Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Their Russians were better than our Germans

A review of The Space Race by Deborah Cadbury and Red Moon Rising by Matthew Brzezinski
Part of VL’s celebration of The International Year of Astronomy


Like a good rail service, space travel is, and should be, boring, a steady sequence of predictable events with everything turning up on time and only failure drawing your attention to its existence.

Also like a good rail service, space travel depends on massive public subsidy and nationalized industry. The two countries which were the only contestants in the space race, the Soviet Union and the United States, were able to enter space before anybody else because they were bigger and better organized. The diversion of resources was easier in the USSR, unhampered by concern for consumer fripperies or pork barrel politics, but the superior organization of the USA did make itself felt in the end. Of course, they also had the better Germans.

One of those things that everybody knows, but never bothers checking, is that the two countries grabbed the staff and equipment of the Nazi V-2 rocket programme in 1945, shipped them home, set them up in suitable quarters and started launching replicas of Hitler’s vengeance weapons. In effect, the two sides were like Chelsea and Manchester United competing at the highest level with no home-grown talent.

There is some truth to this but only some, as these books explain. At the end of the war, and immediately afterwards, both countries tried to grab the scientists and engineers who had developed the V-2, in particular Wernher von Braun, a nobleman’s son who had been taken on to develop rockets for the German army when he was still at university. Von Braun and others at the main rocket construction site hid their blueprints and decided to hand themselves over to the Americans: the Russians would not be charitable and the French and British had no money for rockets. If they wanted to get into space as they had dreamt for many years, only the Americans would do. Meanwhile, the Americans were spiriting equipment and data out of their zone before the border shifted and the Russians took over.

Space race

The Russians had some success: they managed to grab a number of engineers and technicians including Helmut Grottrup whose wife insisted on a car, cows to provide milk for her children and access to the piano at the provisional headquarters where she would arrive on her motorcycle and play Liszt, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. In time, the Russians’ Germans were shipped to a site near Moscow and the Americans’ to New Mexico where they were set to work firing leftover V-2s for the army.

At the time, the US had three rocket programmes: the army’s, the navy’s and the newly-formed air force’s. The USSR had two, the main one led by Sergei Korolev, almost as unknown then as he is now. Korolev had grown up fascinated by aircraft, cadging rides with flying boat pilots near his home, and only came to rockets and space flight later in life. While von Braun was working in Hitler’s shiny new rocket factories, Korolev spent much of the thirties and forties in the gulag after being denounced by Valentin Glushko, a rocket engine designer who had also been accused of counter-revolutionary activities and with whom Korolev would later collaborate. He was saved by the war. Short of skilled engineers and technicians, the country moved him to a penal colony for technical workers where he worked on the development of aircraft and rockets.

While the Americans left their Germans to stagnate in Huntsville, Alabama, and wasted resources funding inter-service rivalry, Korolev’s team was redesigning the Nazi rockets, extending their range and carrying capacity and, most important, working alongside their Germans. Over time, they acquired enough experience to take over the whole programme: the explanation that the Russians were first into space because `their Germans were better than our Germans’ is American complacency rather than engineering insight.

Korolev’s day job was designing rockets to carry nuclear warheads rather than satellites. His lucky break came courtesy of Andrei Sakharov who had designed another Soviet success the Americans did not expect, the hydrogen bomb. When asked how heavy a warhead would be, he said five tons, which became the payload required of Korolev’s rocket. A rocket which can carry five tons to America can carry a few hundred kilogrammes to orbit.

Korolev’s R-7, after the usual initial troubles, was proved capable of landing on target after travelling thousands of miles. The problem was that the warhead, the reason for the rocket in the first place, would burn up on re-entry. Korolev decided to distract Khrushchev by launching satellites while his team worked on thermal protection for the weapon.

1957-58 had been designated International Geophysical Year and both superpowers had promised to launch a satellite to mark it and to carry out scientific research, mainly military, though neither said so. Korolev had developed a simple satellite (prostreishy sputnik) with a small transmitter which pinged the earth so that the satellite could be tracked and had won permission to launch it. In the end, the launch date was advanced two days because of an ambiguous statement in an intelligence briefing which made it look as though the Americans were about to announce a satellite of their own. On the 4th of October, 1957, Sputnik was launched and Russia yawned.

The news of the launch was buried on an inside page of Pravda. Only after seeing the world’s response, and especially America’s panic, did Khrushchev decide to gloat and Korolev was given various decorations which he could never wear in public in case the Americans found out who he was and kidnapped him.

Korolev was now in the unfortunate position of having got what he wanted. There were enough parts available to build one more rocket and Khrushchev wanted a stunt to impress Mao who would be attending the celebration of forty years of the Soviet Union a few weeks later. Korolev knew that another shiny ball would not do: how about a living being? The staff were recalled, without even enough time to drink the teapot of booze they had received as a launch bonus, the parts were assembled, and on the 4th of November, Laika the dog was launched. America howled: `Communist dog in space’; `What next? A man on the moon.’ Korolev gave Khrushchev more triumphs: two dogs, returned alive; a package on the moon; the first man in space.

On the 12th of April 1961, a farm boy turned fighter pilot called Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. When the news came in of his safe return, Korolev drank his champagne and broke the glass. A bureaucrat quickly pointed out that the Chief Designer could smash a glass but nobody else: `Who will answer to the glasses division?’ Though it was not yet clear, this was about as good as it would get for the Russians: they made the first space walks, sent the first woman into space and made the first attempts at docking manouevres, without which a moonshot or space stations would be impossible, but their progress was hampered by political infighting and, most of all, by the death of Korolev.

At the time of his death, Korolev was working on the N-1, a rocket which would have been capable of launching a lunar mission, although it is unlikely that it would have been built. Years of overwork were catching up with him and he went into hospital in January 1966 to have polyps removed. In part because of the injuries he suffered in the gulag, which stopped the surgeons adminstering anaesthetic directly into his lungs, in part because of a malignant tumour discovered during the procedure, he died during the operation. Only after his death did more than a handful of people learn his name when he was honoured by the USSR and his body lay in state before his burial near Lenin’s tomb.

  1. Cadbury, Deborah, The space race, 0-00-720994-0
  2. Brzezinski, Matthew, Red moon rising, 978-0-7475-9307-2

5 comments on “Their Russians were better than our Germans

  1. Jackie
    February 28, 2009

    Very interesting review on a fascinating topic. I was sad when I found out that Laika had died partway through her journey, though it was kept secret for a long time. Frau Grottrup sounds like someone who deserves her own book.

  2. Moira
    March 1, 2009

    I’m a great fan of Deborah Cadbury’s, so I’m definitely going to have to look this one out.

    I was fascinated by the Space Race at a very early age (I suppose it was an age thing – it was all happening as I grew up and was unbelievably exciting to live through … at least for a slightly nerdy child like me …).

    That “Their Germans are better than our Germans” belief is a bit of received wisdom that I have to admit I’ve never really questioned – so I read this review with considerable interest.

    I have heard of Korolev but I hadn’t truly appreciate just what a major part he played.

    Thank you.

  3. David
    February 5, 2010

    If their Germans (and Russians) were better, why did we get to the moon and they never did?

  4. Moira
    February 5, 2010

    I think perhaps you missed this line in Michael’s review (if, indeed, you read the review at all):

    “… but the superior organization of the USA did make itself felt in the end. Of course, they also had the better Germans.

  5. Andrew
    July 12, 2012

    of course the US had the better Germans and program which wasn’t all German scientists. Both countries were going to launch in 57or 58 a satellite. The Soviets went first and chose to crow about it we followed and rubbed their face it “it” by the end of the next decade…

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2009 by in Entries by Michael, Russian Series and tagged , , , , , , .



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