Cosmic!

Tim Radford

  • Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon by James Harford
    Wiley, 392 pp, £24.95, June 1997, ISBN 0 471 14853 9
  • Countdown: A History of Space Flight by T.A. Heppenheimer
    Wiley, 398 pp, £24.95, June 1997, ISBN 0 471 14439 8
  • Something New under the Sun: Satellites and the Beginning of the Space Age by Helen Gavaghan
    Copernicus, 300 pp, £15.00, December 1997, ISBN 0 387 94914 3
  • Space and the American Imagination by Howard McCurdy
    Smithsonian, 294 pp, £19.95, November 1997, ISBN 1 56098 764 2

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When you light the blue touchpaper on Guy Fawkes night, the force goes downwards and the rocket goes upwards. But gravity tugs rockets, apples and everything else downwards at a rate of roughly thirty feet per second per second, so to climb out of gravity’s well, and make it into freefall in orbit, a rocket has to get up to a speed of more than five miles per second – ‘escape velocity’, it’s called.

Another of Newton’s laws of motion says that a body subjected to a constant force constantly accelerates. To remain upwardly mobile, a rocket carries an engine to go on burning fuel during the climb. But to accelerate to a speed of five miles a second takes sustained and colossal thrust: in effect, a controlled bomb within the rocket motor. To get that kind of burn, a rocket has to carry its own oxygen as well as its own kerosene or liquid methane or hydrogen, and it has to carry enough to go on burning for more than a hundred miles. So most of the rocket’s weight is fuel. There are two problems: one is that the heat inside the motor becomes so fierce that engineers have to devise ways to stop it incinerating before it gets to the stratosphere. The other is that although the mass of the rocket decreases with each second of the burn – the Saturn rocket that lifted Apollo to the Moon burned 3500 gallons of fuel every second – the machine’s centre of gravity shifts so that the rocket is likely to become unstable. This means that the engineers have to build in guidance systems and nozzle controls to keep it on course.

Once the rocket gets up to a height of about two hundred miles and a speed of five miles a second, it is safe: it will go into orbit and sail round the planet every ninety minutes or so, before gradually falling back to Earth. But there is no point in just sending up a rocket. What matters is the payload. With a bit more thrust, and some fuel aboard the payload, you can send that into even higher orbit, or despatch it towards another planet. This is both easy and difficult. It is easy because another restatement of Newton’s laws says that once set in motion a body will go on at its existing speed until something stops it. In space, there is no friction, no air resistance. You could aim your little spaceprobe at the Moon or Mars like a snooker ball at the end of a cue and it would roll perfectly across the true cloth of the void to the pocket you intended. But the Earth revolves at 1000 mph at the Equator, and at the same time travels through space round the Sun at about twenty miles a second. The Moon is moving at a different speed, so is Mars, so are all the planets. And the spacecraft, which has slipped the foolish bonds of Earth, has become in effect a little planet itself, which could be described by its mass and its initial velocity and is in orbit around the Sun. A spacecraft bound for Mars won’t therefore point itself towards the Red Planet and beetle there directly: it will arc in a swinging path from Earth to a rendezvous point at which the two heavenly bodies will converge on their different orbits. To get this right, the rocket engineers either have to know the exact time and inclination at which to launch the rocket, or they have to supply the payload with even more fuel to be able to correct its course en route, or (usually) both. A heavier payload means even more demand on the rocket, so the sums get tricky.

Late last year, just after the 40th anniversary of Sputnik 1 – the first craft into space – the US and European Space Agencies launched the Cassini-Huygens mission to the planet Saturn. Cassini is the size of a 30-seater bus, and it is heading away from Earth at 67,800 mph. It has already travelled more than 120 million miles, but its journey has barely begun. It is heading for Venus, will swing round it and steal some extra speed from its gravitational force, then fly by the planet Earth, do the same thing, and be hurled back to Venus for another gravity assist. Only then will it have the oomph to sail across space and rendezvous, in 2004, with the mysterious giant Saturn on its long journey round the Sun.

Right now, there is also a silent transmitter and a motionless little robot lander on a dry watercourse in the Ares Vallis region of Mars. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have not heard from Pathfinder since 7 October, or more properly, Sol 93 – that is, 93 days after the instrument landed and opened and blinked at the two moons of Mars and the distant Sun. Nobody knows why Pathfinder is silent. Mars is at the moment colder than anyone expected: minus 50° C in the early morning, minus 30° C in the heat of the afternoon. The hardware is perhaps not warm enough to become operational. Meanwhile, there is a Surveyor spacecraft ‘aerobraking’ round Mars: because the engineers cannot afford the fuel to slow the spacecraft, they are spinning it in and out of the thin Martian atmosphere, gently dragging it a bit at a time towards an orbit 248 miles above the Red Planet.

Spacecraft orbits are fine-tuned. Galileo, for instance, having finished its exploration of Jupiter, has begun a two-year study of the ice-encrusted moon Europa. It is looking for evidence of water. A smallish satellite called Lunar Prospector has begun a protracted orbit of the Moon: it has a suite of instruments designed to answer a number of questions about the lunar crust, including whether there is any water near the surface. Meanwhile, in January, the Earth was revisited, briefly, by another satellite launched long ago, NEAR (Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous), which did a swing-by on its way to meet an asteroid called Eros. This is not to mention infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray and optical telescopes orbiting the planet, peering into the farthest reaches of the universe.

The most important thing in our lives now and at any time is the Sun: there are satellites orbiting it, monitoring it, measuring its hot breath. Satellites study the Earth, too, watching the clouds, the waves, the chemistry of the atmosphere, taking the planetary temperature, monitoring the ground moisture of farmland and measuring the radar reflection of tree cover; there are satellites poised in space serving as radio beacons, telephone switchboards, television relay stations and navigation guides; there are American, European and Russian satellites watching every military move that nations make. There is a manned Russian space station orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes. It has been doing so for 12 years, and is wearing out – this year a US space shuttle crew will start working with cosmonauts to build a new, international space hotel and laboratory above the planet.

While these things are going on in the neighbourhood, so to speak, at our end of the solar system, two other spacecraft are doing something entirely different. Voyager1 and Voyager2 were launched more than twenty years ago. They sped past Jupiter, and Saturn, and Uranus, and Neptune: both of them are now more than seven billion miles away and moving at more than 35,000 mph – if it helps, think of that as about ten miles a second – towards the boundaries of the solar system, the last outposts of the empire of the Sun. If you sent a radio message to Voyager saying, ‘Are you there?’ it would be more than fifteen hours before you got a message back saying: ‘Yes. What do you want?’ The Voyager spacecraft were launched by engineers and space scientists – men with close-cropped hair, creased trousers and clean white shirts who carried slide rules and said things like ‘Roger, Capcom, we copy’. They did it on behalf of a generation which wore flared denims or kaftans and smoked joints and said things like ‘Cosmic!’ and when particularly impressed: ‘Far out!’ Think of Voyager now, out of the plane of the planets altogether, and beyond the orbit of Pluto, heading towards the space between the stars, and try saying ‘Cosmic!’ or even ‘Far out!’ We don’t have the language for it.

How do you tell the story of the conquest of space? How do you explain Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the provincial schoolteacher who calculated escape velocity, and proposed liquid-fuelled rockets and orbiting space stations, in the Russia of the tsars in 1898 – five years before the Wright brothers managed to skim above the ground for a few hundred feet? How do you explain the Romanian-German Hermann Oberth, and the American Robert Goddard, who pursued the mad ambition of space with rockets that lifted themselves only a few yards, before collapsing under their own contradictions? Even more remarkable are the interlinked stories of the two men who actually took humans into space: Wernher von Braun, the young SS officer at Peenemunde who dreamed of going to the Moon, watched slaves and prisoners perish in the making of the V-2 rocket, and then used his knowledge as a passport to fame and fortune in America. And Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, who grew up in the Ukraine with the same dream of space, who lived through revolution, famine and civil war, was arrested and beaten by the NKVD and sent to labour camps, and who then suddenly appeared at Peenemunde in 1945 as a Red Army colonel, in pursuit of von Braun and his blueprints.

Korolev was the man who put Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957, and Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961, yet who died before most people knew anything about him. He grew up under Lenin, suffered under Stalin and got what he wanted from Khrushchev, but because of the Second World War, the Cold War, and the paranoia of Russia under Stalin, the details of his life are still sketchy. After his arrest by the NKVD in the great purges of 1938 and 1939 he was sent to work in a Siberian goldmine. He survived, and was transferred to a special labour camp in Moscow, where he worked with the aviation engineer Andrei Tupolev. As James Harford tells us in his biography, Korolev’s assignment at Peenemunde came after seven years in the camps. He was a victim who became a hero: he lost his teeth and nearly his life in the camps of Kolyma but became one of the most important men of the century.

Wernher von Braun, in contrast, did not suffer, though almost everyone around him did. Late in the war, when the Nazi machine was looking for a secret weapon, young Wernher came up with a promising rocket called Aggregat 4, or A-4. Josef Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe II – Vengeance Weapon 2 – or V-2. The rocket engineers needed a secret factory, and the Nazis supplied General Hans Kammler, an SS engineer, to build it in the Harz mountains near Nordhausen, using labour from a concentration camp called Dora, a branch of Buchenwald. Kammler was one of the men who destroyed the Warsaw Ghetto. He also designed and built the crematoria at Auschwitz.

The Germans fired V-2 rockets from September 1944. They could soar 50 miles up and down again at five times the speed of sound – no air defence system could touch them – and each carried a ton of explosives. The V-2 barely altered the course of the war, but military engineers from the Allied Powers immediately understood its importance. So, of course, did von Braun, who had been briefly arrested and questioned in February 1944 by the Gestapo on the grounds that he was more interested in spaceflight than in the military needs of the Fatherland. By mid-January 1945, the Russians were closing in, but von Braun and his A-team had a plan. ‘We despise the French, we are mortally afraid of the Soviets, we do not believe the British can afford us; so that leaves the Americans,’ said one of the engineers. More than five hundred of them set off with 13 years’ worth of documentation, which they concealed down a mineshaft while they bargained for their future. On 2 May, they surrendered to the Americans in Bavaria. A decade of American dithering followed. When the Russians put up Sputnik 1 in 1957, the message went direct to the Pentagon and the White House: ‘they’ had something that could carry a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the world; ‘they’ had an intercontinental ballistic missile. The only possible explanation was that ‘their’ Germans were better than ‘our’ Germans. That was never true – the A-team went to America.

When the Russians got to Peenemunde at the end of the war, they occupied von Braun’s house, which had ‘four toilets and three great bathrooms’. There was also a bed with a snow-white feather blanket and a mirrored ceiling. When Korolev joined them he had still not been formally rehabilitated. Kurt Magnus, one of the Germans who stayed behind, wrote later that this newcomer was fascinated by the interconnected problems of propulsion and guidance which controlled the range of the V-2. ‘If we increase the range more and more,’ he reports Korolev as saying, ‘then we will finally be able to build artificial satellites which continue to orbit the Earth.’ The others were hesitant, but Korolev went on: ‘If we increased the cut-off velocity further by about 40 per cent then we could visit the Moon.’

Von Braun had the same ambition, and during the Eisenhower years, played on American fear of the Russians. He proposed a space station which could ‘be converted into a terribly effective atomic bomb carrier’, as he wrote in Collier’s magazine in 1952. ‘Small winged rocket missiles with atomic warheads could be launched from the station in such a manner that they would strike their targets at supersonic speeds.’ Stuff like this may not have scared the Americans much, but it sent the Russians into paroxysms of alarm. (It is possible to see the entire history of space flight in these terms: the engineers on one side lighting the blue touchpaper under the rockets of the other.) So Korolev got Khrushchev’s backing, and on 4 October 1957, handed him the highest propaganda coup of all.

In turn, Sputnik-1 gave von Braun’s team at Huntsville, Alabama, just what they needed, and they put Explorer 1 aloft early in 1958. ‘Control of space means control of the world,’ Senator Lyndon Johnson warned that year: ‘from space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the Earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the level of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperate climate to frigid.’ This was just two years after a British Astronomer Royal, in an unguarded moment, pronounced space travel to be impossible and ‘utter bilge’.

Korolev countered by putting up a dog called Laika, and then more dogs. ‘The next thing you know, they’ll have a soccer team and a Mack truck up there,’ said one US scientist. President Kennedy was more bitter: ‘The first canine passengers in space who safely returned were named Strelka and Belka, not Rover or Fido.’ Seven American attempts to put Pioneer probes on the Moon all failed, while Korolev successfully landed one Luna probe on the Moon, and sent another around it to photograph its dark side.

It was not until 1960, when the American programme was at last taking off, that the USSR Council of Ministers understood quite what wonderful things had been achieved, and gave Korolev the go-ahead for a rocket system powerful enough to launch ‘an interplanetary ship of sixty to eighty metric tons’. Korolev began trying to send probes to Mars and Venus that year. In 1961, he made history again. It was, of course, another jolt for the West, but it astonished most Russians as well. Gagarin’s own family did not know. ‘Yuri had told Mother he was going on a business trip,’ said his sister Zoya. ‘When Mother asked, “How far?” he said: “Very far.” ’ It was after Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961 that Kennedy announced the race to put a man on the Moon: von Braun completed Saturn V, which weighed 29,000 tons at lift off, stood more than three hundred feet high on the launchpad, and put 12 men on the Moon. In the depths of the Cold War, Korolev saw a newspaper photograph of von Braun. ‘We should be friends,’ Korolev said. They never met. Korolev died of cancer in 1966, still largely unknown in the West. Leonid Brezhnev was one of the people who carried his coffin.

The space age is only forty years old. It is already very hard to tell the story so far in any concise way – the science, the engineering solutions, the false trails, the politics – or even begin to describe the horizons that have begun to appear as humans look outward, or the astounding discoveries made as satellites have looked down on the Earth wheeling slowly beneath them. In Countdown, T.A. Heppenheimer opts for a limited version of the orthodox history of space, one which starts at Peenemunde, goes on to Apollo and ends with the space station that astronauts and cosmonauts are about to start bolting and welding together. In their forthcoming book, Starman: The Truth behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin, Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony provide another picture of Korolev and much more detail about Gagarin’s life and puzzling death. Helen Gavaghan’s Something New under the Sun opens with the International Geophysical Year, an international scientific co-operative venture which highlighted the need for space-based instruments, and which, as luck would have it, took place in 1957. She goes on from that electric moment to bits of tin and titanium that changed the world, such as the Tiros weather satellite in 1960, and Telstar in 1962, the first satellite to broadcast live transatlantic television. Howard McCurdy explores that strange hinterland between vision and fantasy in which the conquest of space gathered momentum: the world of Disney and Destination Moon, of Jules Verne and Mr Spock, of the notorious ‘canals’ on Mars, of Arthur C. Clarke and the science fiction painter Chesley Bonestell, of battles between the engineer-and-scientist lobby that wants a Moonbase first and Mars Underground, the lobby within Nasa which wants to see a manned mission to Mars. There is also the recent proposal for spaceship ‘cyclers’ in permanent orbit between the Earth and Mars, like ships sailing the trade winds. Dotty? The proposer was Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the Moon.

All these books have valuable things in them. But the most interesting recent account of the epic journey from wonder to astonishment by way of evil was opened to the public last summer by the local authorities of the Pas de Calais. La Coupole, outside St Omer, is just that – a cupola or dome of cement which caps an old chalk quarry. This cap is 233 feet in diameter and more than sixteen feet thick. It sits over a labyrinth of tunnels more than four miles in length. It was built by the Todt organisation, Hitler’s paramilitary engineer corps, to fire the V-2. The RAF dropped 3000 tons of bombs on it in 1944 and it was barely scratched. The bombing was enough to make the Germans think again, however: they abandoned the site and fired the V-2 from mobile launchers. La Coupole was abandoned before it was completed, and forgotten for the next four decades. It now contains memorabilia of the German Occupation and the French Resistance, of the Todt Organisation, of Dunkirk and the deportation of the Jews, of Peenemunde and Dora-Nordhausen and the paths that led to Apollo, Sputnik and the French Ariane rocket. It also contains a V-2, 46 feet high, weighing 13 tons and made of twenty thousand parts. It burned five tons of oxygen and four tons of alcohol and had a range of 186 miles. The 3225 which were launched claimed perhaps three or four thousand civilian lives in Antwerp and London. The number who died at Dora-Nordhausen has been put at 25,000. This makes the V-2 the only weapon in history which killed more people in its manufacture than in its use. Wernhervon Braun died in 1977, an American national hero; his past was seldom discussed. Earlier this year Nasa issued a 40th-anniversary press release about Explorer 1 which said that he ‘emigrated to the US in the postwar years’.