It’s probably been on loads of times before, but I greatly enjoyed watching the BBC4 “Cosmonauts” documentary this evening. While the US space programme was shiny, glamorous and eventually won the big prize – the first lunar landing – the Soviets put their utilitarian, boiler-ish spacecraft atop their Quatermass looking R7 rockets and the odd dog boiling, cosmonaut suffocating, parachute failing incident aside, mainly brought the occupants back to Earth in one piece.
All this is spacecraft that would have perhaps been more durable looking if they had been made out of Meccano.
It was with their space programme that the Soviets went truly retro. Responding to the pressure brought about by Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speechifying and their bosses at The Kremlin, the Russian engineers came up with the LK Lander.
The LK was something that Corea could have, and probably did, dream up for his illustrations of HG Well’s War of the Worlds. A craft that looked retro and dated in the mid 60s, it looks like a perfect steampunk creation now, with its shiny, almost Metropolis looking form, and interiors like the driving plate of a steam train. The pilot was even supposed to drive it standing up.
Then there was the giant rocket designed to launch it, the enormous N1 with its latticed support structure like a wicker chair for an old and perverted god.
The project never got off the ground. The fact that Apollo 11 had it well beaten was one factor, there is obviously not much point straining yourself in a race you can no longer win. The other was the fact that the N1 rocket had a 100% record – 4 launch attempts, 4 total failures.
The second of these resulted in one of the largest man made non nuclear explosions in history as the enormous rocket inelegantly crashed back onto its launch pad.
The Soviets gave up the moon shot as a bad job after this.
However, for all this failure, the Russian Soyuz design, which killed its Cosmonaut on its first flight in 1967, is still the vehicle taking people to the International Space Station while the Americans haven’t launched a manned flight in years.