Friday, February 04, 2011

How Did Sputnik Happen?

On October 4, 1957, the United States received a rude shock. The Soviet Union, a nation that had been thought of as technologically backward, had beaten us to putting an artificial satellite in Earth orbit. As the simple satellite soared overhead, emitting a radio ping, Americans below were asking themselves, "How did this happen?" They called for massive increases in funding for science and engineering education, and for massive increases in military spending, fearful that they had somehow fallen behind.

They were both right and wrong. The Soviet Union had achieved a clear advantage in long-range missiles. What wasn't obvious at the time was that they were forced to seek that advantage, due to a fundamental disadvantage that was at least two decades in the making. It was a disadvantage born of the fundamental qualities of both nations involved, and of the fundamental qualities of specific individuals working for them.

Back in 1935, the United States and the Soviet Union were both planning for war, but not against each other. And they were equipping for different wars entirely: the Soviet Union only envisioned wars against enemies they could reach entirely by land, and the United States only envisioned large-scale wars against enemies that they would have to reach by sea or by air. Soviet weapon development focused on armored vehicles and artillery; American weapon development featured heavy warships and long-range bombers. It was to this end that, on August 8, 1934, the Army Air Corps issued a request for a long-range bomber to reinforce the air forces at Hawaii, Panama, and Alaska. This bomber would become the B-17 Flying Fortress.

The Soviets more or less ignored long-range bombers as being irrelevant to their needs. They had designed and built a four-engine bomber, the Pe-8, but only built 93 of them. As an operational consideration, they judged bombers to be inferior to artillery, at least as far as their needs were concerned.

The events of the European Theater of WWII would cause them to re-evaluate this position. German industry was being relentlessly hammered, both by RAF Bomber Command at night, and by the U.S. 8th Air Force by day. As the Soviet armies advanced westward, they saw for themselves the effects of this bombardment. And then, in August of 1945, a new weapon appeared on the scene that changed everything.

The United States had the ultimate weapon, and the means with which to deliver it. By 1949, the Soviet Union also had this ultimate weapon -- but still lacked a reliable means with which to deliver it. They wanted -- they needed -- a bomber like the Boeing B-29 that could deliver an atomic bomb, but didn't yet have one. They wanted -- they needed -- a bomber with intercontinental range, like the Convair B-36, but didn't have that, either.

Desperation, as it often does, drove them to transcendence.

Another new weapon made its first appearance in the closing days of WWII: the long-range ballistic missile. The United States was able to secure Wernher von Braun and most of his engineering team, but the Soviets were able to capture a fair number of scientists, engineers, and technicians who couldn't run West fast enough. They were able to give critical advice on the finer points of liquid-fuel engines, boot-strapping the work of the Soviets' own home-grown experts, Korolev and Glushko.

The American missile program never had that kind of feverish priority. Von Braun had work from the Army to keep him busy, most of the time; but still he had plenty of time on his hands to fool around with things that, strictly speaking, weren't in his portfolio. His famous series for Collier's comes to mind, beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell. For one, America always had the means to deliver nuclear weapons on target, as demonstrated in August 1945. And for another ... American missiles didn't need to be all that big.

Which brings us to the other disadvantage ... American warheads were smaller.

The exact details are still stamped excruciatingly secret, but Edward Teller had figured out a way to shoehorn atomic weapons into improbably small and light packages. That meant that for the same yield, an American warhead was lighter and more compact than its Soviet counterpart. This meant that, to throw it a similar distance, the American warhead needed a much smaller rocket than did the Soviet one. So, the Soviets were forced to build huge rockets, first because they lacked any meaningful strategic bomber capability, and second because their warheads were huge, heavy behemoths.

These disadvantages, paradoxically, turned into advantages in the early years of the Space Race. Their bigger, more powerful rockets made it far easier for them to loft spacecraft into Earth orbit. That advantage would win them several early firsts: in 1957, the first artificial satellite; in 1961, the first man in orbit; in 1964, the first multi-man orbital spacecraft; and in 1965 the first spacewalk.

The glory days didn't last. They hit a run of bad luck, starting in 1967, with the loss of Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz 1. The humiliation continued in 1968, when they were forced to watch as spectators as an American crew made the first circumnavigation of the Moon, and was made complete in 1969 with the successful landing and return of Apollo 11.

But in another sense, Korolev got the last laugh, after all. Its rivals are all long since retired. The B-29 and B-36 only survive in museums, the American Atlas V only shares a name with its predecessor, but the R-7 variants still soldier on, carrying astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station.


Infidel753 said...

Very interesting background information, thanks.

bay-of-fundie said...


You've left off a few important details that most people don't know.

Sputnik was not a surprise. We knew they were going to launch it. We let it happen. We wanted them to beat us.

I can't remember where I read this stuff, because it has been at least 10 years. If you search hard enough, you should find it.

Both the U.S. and Soviet Union were trying to put a satellite into orbit. We had very little information about the Soviet program. Our rocket scientists warned our politicians that the Soviets might beat us into orbit. Most politicians didn't pay attention or didn't understand what a huge game-changer that would be.

Eisenhower and his advisors determined that politically it was safer to let the Soviets go first. One of the big problems with a satellite is that it overflies other countries. We were worried that if we went first, the Soviets would claim we were violating their airspace. Such a reaction would be all the more likely, since the Soviets would feel embarrassed by our public demonstration of their technological inferiority. The Soviets would need to do some saber-rattling in response. This was the height of the Cold War. We had to be very careful not to do anything that might escalate us to the brink.

By allowing the Soviets to launch first, it avoided the political problem of even higher tensions. Remember that we didn't understand the Soviet leaders very well, and we couldn't predict how they'd react. With everybody packing heat (nukes), you don't want to unnecessarily provoke the other guy.

It also solved the airspace dilemma, because this forced the Soviets to allow our satellites to overfly their country.

It was still a huge, unexpected shock to most Americans. I imagine our rocket scientists were furious at being beaten.

The Soviets still might have beaten us into space. We weren't on the verge of launching our own satellite and then halted on order of the White House. We were close. The Soviets were close. If we had wanted to be first, we probably would have had to ramp up our efforts to ensure it.

Tim McGaha said...

That's certainly true, and I think I raised that point in another post around here somewhere. Von Braun could have beaten the Russians by a fairly comfortable margin, but was specifically ordered not to do so by General Medaris, for the reasons you mention.