Who launched a satellite into the space?
Animal or human, who won every race?
After years of experiments and failures by various countries, USSR finally managed to create a rocket, so powerful, that it was able to overcome the force of gravity, to create history. Sputnik 1, the very first satellite launched on October 4, 1957, helped advance the understanding of what lay beyond the clouds. This marked the beginning of the ‘Space Age’. Since then, USSR has made considerable contributions to the mankind’s knowledge of the solar system and the universe.
USSR was the first country to not only put an artificial satellite in space, but also, to send an animal, a man and a woman to infinity and beyond! Once they had an artificial satellite in space, a bio-satellite wasn’t far along. Sputnik 2 that carried the first living animal – Laika the dog, was ready to be launched by November 3, 1957. After this, there was nothing to stop them. Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Air Forces pilot, became the first human to orbit the earth for 108 minutes in Vostok 1 (April 12, 1961); Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, too was a Soviet cosmonaut. She earned this title aboard the Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. From the first spacewalk (Alexei Leonov – 1965) to the first remote-controlled lunar rover (Lunokhod – 1970), from the first space station (Salyut 1 – 1971) to the first interplanetary probe to Venus (Venera 9 – 1975), USSR was always a lightyear ahead of everyone.
It was the combination of the country’s post-World War II development of the captured German V-2 technology, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s theoretical work (first to understand theoretical astronautics) and the leadership of Sergei Korolev (Chief Designer), which made it possible for Soviet Union to achieve ‘the first’ milestones during the initial years of the Space Age. The Korolev-led group of specialists had begun working on improving the rocket and missile technology and by 1949, the Soviets were launching R-2 rockets with double the range and improved accuracy in comparison to the original V-2 ones.
By 1957, they had achieved the first successful test flight of the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs), the R-7 Semyorka. The quest to launch a satellite was given a push once the US announced the possibility of investing millions of dollars to the same. In less than a month after this announcement, Sputnik-1 was designed, constructed and launched. The early Sputnik satellites were not designed for re-entry. Thus, sadly, Laika could not return alive. It was not until 1960 that a living creature was launched into space and recovered – two bitches named Belka and Strelka aboard a new spacecraft called Vostok. Subsequently, the first human and the first woman entered.
Korolev, however, had his eyes on a bigger target – the moon. In 1959, Luna-2 became the first human artefact on the moon, and Luna-3 took the first photograph of the moon’s far-side. But before they could send the first human on the moon, Korolev succumbed to colon cancer complications. Without Korolev as the Chief Designer, things went downhill for USSR. They lost their lead in the ‘space race’. Besides the unexpected death of Korolev, a part of the reason for this was that a mission to the moon required a huge budget, and Soviet Union had other priorities. They were still facing food shortages, and thus, had to increase production and build more homes. Truth be told, prioritising NASA’s mission to the moon robbed the domestic programmes combatting poverty and economic inequality of essential funds.
Talking about the ‘space race’, though the Americans claim to have won it by being the first ones to set foot on the moon; if we define space race as spaceflight capability, the Soviets won it hands down. However, 1975 would perhaps make for a better end to the race, when the last Apollo mission docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft and the two commanders shook hands in space. Their ‘handshake in space’ served to symbolise the gradual improvement of US-Soviet relations in the late Cold War era.
In fact, the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 replaced the space race with increased cooperation between the US and the newly founded Russian Federation. Roscosmos (earlier: Russian Federal Space Agency) became the coordinating hub for space activities for Russia from 1992. The Soviet space station Mir, launched in 1986, brought together a number of countries to collaborate in space. Over the next 11 years, Mir (Russian for peace) welcomed American, European, Japanese and Ukrainian astronauts, and came to be known as the Shuttle-Mir Program. The International Space Station too is a multi-nation project that incorporated Russia’s Mir-2 and America’s Space Station Freedom.
However, the circumstances have changed. Since NASA decided to retire its Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the International Space Station relies entirely on the Russian Soyuz capsule for resupply. It is becoming unsustainable for the Roscosmos to support both the resupply and other space exploration projects. Russia announced plans to build its national space station by 2023, although NASA and Roscosmos have agreed to operate and finance the ISS until 2024. The US and Russia have worked closely in the past despite tensions on the ground. Hopefully, they’ll continue to do so as there is no doubt that countries can achieve more through collaborations.
Specially, since Russia’s projected spending on space over the next decade has been significantly downsized; from 3.4 trillion rubles, it was brought down to 1.4 trillion rubles ($20 billion). Nonetheless, Russia is working on a Mars Mission – ExoMars – with the European Space Agency. ExoMars’ first leg, the Trace Gas Orbiter, was successfully launched in 2016. All being well, this mission will break the streak of previous failed Mars missions. Roscosmos also pledged to go ahead with its robotic lunar probes to bring back soil samples from the polar regions of the moon. Thus, even after all the budget cuts, the Russian space program is not out of the woods.