Challenge to Apollo:: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974

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As astonishing as it may seem, the story of the Soviet space program, the world's first, has never been told in full. That is not to say that much has not been written on the topic. Western researchers during the 1970s and 1980s were able to interpret official exhortations in the Soviet press and discern some logic of the inner workings of the Soviet space program. All of these works had one major drawback: they were written at a time when the Soviets maintained very strict control over information, especially any which portrayed the space effort in a negative light. Many "facts"—that is the raw skeleton of the story—were missing. All we had were accounts from the official Soviet media and rumor or speculation from unconfirmed sources—or a combination of both. Thus the range of issues that Western or even Soviet historians could address was severely limited.'
Within Russian-language works, there are two relatively clear divisions in the historical record: those published before 1988 when the Soviet censorship apparatus consistently prevented an impartial representation of their efforts to explore space, and those published after, when the doors of the archives finally started opening up. The rupture was so great it was as if everything written about the Soviet space program—and indeed almost every area of Soviet history—suddenly became obsolete by the turn of the 1990s. Entire programs, personalities, and even space missions of which we never knew all of a sudden came into focus, filling huge gaps in our understanding of the Soviet space effort during the Cold War.
The recent disclosures have relevance far beyond the limited purview of Soviet space history. In the 1950s and 1960s U.S. space policy to a large degree was a series of responses to what the Soviets were doing— or at least what policymakers thought the Soviets were doing. But despite its key role in shaping American space policy, there continues to be an abundance of ignorance or misinformation on the Soviet program. What may be possible now is to take a second look not only at the Soviet space program, but also the U.S. space program— that is, to reconsider again humanity's first attempts to take leave of this planet.
My goal was not to write a history simply because it had never been written before. Certainly, recording the facts is an important exercise, but that would limit the job to a simple chronology. There are several major questions of interpretation that still have to be answered. I have only tackled a few of these.
The first major question has to do with discerning the institutional underpinnings of the Soviet space program. Given the new evidence, can we identify the primary constituencies that drove the effort? What kind of patterns of decision-making did they display? What interests were they serving? The record seems to indicate the importance of both individuals and institutions, all of whom emerged to power not because of the space program, but because of its antecedent ballistic missile development effort.
Finally, why did the Soviets manage to beat the Americans in launching the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the first satellite, and the first human into space, but fail to beat the United States in landing the first person on the Moon? Was it simply because the last goal was significantly more challenging than the previous three? Or was it because, as was conventionally thought for many years in the West, that the Soviets simply did not want to race the Americans to the Moon? The answers to these questions are not simple: personal, institutional, political, and technological issues intersected in the complex schema of the Soviet Moon program, leading it to its final ignominious failure in 1969.