“To penetrate humbly…”

Reading Beyond by Stephen Walker for the Telegraph, 18 April 2021

On 30 May 2020 US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley flew to the International Space Station. It was the first time a crew had left the planet from US soil since 2011.

In the interim, something — not wrong, exactly, but certainly strange — had happened to space travel. Behnken and Hurley’s SpaceX-branded space suits looked like something I would throw together as a child, even down to my dad’s biking helmet and — were those Wellington boots? The stark interior of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was even more disconcerting. Poor Behnken and Hurley! they looked as if they were riding in the back of an Uber.

Well, what goes around comes around, I suppose. The capsule that carried Yuri Gagarin into space on 12 April 1961 boasted an almost ludicrously bare central panel of just four dials. Naysayers sniped that Gagarin had been a mere passenger — a human guinea pig.

By contrast, the design of the Mercury cockpit, that carried America’s first astronaut into space, was magnificently, and possibly redundantly fussy says Stephen Walker, in his long and always thrilling blow-by-blow account of the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s race into orbit: “Almost every inch of it was littered with dials, knobs, indicators, lights and levers just like a ‘real’ aeroplane cockpit.”

America’s “Gemini Seven” (two-seater Gemini capsules quickly succeeded the Mercuries) were celebrities, almost absurdly over-qualified for their task of being rattled around in the nose of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Their space programme was public — and so were its indignities, like the fact that virtually everything they were being asked to do, a chimpanzee had done before them.

It drove Alan Shepard — the man fated to be the first American in space — into a rage. On one training session somebody joked, “Maybe we should get somebody who works for bananas”. The ash tray Shepard threw only just missed his head.

The Soviet Union’s space programme was secret. Not even their wives knew what the “Vanguard Seven” were up to. They won no privileges. Sometimes they’d polish other people’s floors to make ends meet.

Those looking for evidence of the gimcrack quality of the Soviet space effort will find ammunition in Beyond. Contrast, for example, NASA’s capsule escape plans (involving a cherry-picker platform and an armoured vehicle) with the Soviet equivalent (involving a net and a bath tub).

But Walker’s research for this book stretches back a decade and his acknowledgements salute significant historians (Asif Siddiqi in particular), generous interviewees and a small army of researchers. He’ll not fall for such clichés. instead, he shows how the efforts of each side in the race to space were shaped by the technology they had to hand.

Soviet hydrogen bombs were huge and heavy, and needed big, powerful rockets to carry them. Soviet space launches were correspondingly epic. The Baikonur cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan — a desolate, scorpion-infested region described in Soviet encyclopaedias as “the Home of the Black Death” — was around a hundred times the size of Cape Canaveral. Its launch bunkers were buried beneath several metres of reinforced concrete and earth because, says Walker, “a rocket the size and power of the R-7 would probably have flattened the sort of surface blockhouse near the little Redstone in Cape Canaveral.”

Because the US had better (lighter, smaller) nuclear bombs, its available rocket technology was — in space-piercing terms — seriously underpowered. When Alan Shepard finally launched from Cape Canaveral on 5 May 1961, twenty-three days after Yuri Gagarin circled the earth, his flight lasted just over fifteen minutes. He splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles from the Cape. Gagarin travelled some 26,000 miles around the planet.

The space race was the Soviets’ to lose. Once Khrushchev discovered the political power of space “firsts” he couldn’t get enough of them. “Each successive space ‘spectacular’ was exactly that,” Walker writes, “not so much part of a carefully structured progressive space programme but yet another glittering showpiece, preferably tied to an important political anniversary”. Attempts to build a co-ordinated strategy were rejected or simply ignored. This is a book as much about disappointment as triumph.

Beyond began life as a film documentary, but the newly discovered footage Walker was offered proved too damaged for use. Thank goodness he kept his notes and his nerve. This is not a field that’s starved of insight: Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony wrote a cracking biography of Gagarin called Starman in 1998; the autobiography of Soviet systems designer Boris Chertok runs to four volumes. Still, Walker brings a huge amount that is new and fresh to our understanding of the space race.

Over the desk of the Soviet’s chief designer Sergei Korolev hung a portrait of the nineneenth-century Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and with it his words: “Mankind will not stay on Earth for ever but in its quest for light and space it will first penetrate humbly beyond the atmosphere and then conquer the whole solar system.”

Beyond shows how that dream — what US aviation pioneer James Smith McDonnell called “the creative conquest of space” — was exploited by blocs committed to their substitute for war — and how, for all that, it survived.