by Gideon Marcus
When the news is full of Soviet spacemen and bomb tests, it’s easy to get the impression that America’s losing the Space Race. The Russians got the first Sputnik, the first Muttnik, the first Lunik. They launched the first two men into orbit; America’s two astronauts had shorter missions than most people’s commutes. Not a week goes by without some cartoon in the papers depicting a Sickle and Hammer festooning a space station or the Moon.
And yet, are we really behind? Just last month, the Air Force had three Discoverer missions (29, 30, and 31). Discoverer is a spy satellite. It is launched into a polar orbit (i.e. one that goes North to South rather than East to West) that allows the craft to view the entire Earth every day. It snaps pictures with an onboard camera and then, after a couple of days, jettisons the camera back to Earth in a reentry probe. The Air Force catches these probes in mid-air! This is to ensure that our nation’s enemies don’t recover them before we can.
The Communists are up to Sputnik #10. The Air Force, with just one series of satellites, has over thirty. There is simply no comparison in the number of flights we are launching. Moreover, we have more kinds of flights: the scientific Explorers and Pioneers, the Echo and Courier communications satellites, the missile-detecting MIDASes, the navigational TRANSITs.
Now, you may be wondering if the Soviets have more satellites up, and they just aren’t telling us. It is true that the Communists seem loathe to announce any flights unless they are a) civilian in nature and b) successful. However, since satellites necessarily travel across the entire globe, it is impossible to hide an orbital mission for very long. Too many countries are scanning their skies with radar and telescopes. Too many professionals and amateurs tune into the heavens, listening for a scrap of telemetry. No, it’s pretty clear that the West is beating the East, at least in the number of missions, by an overwhelming margin.
Moreover, we will very soon catch up to the Russians in terms of the size of payloads we can launch into orbit and beyond, the one arena in which they’ve enjoyed a consistent advantage. Not only will the Atlas and Titan ICBMs soon be able to boost humans into orbit, but the new Saturn should dwarf anything the Soviets have to offer. Unlike all of our (and their) previous rockets, the Saturn has been purpose-built as a civilian heavy-lift booster. Its capacity is going to be tremendous – and it will only be increased as time goes on.
Next time someone tells you that the Reds are clobbering us in Space, just send them one of those commemorative postcards our flyboys issue for each Discoverer launch. By the time the Russians get to 31 in any satellite series, I imagine we’ll already be well past 100.