The Missing Ingredient in Soviet Space Missions

As the fiftieth anniversary of the first launch of a satellite into orbit looms, much will be written about the impressive accomplishment. The ascent of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957 from the Soviet Union's space complex near Tyuratam, Kazakhstan (where it actually was 5 October at liftoff), officially launched the Space Age and led to the costliest civilian competition between two nations in the history of the world.

Already, every media outlet on the planet has posted a story with some explanation reminding us why this particular space flight shocked the world (especially aimed at those under a certain age). And they are all correct. The first Sputnik was a stunning surprise to people everywhere. Most historians rank its importance to 20th-century events as comparable to the attack on Pearl Harbor at the beginning of World War II or the atomic bomb strike on Hiroshima at the end of that horrifying conflict.

Here's a sampling of some of the headlines from around the world:

One of the most telling comments in all these, though, can be found almost buried in a piece by the Associated Press, "Sputnik at 50: An Improvised Triumph". Georgi Grechko, a Soviet rocket engineer and cosmonaut, told the AP, that the U.S.S.R. may have leaped to the forefront of exploration with the Sputnik series and the first manned missions of the Vostok project, but that its participants were aware early on that they lacked a key advantage over the U.S. campaign in one vital area: electronics.

"We wouldn't have been the first on the moon any way," Grechko said. "We lost the race because our electronics industry was inferior."

As a civilian, Grechko, 76, flew three Soyuz missions in the 70s and 80s for the Soviet space agency, setting endurance records along the way aboard the early Salyut space station. As a Ph.D. in mathematics and training in spacecraft design from the unit Sergei Korolev founded originally, Grechko is in a position to know something about the different design philosophies the U.S. and U.S.S.R. pursued.

The advanced electronics that NASA engineers were able to use in their designs during the heyday of the space race certainly contributed to the U.S. being able to employ lighter but more efficient payloads, thereby reducing the thrust requirements of their launch vehicles as a ratio to the mass of the objects they were transporting into orbit. Plus, these payloads, such as the famous Apollo spacecraft (with its lunar module), could be made more complex, enabling them to offer greater capabilities.

Let's return to this important subject in future blog entries on the role of electronics in the Space Age. For now, feel free to contribute to a discussion on the topic.

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