Red Star in Orbit, by James E. Oberg, New York: Random House, 1981, 272 pp., $12.95.
A European once said that hell is a place where the English are the cooks, the French are the mechanics, the Italians are the managers, the Germans run the police force, and the Russians write the history books. There's a great deal of truth to this. The Soviet Union has constantly rewritten its history books and has even eliminated certain words from the Russian language so that Soviet citizens can no longer understand the things engraved on Czarist buildings. Ambrose Bierce defined a Russian as a person with a Caucasian body and a Mongolian soul, which would account for the Soviet passion for face-saving propaganda.
James E. Oberg is well aware of these generalized Soviet characteristics in his book Red Star in Orbit, which is perhaps the best of the Western accounts of the Soviet space program. Oberg and several of us have been following the Soviet space program since before the traumatic launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957. Because the Soviets are secretive about their space program due to its military nature, Soviet space watchers must piece together what's really taken place by using Soviet official announcements; statements from defectors to the West; photographs that are deliberately out of focus, retouched, or otherwise tampered with; a general engineering knowledge of rocketry and astronautics; a knowledge of the Soviet way; and a historical perspective. Oberg has combined all of these into what is probably the best overview of the Soviet space program yet published.
Were the Soviets in "the moon race" with America? Yes, but they canceled their program in early December 1968 when it became obvious they couldn't win. So they stated they were never in the race at all. As Oberg points out, their own space activities make liars of them.
Most of the aspects of the Soviet space program are repugnant to our values and sense of humanity. This didn't or doesn't keep the Soviets from conducting their space program as their totalitarian government is run: with no respect or concern for the individuals except as they may contribute, willingly or otherwise, to the aggrandizement of the Communist Party and the State.
Many of us knew about Soviet space disasters through unclassified sources. Many of us have written about them. But Oberg brings it all together to recount the Soviet Space Horror Show. You should read this nontechnical book to learn the details of such disasters and disregard of human life as:
• Sergey Pavlovitch Korolev, who was incarcerated in Gulag death camps, then in a prison reserved for scientists and engineers. There he continued to work on aircraft during the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet name for World War II) and was a political prisoner—in fact if not in name—even when he convinced Krushchev of the political value of satellites and manned space flight. He died in 1966 during a hemorrhoidectomy botched by the Soviet minister of health, who insisted on performing the procedure without any recent experience.
• The Nedelin Catastrophe of October 1960, when Krushchev ordered a space spectacular during his visit to the United Nations in New York. The Semyorka rocket failed to ignite and, in total disregard for safety precautions but under political pressure, Field Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin ordered the engineers and technicians back to the rocket, which was still loaded with propellants. The Semyorka blew up, taking with it the cream of the Soviet rocket cadre. Nedelin and everyone around the pad died. Nedelin's death was announced as the result of a "plane crash," and he was buried in the Kremlin Wall. There are hundreds of graves at the Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome—which isn't at the town of Baikonur but north of Tyuratam, east of the Aral Sea—another Soviet deception.
• The Voskhod folly, when Krushchev ordered Korolev to redesign the one-man Vostok spacecraft to hold three cosmonauts. This was done to upstage the United States' Gemini program with its two-man capsule and space-walk plans. As a result, none of the three Voskhod 1 cosmonauts had a space suit for emergencies. And the first space walk by Leonov in Voskhod 2 came close to a disaster because of a series of technical oversights that nearly prevented Leonov from reentering the spacecraft.
• The Soyuz 11 disaster that killed three cosmonauts because a simple valve failed. They weren't wearing space suits because there wasn't room or weight for these. They died of asphyxiation before they could land.
There are more. They make Oberg's book a chilling tale of what happens in a totalitarian state where the individual is subservient to the descendants of Attila, where science and engineering are political propaganda tools to boost the image of the State, and where an individual human being climbs into a death trap of a spacecraft either because his indoctrination makes him put his own life at the service of the State without reason or because he must, lest he and his family become un-persons.
The book is a primer on what can be done with primitive technology if people are driven to use it. The Soviet Union and its Communist Party are committed to a space program not only politically but philosophically, and they're successful at the expense of their people.
The true story of the Soviet rocket and space program may never be known because the Soviets document only what will benefit the party and the State. But James Oberg deserves kudos for writing Red Star in Orbit, which is a study of man's inhumanity to man utilizing technology in a morally and ethically dishonest fashion.
Read this book. It describes a microcosm of life in the Soviet Union. It's a warning that may prevent us from falling into the same hole in the road to the stars. And it makes one proud of what free people have been able to accomplish.
G. Harry Stine's most recent book is The Space Enterprise (Ace Books).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Soviet Space Horror Show".