The journey from Sputnik to Mir (and all the dead ends in between)
August 20, 2012 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Red Star in Orbit is a three-part BBC documentary about the history of the Soviet space program, originally broadcast in 1990 as part of the ongoing series Horizon. Based on a book by American space historian and NASA vetran James Oberg, who features prominently in the program, Red Star in Orbit was filmed and assembled while the slow collapse of the USSR was already underway. The filmmakers were given an unprecedented amount of access to active Cosmonauts, veterans of the program and to Star City itself.

(First link is to YouTube playlist of the entire series. Individual links for each part below.)

Part One: The Invisible Spaceman 1 2 3 4
Focuses on the life and work of "Chief Designer" Sergi Korolev through the early years of the program.

Part Two: The Dark Side of the Moon 1 2 3 4
Explores previously classified details of the failed Soviet "LK" Lunar Lander program.

Part Three: The Mission 1 2 3 4
In 1989, the filmmakers began following a crew of cosmonauts training for expedition six to Mir.
posted by Narrative Priorities (41 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yay, this cool! The Russians were brilliant and with the right financial and political support, they'd would have been first at everything in space.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:48 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, neat. I loved Oberg's book, never knew that there was a TV version of it.
posted by octothorpe at 9:02 AM on August 20, 2012


Odd that the book came out in 1981, but most of the details about these programs didn't come out until much later. Even when the documentary was made in 1990 it still wasn't all out there.
posted by smackfu at 9:31 AM on August 20, 2012


Oberg himself spends a great deal of his screentime wandering around in a gigantic Ushanka and looking REALLY EXCITED.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:31 AM on August 20, 2012


(Also, if share my INTENSE AFFECTION for space stations, you should check out the IMAX documentary "Mission to Mir")
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:41 AM on August 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Russians were brilliant and with the right financial and political support

What could be more perfect than a dictatorship with no budgetary check and balances from a real congress or a public that gets no say in how money is spent? I haven't watched the series yet - did the Kremlin starve their space program? I mean, as far as a rabid evangelist and political genius could you get much better than Korolyov??
posted by spicynuts at 9:49 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yay, this cool! The Russians were brilliant and with the right financial and political support, they'd would have been first at everything in space.

The people over at RSA are brilliant, present tense.

But the Saturn V was a superior vehicle to the N1. You'd have to rewrite a lot of history for the N1 to be ready before the Saturn V.

Korolev was probably the greatest genius of the early space programs, but if you hang everything on one man you are screwed when he dies.
posted by BeeDo at 9:52 AM on August 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


>they'd would have been first at everything in space.

The USSR *was* first, for everything except a man on the moon. IIRC:

-first satellite
-first man in space
-first man to orbit the earth
-first woman in space
-first EVA (spacewalk)
-first spacecraft to land on the moon
-first retrieval of lunar soil (unmanned)
-first spacecraft to land on venus

and a few more I might have forgotten.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 10:09 AM on August 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I worked for about 8 years with a whole cadre of ex-ROSKOSMOS engineers. They have a lot of great stories about test engines blowing up on the back lot.
posted by spicynuts at 10:10 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


USSR's Venera program. With added links to Sputnik and Moon probes.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:37 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


for everything except a man on the moon

Your list is missing:

First docking in space.
First flyby of Jupiter.
First flyby of Saturn.
First flyby of Uranus.
First flyby of Neptune.

(Those weren't Russian. You could argue about "First human object to leave the solar system", since it was launched while the USSR was a going concern. That one isn't Russian either.)

You are also missing:

First probe landing on Mars.
First animal in space (poor Laika).
The big one that compares with the moon landing: First space station.

(Those were Russian.)

Lastly, that should be "-first unmanned retrieval of lunar soil" because it came after the Apollo 11 and 12 missions brought back samples.
posted by BeeDo at 10:41 AM on August 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Whoops, if we are doing launch dates, then Galileo counts too. So that adds "First asteroid flyby, First probe into Jupiter" to the "not Russia" category.
posted by BeeDo at 10:43 AM on August 20, 2012


Jeez. What happened to the first step for mankind?
posted by mule98J at 10:46 AM on August 20, 2012


Another advantage the Soviets have is that they could send cosmonaut after cosmonaut to die without public repercussion but the US pretty much has to start from scratch every time there is a disaster (Challenger, Columbia) and I don't see us doing anything other than unmanned probes from here on out until the Chinese start building their moonbases.
posted by Renoroc at 10:50 AM on August 20, 2012


What could be more perfect than a dictatorship with no budgetary check and balances from a real congress or a public that gets no say in how money is spent? I haven't watched the series yet - did the Kremlin starve their space program? I mean, as far as a rabid evangelist and political genius could you get much better than Korolyov??

One of the problems was the Soviet leader at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, who wanted to use the space program to spite America and show the world how powerful the U.S.S.R was. So Korolev might want to do X and be working towards that and then Khrushchev would come along and say "I need a space first by the next anniversary of the revolution, which is 3 months away. Make it happen."

The Russians did not give out a blank check. If anyone had one, it definitely was NASA, who were consuming about 4-5% of the total US budget in '66. It's been downhill ever since.

Hilariously, the Soviet space program wasn't a single united department, but several different ones, with different goals. Korolev wanted to go the moon and had the smarts and political savy to push the program in that direction. Yet once he died, the other departments took over and pushed for manned space stations. Again, if anyone was of a single mind, it was NASA.

Korolev was probably the greatest genius of the early space programs, but if you hang everything on one man you are screwed when he dies.

The best explanation I've read is that Korloev was comparable to three people at NASA. Jim Webb, the head of the agency who ran the political game in Washington; Bob Gilruth, who oversaw the actual day to day operations in Houston and Von Braun who designed and managed the construction of the Saturn V. Korolev was all three, rolled into one, he was supposedly that good.

That sad part is that he probably would have lived longer had he not spent time in Soviet Gulag under Stalin. That left him in frail health and he died during a routine medical procedure in '66.

Had the Soviets been first to orbit or land on the Moon, Alexi Leonov would have been the commander of either, possibly both, missions. He co-wrote a book with American astronaut David Scott, Two Sides of the Moon, which I highly recommend for Leonov's story and a look at the Soviet space program.

First docking in space

Nope, that was NASA's Gemini 8, piloted by some joker named Armstrong. The Soviets later did the first automated docking, between two unmanned satellites, which is a system that has served them well.

First flyby of Jupiter.
First flyby of Saturn.
First flyby of Uranus.
First flyby of Neptune.


Weren't those all done by NASA's Pioneer and Voyager probes?

Another advantage the Soviets have is that they could send cosmonaut after cosmonaut to die without public repercussion but the US pretty much has to start from scratch every time there is a disaster

This sentence doesn't match any of the history I've read.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:54 AM on August 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


unmanned probes from here on out

Not counting the people who are in orbit right now doing some pretty cool science, of course.
posted by BeeDo at 10:55 AM on August 20, 2012


Can we look at this as "holy shit look what science can do" and not a Russia vs. America peen comparison?
posted by DigDoug at 10:58 AM on August 20, 2012


Can we look at this as "holy shit look what science can do" and not a Russia vs. America peen comparison?

Indeed. With the benefit of hindsight, it's known that pretty much every first could have been down by the other country if not be being over cautious, internal politics, a bad timing or some other relatively small issue.

It was a golden age of space exploration and yeah, holy shit, look at what science can do!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:05 AM on August 20, 2012


If you do it more than once, it is engineering.
posted by BeeDo at 11:20 AM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who is looking at it as a peen contest? If you don't think that matching the US was a critical bullet point of all Soviet space decision and vis versa the you either weren't alive during the cold war or haven't done your reading. You cannot remove the cold war from the discussion. That is history, not a cock measuring contest (leaving aside the argument that most of human history is nothing more than a giant dick measuring contest)
posted by spicynuts at 11:32 AM on August 20, 2012


they could send cosmonaut after cosmonaut to die without public repercussion

"Komarov" and "Patsayev, Volkov, and Dobrovolsky" don't really count as "cosmonaut after cosmonaut."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:52 AM on August 20, 2012


That is history...

Y'all should definitely read The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. It covers the history in both the USSR and US, from about 1900 that lead up the Space Race. Really fascinating to see how decisions made in WWI and II shaped the thought of both countries in terms of technology and research.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:03 PM on August 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


they could send cosmonaut after cosmonaut to die without public repercussion

I beg to differ. (previously)
posted by Mcable at 1:59 PM on August 20, 2012


Here's the actual link, beware there's a graphic image of a burned corpse on the front page.
posted by Mcable at 2:01 PM on August 20, 2012


I am pretty sure it was Oberg and another guy who came to talk to my Space Camp team in 1986 (might've been '87) about the Russian Space Program. Being a child of the Cold War years and having a healthy fear of the Soviet Union, I was utterly, totally riveted by what they showed us, including a satellite picture of the Buran.

Of all the things I have listened to and learned over the years, his lecture was one of the most memorable. Great speaker.
posted by Thistledown at 2:14 PM on August 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, I'm reading the autobiography of Boris Chertok, Rockets and People, which is free on the NASA site. Chertok was involved in the design of guidance systems, and worked with all the big Russian designers like Korolev, Yangel and Glushko. It's a pretty fascinating look at the other side of the space race with a good look at the politics of the time. 4 volumes, available as an ebook or pdf, great reading if you're a space nerd.
posted by Mcable at 3:13 PM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


And I'd like to second Brandon's recommendation of The Heavens and the earth. Great book.
posted by Mcable at 3:19 PM on August 20, 2012


Any time Soviet space comes up, I hasten to point out Out of the Present, which is terriffic, not least because it is so very unlike any other space documentary ever made.
posted by mwhybark at 6:17 PM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who is looking at it as a peen contest?
...
posted by spicynuts at 11:32 AM on August 20 [+] [!]


well, you do bring it to mind.
posted by mwhybark at 6:20 PM on August 20, 2012


(Brandon Blatcher - I believe BeeDo's point is the first list is things the Russian's weren't first at.)
posted by fragmede at 8:36 PM on August 20, 2012


I got the book from a bargain bin for $4. Great read. I was amused to learn about the rituals that cosmonauts performed before a flight.
posted by unliteral at 9:19 PM on August 20, 2012


Further to that, I see that Mosfilm has made available White Sun of the Desert (with subtitles).
posted by unliteral at 9:35 PM on August 20, 2012


Way too many awesome links in this thread already, but I'll mention a couple of other favorites. For books on this subject, you might also want to check out "Two Sides of the Moon" by David Scott and Alexei Leonov, sharing their insights on both sides of the space race. The prologue in particular provides a harrowing recount of Leonov's otherwise triumphant spacewalk on Voskhod 2 and is guaranteed to keep you hooked in for more.

For a dramatised version of the events, I would also highly recommend BBC's "Space Race" which gives equal time to both the Soviet and American programs, as well as significant backstory on Von Braun and Korolev. It's certainly less afraid (than others, at least) to probe into Von Braun's Nazi affiliations and war crimes, most likely due to being a foreign production. It's noteworthy for being one of the first times that the politics (and to a lesser extent, engineering challenges) were really given the spotlight, while the astronauts and cosmonauts themselves are merely "placeholders" (not entirely unlike how they were viewed in the early parts of both space programs)

With regard to all of the Soviet "firsts" in the space race (especially during the early going, where heavy lifting was undeniably the Soviet's province) I am always reminded of this hilarious exchange from "The Right Stuff," when (then senator) Lyndon Johnson is questioning an ersatz Von Braun about why Russia was always first:

"Was it them? Was it their German scientists?"

"No it was not, senator. Our Germans are better than their Germans."
posted by ShutterBun at 2:21 AM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read Red Star in Orbit after I walked past it in the Adelaide uni library, glanced at it completely at random and liked the cover for some reason. Great book. What really struck me was how many of the things the Russians did first were things Khrushchev found out the Americans were about to do then told Korolev that he had to do first. "So the Americans are going to put two men in space? How many cosmonauts can we fit in a one-man capsule?" (I may be misremembering the details slightly)
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:27 AM on August 21, 2012


they could send cosmonaut after cosmonaut to die without public repercussion

"Komarov" and "Patsayev, Volkov, and Dobrovolsky" don't really count as "cosmonaut after cosmonaut."


That statement may have been referring to the fact that Soviet launches during that time period were all done in secret, only being announced after success was achieved, and that a number of MAJOR disasters were covered up.

NASA launches were done on live TV, and disasters like Apollo I nearly ended the program based on bad PR alone.

While the Soviet Union didn't exactly go through a stack of dead cosmonauts, there is always that notion of "they probably could have, if necessary."
posted by ShutterBun at 2:30 AM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Khrushchev found out the Americans were about to do then told Korolev that he had to do first.

There was definitely a lot of that on both sides. Obviously, the ultimate goal was the moon, but a lot was made about all of the little checkpoints along the way.

On the U.S. side, the decision to launch Apollo 8 (which was BY FAR the riskiest decision NASA *ever* had to make) was a direct result of a report that the Soviets were planning a manned circumlunar flight to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution. Had they made it first, it could be declared "first men *to* the moon," and seen as a Soviet victory. (it turns out that the Zond spacecraft was nowhere near ready, really, and we needn't have worried too much)
posted by ShutterBun at 2:37 AM on August 21, 2012


On the U.S. side, the decision to launch Apollo 8 (which was BY FAR the riskiest decision NASA *ever* had to make) was a direct result of a report that the Soviets were planning a manned circumlunar flight to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution.

Nah, it was just a factor, one of several. Apollo 8 was originally supposed to be the first flight of combined Lunar (LM) and Command/Service(CSM) Module. But the LM was behind schedule and probably wouldn't be ready to early in '69. So George Low, director of the Apollo Program, got the idea of sending just the CSM around the moon, as another test. But it was dependent on how well Apollo 7, the first flight of the CSM, would go. It surprised everyone by being nearly flawless.

There was also the remnants of the Apollo 1 fire, which were still hanging on NASA's shoulders and with good reason. Apollo 8 became a lunar mission because it was decided that it would be good to have only concentrate on dealing navigation and communications of one ship in lunar orbit as opposed to two. It would also put all the cards on the table: Either NASA had learned from Apollo 1 and could and return people safely to the moon or it could not.

The Russian were seemingly ready to do the first lunar orbit, so yeah, that was a factor. But the biggest reason was the lateness of the Lunar Module and fast approaching end of the decade.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:10 AM on August 21, 2012


-first woman in space

While this is more of a social rather than technological first, it should be noted USSR beat USA by 20 years.: Valentina Tereshkova, 1963 and Sally Ride, 1983.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:43 AM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was a stunt. 19 years passed before another female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, traveled into space in 1982.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:07 PM on August 21, 2012


I don't see how General Tereshkova's flight was more of a stunt than any of the other Vostok or Mercury flights.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:40 PM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see how General Tereshkova's flight was more of a stunt than any of the other Vostok or Mercury flights.

She was chosen to complete a first, showcase the "superiority" of communist society and her family background, not because of any particular skill on her part. The USSR flew no other woman for 19 years. Sounds like a stunt.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:44 PM on August 21, 2012


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