Keeping score on the Space Race

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On the 28th of January 2013 Iran launched a monkey into space in a brilliant bid to become a player in a race no-one’s participating in anymore. Space exploration constantly furthers scientific knowledge. Shooting a monkey into space has done nothing to add to a collective knowledge. Except the knowledge that the leaders of countries consider space a target to show off power. To undermine the Iranian effort: In 1947 fruit flies made the exact same journey as the Iranian monkey did in 2013. The fruit flies were the first animals in space and possibly the last animals to be sent into space mainly for scientific reasons instead of space power-grabbing.

There is a question about the space race that I’ve never received a satisfactory answer to: who set the parameters? Because as far as the name is concerned: A race is a pursuit of something and the first person to reach the target wins. And the target of the space race, so the name suggests, was space. If this is correct, then Russia must be declared the winner of the space race.

If you were to keep a score-card of the space race it would look as follows:

Russia:

  1. 1951 First surviving higher organisms in space (These were 2 dogs which didn’t go into orbit, but survived a flight similar to the Iranian Monkey).
  2. 1957 First artificial satellite to orbit the earth
    (Sputnik I).
  3. 1957 First animal in orbit (This was Laika the space-dog who sadly didn’t survive. But then she was never intended to survive, as the technology for the re-entering of earth’s atmosphere after orbit hadn’t been developed yet).
  4. 1960 First higher organisms in orbit to survive (2 dogs. Although I know space flight must’ve been hugely traumatic for these animals, I still love the fact the Russians insisted on sending dogs).
  5. 1961First man in space (Yuri Gagarin).
  6. 1962 First dual spaceflight (2 piloted rockets were launched into space from the same platform, syncing their orbit).
  7. 1963 First woman & first civilian in space (Valentina Tereshkova was a civilian woman, not sure what makes Gagarin et al. non-civilians, but hey, a first is a first!).
  8. 1964 First spaceflight manned by more than 1 cosmonaut.
  9. 1964 First spaceflight without spacesuits (I love this record because the only reason the cosmonauts weren’t wearing spacesuits was because there was no space to fit them all in with their spacesuits on. If anything had gone wrong, these guys would’ve died. The fact there was no space for spacesuits didn’t stop the Russians from sending multiple people into space and it didn’t occur to them to increase the security of the spacecraft. Wonderful!).
  10. 1965 First ExtraVehicular Activity (a.k.a. EVA or ‘space-walk’).
  11. 1966 Longest dog-spaceflight (Coolest record ever).
  12. 1968 First circumlunar flight (Manned by 2 tortoises. Because why not?).
  13. 1971 First space-station (By this point the space race was supposedly over. But this is still a very important first considering space stations became such an integral part of space missions).

USA:

  1. (First animals in space. This entry is in brackets as it’s noteworthy, but as these were the 1947 fruit flies, they were not part of the space race and therefore shouldn’t be on this space race score-card).
  2. 1949 First monkey in space (Again, this entry should probably be in brackets. As it’s not really part of the space race. But it seems note-worthy enough to count. The monkey, named Albert II, did not survive the flight, despite the mission’s intention to return him safely back to earth).
  3. 1959 First surviving monkeys in space.
  4. 1961 First chimp in space.
  5. 1961 First chimp in orbit around earth.
  6. 1961 First man-controlled space flight (This was the US’ attempt at the first American to orbit the earth, but they failed to get him into orbit. Once it was revealed that Gagarin didn’t actually control his spacecraft at any point during his flight, the US emphasized that their man had controlled his craft).
  7. 1965 First spacecraft to change orbit.
  8. 1965 Longest time spent in space by a human up until that point (The reason this was notable is that the astronauts spent a whole 8 days in space, which was significantly longer than any other human had spent in space up until then).
  9. 1966 First docking of 2 stations (Neil Armstrong was the pilot for one of these space crafts).
  10. 1966 First EVA for a prolonged period of time, allowing the astronaut (Buzz Aldrin) to perform tasks outside of the space craft.
  11. 1968 First manned mission that changed orbit from the earth’s orbit to the moon’s orbit.
  12. 1969 First man on the moon.

Now, you may say the American achievements are more impressive than the Russian ones. But only if you attach extra importance to two things:

1. The idea of chimps in space.
And why would you? Because although humans are closer relatives of chimps than dogs, in the context of space flight this isn’t hugely relevant. Dogs survived space missions, but not because they were less intelligent than chimps or humans. It might be more interesting to see what the psychological effect of space flight is for a chimpanzee than a dog, as it is tentatively more similar to a human experience. Except for the huge difference that chimps (and dogs for that matter) are completely unaware of what is about to happen when they are strapped in for their spacecraft. Astro-/Cosmonauts however, know full well what they are getting into. Or at least, to the extent that they have given consent to be sent into space.
Basically; if a dog can survive space, it is likely a human can survive space. You can send a chimp to space to double check that it’s not some canine absurdity that they are especially adapted to space flight, but that seems an unlikely hypothesis.

2.The man on the moon thing. That is a big one. But… that wasn’t the initial race. It was abundantly clear that Russia was winning the space race and so President Kennedy called a new goal for the space race: to send a man to the moon. And luckily for the US, the Russians had a change of president, and the new president didn’t want to spend money on space exploration. Which gave the Americans a convenient advantage and, lo and behold, the Americans won the race. I believe that the Russians, had they not gone through a political shift, would’ve been the first to send someone to the moon. In that light it is worth noting that after the moon landing, the Russians were the first to launch a space station and have the first space laboratory.

I think it is time we praise the Russians more publicly for their space efforts instead of thinking of them as the ‘losers’ of the space race. Russia won the race until the US moved the goalposts of the race. It is the equivalent of a person losing a board game and shouting ‘BEST OF 3!’ In games that might be considered being a sore loser. In the race to conquer space, that’s considered a world-wide victory.

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One response to “Keeping score on the Space Race

  1. Pingback: Keeping score on the space race | Science Communication Blog Network·

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