Stalin, in the early 1950s, press the USSR heavy industries along with the Soviet Military, to develop a rocket program that ultimately would lead to the Russian ICBM or Semyorka, also called the R-7. The first successful flight occurred on 21 August 1957. The “chief designer”, whose identity remained a state secret until 1966, was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. After the successful launch of the first Semyorka, Korolev received the green light, from Khrushchev, to launch a long-planned artificial satellite that would demonstrated Soviet technical superiority over the USA. The secret launch of Sputnik-1 on 4 October 1957 was successful and came as a complete shock to the USA as well as the rest of the world. Korolev followed up on 3 November 1957 with a second successful secret launch of Sputnik-2. The weights of these two satellites (184 & 1,121 pounds) far exceeded the capabilities of the then American Vanguard rocket (2.2 pounds). The USA, as an open society, televised the launch attempt of the Project Vanguard on 6 December 1957 but it was a spectacular failure that earned it the moniker “kaputnik”. The Space Race between the USSR and the USA became one of the highlights of the Cold War, with the Soviets ahead for a number of years but ultimately, it was the Americans that landed on the Moon in 1969. The Russians took great pride in all of their space accomplishments.
After the first Sputniks,the next major goal for the Soviets under Korolev, with the strong support of Khrushchev, was the successful launch of a man into orbit the earth and his safe return. A team of Soviet Air Force pilots, now called Cosmonauts, was assembled and trained. The pilot selected for the first flight was Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin. He was launched, in secret, in Vostok-1 on 12 April 1961 and circled the earth for one orbit, about 100 minutes. Again, the technical superiority of the Soviet state was proclaimed over the Americans. In the style that Khrushchev used in his secret report on Stalin that eliminated the “cult of personality”, Gagarin discussed aspects of his flight in an article “The World in 100 Minutes.”
“After I returned to earth foreign correspondence asked me many questions . . . Our mighty launching pad was the October revolution. It was this that opened vast expanses to the creative forces of the people. It generated the vast energy that in a short time overcame Russia’s former technical and cultural backwardness and that enabled our Soviet motherland to take the lead in mankind’s progress, to break through to stellar heights. We are infinitely proud that it was the hands of Soviet people that built the “Vostok.” The world does not yet know the names of those who created the space rocket; the time for this has not yet come. But it is clear to everyone that such a victory could have been won only by the collective; not individual heroes, but a huge collective of scientists, engineers, technicians, doctors, pilots and workers. In other words, they are people who have been reared by the Soviet system, the Communist Party. Yuri Gagarin, “The World in 100 Minutes”, current digest of the Russian Press, The.1961. https://dlib.eastview.com/browse/doc/13793116
The Semyorka or R-7 booster, first flown in 1957, is still used today to launch the Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) albeit with many upgrades to improve performance. It is remarkable that the basic design for the Semyorka (R-7) Russian booster has remained the standard rocket booster for manned spaceflight over the past 59 years, where as the American space program has gone through 5 different rocket boosters for their manned flights The Samyorka R-7 boosters have been used for over 2,000 unmanned and manned missions for earth satellites and probes to Mars and Venus. For the past 9 years American astronauts, going to the ISS, have had relied on the Russian R-7 booster to get to the ISS. On 27 May 2020, American astronauts will finally be able to be launched to the ISS on the American Falcon 9 rocket and no longer rely on the Russian R-7.
One of the most significant differences between the Soviet and American space programs was the level of secrecy imposed by the Soviets. All Soviet manned launches until 1975 were not acknowledged until the spacecraft was already in orbit so that any launch failures could be ignored and covered up. Until the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, no Russian television coverage showed the live launch of a Soviet spacecraft compared to the total live coverage, by the US media, of all of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle launches. The manned Apollo launches from 1968-1972 drew very large crowds without any secrecy considerations because the USA is an open society. I was invited by NASA to witness the Apollo 14 & 15 launches at Cape Kennedy.
As a personal example of the controlling Soviet culture that related to the Soviet Space program, I was project manager in Moscow in 1996-97 on a program for the startup of a pharmaceutical testing laboratory that verification the integrity of imported drugs from China and India. I worked with Ramil Khabriev, Chief of Inspection, for the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation on the testing protocols for the project. Ramil was in his mid-60s, so he lived under Soviet socialism his entire working life. Interestingly, we both shared an interest in the Soviet space program. In May 1997, Ramil came to Tampa, FL to approve the final design of the laboratory. I told Ramil, that I would take him to the nearby Kennedy Space Center for a tour that included a viewing point stop to see the Space Shuttle on the launch pad. He told me that being a Russian citizen, NASA would never allow him into the Space Center. We drove to the Cape and went to the visitor center without any security checks. At the visitor’s center, we viewed a IMAX movie on the MIR space station, partially in Russian (just my luck), and then we took the bus to the Space Shuttle viewing site. The viewing point stop went very well with the Shuttle sitting about 1 mile away. Ramil was really impressed seeing Space Shuttle directly but I could sense that Ramil came to the realization that the Soviet political system had been lying to him all these years about America. He was able to take the tour and see the Shuttle as close as 1 mile and there was no governmental control preventing him. For him, there was just breathing the freedom that Americans enjoy that he as a life-time Soviet citizen could not and did not enjoy. It was a real awakening for him and I enjoyed being the one that made it possible.
Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge, Asif A Siddiqi, University Press of Florida, 2000.
The Soyuz Launch Vehicle: The Two Lives of an Engineering Triumph, Christian Lardier & Stefan Barensky, Springer Praxis Publishing, 2010