Jonathan Russ (03/03/04)
The history of Soviet space exploration is significantly more complicated than is commonly known. It is well known that the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was less about scientific development than competition between two polarized superpowers. However, much less publicized, and just as important, are the role of a single man's ambition and the differences between Russian and American attitudes towards space exploration that allowed the Space Race to unfold as it did. These omissions have contributed towards a skewed popular view of the Space Race.
The beginning of the Space Race and the launch of Sputnik 1 can be used to illustrate this point. As he stated in class, Dr. Sasha Basilevsky and most other Russians were not particularly impressed by Sputnik 1. Sending a satellite into Earth orbit was a scientific achievement, certainly, but an expected one; the Soviets failed to recognize immediately the power of scientific discovery as propaganda. After all, a satellite was not a weapon. What the Soviet Union saw as routine progress, America saw as an imminent threat; it was the era of McCarthy, and anything remotely associated with Communism was despised. A scientific advance by the ultimate Communist state was cause for great consternation. It was only after the Soviets saw this that they followed suit, using Sputnik to extol the greatness of the Communist system.
This narrative is quite different from that which is commonly known and taught in schools; as a middle school student and then a high school student, I was taught a simplified version of the Space Race that, looking back, was distinctly American-centric. The Soviets launched Sputnik; America began their space program; Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s; and we beat the Russians. That was all. It was assumed that the Soviets had the same attitude towards the Space Race as the Americans did; this was simply not true. By not analyzing the reasons why the Soviet Union did not reach the moon before America did in light of the cultural and political differences between the two, my teachers unknowingly promulgated a view of America as being superior to the Soviet Union.Most important of these differences were the priorities of the two governments at the time. The Soviet Union was suffering from a food shortage and a housing shortage; space research was done only so much as it could be integrated with weapons research, specifically ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) research. America had decided to beat the Russians in a Space Race; Sergei Korolev certainly wanted to beat the Americans, but Premier Nikita Khrushchev did not consider it a top priority. Thus, comparing America and the Soviet Union in a Space Race and implying America's superiority at the time is akin to comparing two men running a race, one (America) starting late but then sprinting as fast as he can, and the other (the Soviet Union) jogging throughout. All it proves is that America's expensive sprint to the Moon was more effective than the Soviet Union's low-priority jog. It is impossible to know what would have happened if Khrushchev had decided to commit significantly more resources to the Space Race and had standardized and nationalized the space research program.