Red Rockets Over the Horizon

By James A. Chisem

In 1938, Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov had been identified as an enemy of the Soviet state. According to the powers that be, he was a Trotskyite plotter who had conspired with other missile designers and technicians to overthrow socialism and derail the Russian path to progress. Of course, Sergey Pavolvich was not a spy, nor was he a traitor—he was the victim of a world in which truth and fiction were as translucent as the Volga.

19 years later, he sat in the control bunker at the Kapustin Yar facility in the Astrakhan Oblast and watched as the R-7 rocket he had designed catapulted an aluminium-magnesium-titanium sphere, not much bigger than a football, beyond the stratosphere and into the great unknown. Sputnik-1, the first man-made satellite put into orbit, announced itself like a bolt from the blue with an endless set of bleeps. Perhaps, Sergey Pavlovich had enquired, we could make it bleep a message in morse code? Something to broadcast the message of proletarian revolution to the entire world? No! the reply had come from the Soviet Ministry of Radiotechnical Industry, that would be much too difficult and time consuming. Not as difficult and time consuming as building an ICBM and launching a satellite into space, Korolyov could have been forgiven for thinking.

Nevertheless, a nation which 40 years previous had been an agrarian backwater had now overtaken the USA and not only forged ahead into the space age, it had created it from scratch. The Eisenhower administration, although it played down the significance of the Sputnik launch, was well aware that it had taken its eye off the ball, and now that ball was circling hundreds of thousands of feet above their heads, taunting them with each high pitched bleep.

In the paranoid Cold War atmosphere of the late 1950s, the US had more reasons to worry about a Soviet lead in space than the loss of a few propaganda points. If the Russians could successfully launch a rocket with a separating payload into space, then they could probably launch one at New York or Washington with a thermonuclear warhead attached. General Le-May, the hot headed chief of US Strategic Air Command, had told everyone who would listen—and everyone who wouldn’t—that the Soviets had to be destroyed before they gained the capability to do the same to the United States. In the autumn of 1957, it appeared as if Le-May’s calls to action had passed their sell by date.

All of this was not lost on Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Nikita Sergeyavich may have been born amidst humble surroundings in the Ukraine, but he was enthusiastic about the scope for economic and technological progress under the planned economy. As the capitalist economies struggled with the contradictions Marx had identified, the socialist model would naturally overtake them. “I will wave as we go past”, he famously said to Nixon at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. Space travel was then, for Khrushchev, the ultimate expression of the new world subsuming the old one. As long as the Cold War continued, Nikita would require his rockets and Sergey Pavlovich would oblige in delivering them—both for very different reasons.

For the briefest of periods, red plenty was on the horizon and a Soviet satellite was hovering above it.

James A. Chisem is an editor and writer at Atlantic Bulletin.