[if you’re new to the Journey, reference this summary article to see what we’re all about.]
by Gideon Marcus
America just can’t seem to catch a break in the Space Race. Late last night, the latest Soviet spectacular came to a stunning conclusion: two Cosmonauts had circled the Earth for several days, at one point flying within just 75 miles of each other.
Major Andrian Nikolaev, 33 and a Chuvash Russian, kicked off the mission the early morning (our time) of August 11. His Vostok 3 (“Falcon”) was in space for a full day before his spaecebound comrade, 32-year old Ukrainian Lt. Col. Pavel Popovich blasted off in Vostok 4 (“Golden Eagle”), morning of August 12. TV broadcasts of the two came frequently via Moscow; we saw the cosmonauts floating freely in their small cabins, chatting with each other over the radio, even singing songs. Breathless news reporters informed that the two craft had “rendezvoused” early on in the flight. The cosmonauts landed near midnight (our time) within just a few minutes of each other, both of them making the full journey in their ships (as opposed to Titov, who for some reason baled out of Vostok 2 before it reached the ground).
The flight of Vostoks 3 and 4 is a Big Deal. For four days, there were Russians in space doing impressive things. It made our prior three-orbit flights look pathetic in comparison. But the big question is this: Did the two craft actually rendezvous and dock under their own power, a feat that would demonstrate not only a tremendous Communist lead on our program, but an ability to intercept and destroy our own satellites?
Many government officials are being cagey in their responses, but the answer is “probably not.” Falcon and Eagle flew closest together in their first few orbits, quickly drifting apart over subsequent ones. There wasn’t time to link up. And if the Russians had actually docked, “They would have announced it,” deputy NASA administrator Dr. Hugh L. Dryden said.
This makes sense. Neither of the prior Vostoks displayed any ability to modify their orbits, and it would suggest a great advancement in Soviet technology if the new ones did. Rather, the “rendezvous” was merely a demonstration of skilled orbital trajectory calculations and an admittedly impressive ability to launch multiple missions in rapid succession.
Those are the particulars. Where does this leave us in the big picture?
Five years ago, the Soviets beat us to the orbital punch, lofting the first two Sputniks. Though we followed with our own Explorer just three months later, it was with a lighter, less capable rocket. In 1958-60, we made nearly ten unsuccessful attempts to launch a moon probe. In the same time frame, the Russians had at least two successes, including the dramatic Luna 3, which took the first pictures of the Far Side of the moon.
Last year, the USSR put the first man in orbit, and it was almost a year until we could match the feat (and not before the put a fellow up in space for a full day – we’ve barely managed less than five hours). And now this dual Vostok flight.
Some outlets are going ape with dire predictions. The Communists are several years ahead, they say, on track to land on the moon by 1965! At a shallow glance, it certainly seems like the Reds are way ahead of us.
But let’s look at things soberly. I suspect that the booster the Soviets used for Vostok is largely the same one they used for Sputnik. It’s the equivalent of our Atlas. It was just available to them several years earlier. Thus, Vostok doesn’t reflect any major advancement in Russian launch capability – just a fuller utilization of it. Now that we’ve got the Atlas working for us, we’re on a much more level playing field. Also, the American Mercury space capsule will ultimately be capable of day-long flights, too. We just like to take things a bit slower than our reckless Communist adversaries.
And let’s not forget that while the Soviets have launched about 20 flights since 1957 (that they’ve divulged), we’ve launched 100. The Explorer series is already up to 12, Discoverer almost to 50. Not to mention the parallel and impressive X-15 rocketplane program, whose successor, the X-20, will be a fully orbital and reusable spaceplane. Finally, Mariner 2, our Venus probe, is set for launch next month. We can assume the Soviets will have their counterpart, but it won’t beat us to the planet of love; it will merely escort it.
So don’t panic yet. Until the Soviets display a true rendezvous in space, or present us with an entirely new spacecraft, they are not that far ahead of us in the Space Race and, I submit, are in some ways behind us. Ask me again come December…