Eric Lee’s article (Solidarity 602) about Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and the stark contrast of his great achievement with the charlatans Branson pickle and Jeff Bozo, is spot on. When I was a schoolboy, I diligently collected the Weetabix “Conquest of Space” cards until I had the full set. This had two effects: a life-long interest in rockets and space travel and an equally life-long loathing for Weetabix.
Once, in Bulgaria, I bought a photo-postcard of Yuri Gagarin at a flea-market in Sofia and framed it. To this day it still hangs in the garage. Also, at the same time, I bought a picture of another cosmonaut – Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space – who also must never be forgotten.
Then there were Laika, Belka and Strelka, the three “space dogs”, one of whom, Laika, died on re-entry. Many animal organisations around the world, including the RSPCA, protested about this misuse of the dogs but the Soviets went ahead anyway.
Sergei Korolev, the “brains” behind the Soviet rocket programme, was treated abysmally by Stalin, and almost died from his six years in the Gulag. At one point both his upper and lower jaw were broken.
His imprisonment, and that of other rocket pioneers like Valentin Glushko, meant that the Soviet rocket programme was delayed, although opinions vary on how seriously. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the village-based scientist who, working in almost complete isolation, calculated the escape velocity needed for a rocket to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, was the first to come up with the idea of multi-stage rockets. His research was so ahead of others that when the Americans abducted Werner von Braun, the German rocket scientist and designer of the V-2, they found one of Tsiolkovsky’s publications in his desk, translated into German, well-thumbed and annotated.
Of course, all this gets very complicated given the background of Stalinism. Tereshkova, by all accounts, was a notorious “hard-liner” in later life and nowadays counts Vladimir Putin amongst her friends. Glushko denounced Korolev to the Stalinists in 1938, although this did not stop him also being imprisoned. Like its US counterpart the Soviet space programme was primarily geared to the development of missile technology, thus furthering the Cold War (the “dark side” of the “space race”).
Korolev was at the 1957 launch of Sputnik by a R-7 rocket of which he played a major part in designing – and then he was never seen again. It is highly likely he was transferred to an ultra-secret Soviet research establishment somewhere east of the Urals which was closed off to the outside world.
Len Glover, Lancashire