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Academic History

My father recently wrote a blog post in response to a post on Instapundit that linked to one Pravda Online, which reported that an official had come forward and stated that the USSR had tried to launch men in sub-orbital shots once in each of 1957, 1958, and 1959.

Upon reading that, I had to two reactions. The first was that this is all predicated on the word of this one man. It is entirely possible that this did happen, and the USSR covered it all up. As my father dutifully noted, however, even the medium — this “Pravda Online” — is suspect. The fact that the most credible news source that this fellow could get to publish his story was the “equivalent of a supermarket tabloid in the U.S.” also brings into question the validity of his story.

The other reaction was that if the Soviet scientists had been able to share the circumstances of their failures, it might have been possible for the Americans to learn from them and possibly save lives. But then again, we already know that from a much clearer example:

On March 23, 1961 Bondarenko was working in a training simulator pressurized with pure oxygen. After removing some biosensors from his body Bondarenko washed his skin with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball which he carelessly threw away. The cotton ball landed on an electric hot plate which started a flash fire in the oxygen-rich atmosphere and ignited Bondarenko’s suit.

A watching doctor tried to open the chamber door but this took several minutes because of the pressure difference and Bondarenko suffered third-degree burns over most of his body. In 1984 the attending hospital physician Vladimir Golyakhovsky said that while attempting to start an intravenous drip he was only able to find an insertion point on the sole of one of Bondarenko’s feet, where his flight boots had warded off the flames. According to Golyakhovsky, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin spent several hours at the hospital as “deathwatch officer” and Bondarenko died of shock eight hours after the mishap.

News of the accident was not published. Bondarenko had already appeared in group films and photos of the first cosmonaut group and his disappearance sparked rumours of cosmonauts dying in failed launches. The incident was revealed over twenty years later.

If we had heard about the extreme danger of operating in pressurized 100% oxygen conditions in 1961, we probably wouldn’t have put three astronauts in an Apollo module with 16 psi of O2, where a bar of aluminum can burn like wood, for the plugs out test of Apollo 1 in 1967.

But anyways, about the blog post. One important thing for me was that it pointed out the unlikelihood of the story given the sequence of events. See, my grasp of the chronology of the space program is somewhat tenuous. So when the idea of trying to put a man above the Karman line in 1957 didn’t immediately perk up my ears as it did my father’s:

The USSR didn’t even launch Sputnik I until October of that year, and that was a metal sphere a mere 28 inches in diameter. It did weigh as much as a man (183 pounds), but a spacecraft capable of carrying a man, keeping him alive, and returning him safely to Earth would weigh a great deal more. The Soviets simply didn’t have the ability to loft anything that massive into space, even on a suborbital trajectory, in 1957.

Heck, I even had to look up the dates for Bondarenko’s accident and the Apollo 1 fire. Even though they are events I know of well, their space in the time line is still pretty fuzzy.

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Categories: Real Life
  1. patberry
    January 28, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Well, I don’t think it’s normal to know as much about the Space Race as I do. Some people might even use the term “unhealthy obsession” to describe my interest in it. I prefer to think of it as an aspect of my geekhood. Some geeks are fixated on programming or cryptology; for me, it’s the early (pre-Shuttle) space program.

  2. Grandma
    January 28, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    This made me recall that day of Alan Shepherd’s sub-orbital flight in 1961, when you were about eighteen months old. I sat you down in front of the TV to watch the live coverage and said, “This is important. Pay attention!” Must have taken.

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