

Once and future history

In the United States historians have been writing about civil space programs for decades, paying far less attention to military space history. Civil space history ranges from narrow technical narratives to broad interpretive history (“what does it all mean?”) to cultural and social history. The field is still relatively small as far as historical scholarship goes, confined to a few dozen regular writers and researchers and no more than a handful of professors.

Compared to some other areas of history, such as Civil War history, where amateur historians regularly make significant contributions and hold major symposia, American space history is not as active or productive.

However, the small size is partly a result of the trends and biases of the study of history at American universities. Up until the 1960s, political and military history dominated academic departments. But they were largely swept away by cultural and social history, which fragmented into niches of race, gender, and ethnic history studies. Military and political historians found it hard to get tenure at universities. Similarly, the study of science and technology has also been marginalized by the academy. The end result is that students who want to study military, political, science, or technology history are discouraged from even entering the field. There are some institutions that also support the study of American space history, such as NASA and the National Air and Space Museum, but they are also relatively few in number, although NASA’s contract history program has funded many historical projects over the years.

Non-academic or non-institution-based historians are important to the space history field, and in fact probably account for the bulk of the new scholarship and publishing, although much of this is dominated by astronaut biographies. But compared to some other areas of history, such as Civil War history, where amateur historians regularly make significant contributions and hold major symposia, American space history is not as active or productive.

In the West, the study of Soviet space history is far smaller, less active, more international, and less broad than the study of American space history. There are few Americans actively working on the subject and a diverse group of Europeans who conduct the research and writing. The field is less mature and more narrow. For instance, you would be hard-pressed to find someone researching and writing about the cultural and social impacts of the Soviet space program.

Certainly much of this is due to the fact that active study has been hampered by Soviet secrecy. Another problem is that the barriers to entry are high. An effective researcher must understand and speak, or at least read Russian. Furthermore, the costs of traveling to Russia and accessing archives are considerable. This problem is even more exacerbated for China, for many of the same reasons. Western observers are fond of calling the Chinese space program “secretive,” but the reality is that the bigger barriers to information at the moment are probably not erected by the Chinese government, but remain the difficulties of language, culture, and research economics.

A colleague who has made several research trips to former Soviet archives has noted that perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that new and substantive scholarship is possible as a result of post-Cold War Russian openness. In fact there are substantial opportunities for it within Russia today. Despite Western press reports of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian policies, the Russian government has already declassified massive document collections. Accessing and utilizing them is not easy as research in the United States, because finding guides are rare and researchers require letters of introduction before visiting most archives. But in some cases the Russians have declassified more material on sensitive subjects than the United States has. For instance, it is possible to research and write about Soviet strategic forces through the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, under Putin, Russian archivists and government institutions have begun to retrench and reclassify documents. When pressed, they defensively reply that the same thing is happening within the United States. Furthermore, because Soviet secrecy classifications were never well-defined and some researchers have been jailed for writing about military subjects that were ostensibly unclassified, many Russian researchers as well as Western visitors are now wary of conducting research on sensitive subjects. The window of opportunity for Western researchers to write about many historical topics on the Soviet Union—not only space—is closing.

The fourth phase of space history?

Whereas Asif Siddiqi posited that there have been three phases of the study of Soviet and Russian space history, let me propose a fourth, which we have not yet reached but can glimpse. That phase is the integrative/interpretive phase, where the basic facts of the Soviet/Russian space program are known and it is possible to begin to interpret them, asking the question of what it all means. Why did they make certain decisions rather than others? What drove their actions? What do their decisions concerning space activities say about either Soviet society (and their communist political system) as well as the Cold War? At some point the study of Soviet and Russian space history can transcend its narrow niche to tell us things about the larger world. When this happens historians and even political scientists will be able to apply interpretive and explanatory models that are used in other fields to try and explain behaviors.

There is an active Russian space history community that shares many characteristics with the Western community, although also some important differences. Unfortunately, although both groups are aware of and sometimes cite the work done by the others, they lack good communications.

To provide an example, we know instinctively that the space race between the superpowers contained a substantial action-and-response component—the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin and John F. Kennedy chose to send Apollo to the Moon, to take the most obvious example. But although there was some logic to these actions, they ultimately may have led to illogical actions as well. For instance, at the symposium Bart Hendrickx displayed the political document that created the Buran space shuttle program. It clearly demonstrates that the Soviet decision to build a shuttle was based upon the fact that the Americans were developing one. Rather than a clear set of their own requirements that then drove the Buran design, the Soviets instead picked requirements that mirrored the American ones. They then developed a shuttle that did not suit the needs of their own space program, and which ultimately proved to be extremely expensive. The political science literature on arms control spirals and action-and-response in international politics may help to shed light on this situation, just as the specifics of the space program may shed greater light on the operation and dysfunction of the Soviet decision making process.

To take another example, why did the Soviet Union win the Sputnik race and the race to put a man in orbit but then lose the race to the Moon? Of course one could find a half dozen explanations for the Soviet loss of the Moon race: the Soviet leadership took a long time to recognize that the Americans were serious; they never provided adequate funding for the project; bureaucratic infighting hobbled the effort; bad technological choices (like not developing hydrogen engines) hurt them; and lying and incompetent bureaucrats prevented adequate oversight and program management. But is there a systemic-level explanation that can incorporate all of these individual explanations? There is good reason to search for one, because we might naturally assume that democratic capitalism would be worse at mobilizing resources for government purposes than a command-driven economy like the Soviet Union. But that assumption can be tested and the places where it passes compared to the places where it fails. We could argue that the Soviets lost the Moon race for the same reason that their political economic system ultimately collapsed, but can this argument shed any greater light on the two systems? Perhaps the answers can be supplied by political economists, or other experts outside of the fields of political science and history.

Finally, there is another milestone for the development of Soviet/Russian space history, and that is the coordination of Western and Russian space historians. There is an active Russian space history community that shares many characteristics with the Western community, although also some important differences. According to a person familiar with the Russian community, Russian space history tends to be focused more heavily on biography, oral history, and memoirs. It also tends to be hagiographic. But Russian space historians have produced some outstanding work. Unfortunately, although both groups are aware of and sometimes cite the work done by the others, they lack good communications.

We may still have a considerable way to go before we can reach such a fourth phase in Soviet space history. American space history itself has rarely reached this level, despite far more pedigree and participation. But activities like the recent BIS symposium provide reason for hope. And perhaps someday it will be possible to host a symposium that unites not only the best Western observers of the Soviet/Russian space program, but also the best Russian ones as well.