'Evil empire' strikes back

Leaving Earth
July 18, 2003

So many hundreds - if not thousands - of books have been written about the space programme that one may reasonably ask: do we need another? The answer in this case is definitely yes, because Robert Zimmerman's book gives a unique insight into the Russian space programme, which was not available - and indeed was almost unthinkable - up until a few years ago.

There is indeed hope for the future when an American can give unstinted praise for the achievements of what was once the hated "evil empire". Zimmerman has previously restored the US-Russian balance by writing the excellent Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8 (1998). This most daring of all space missions, now largely forgotten, took humans on their very first journey to another world and brought them safely home. Its highlight was the reading of Genesis from Moon orbit on Christmas Day 1968.

The launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957, was undoubtedly one of the great turning points in history. The fact that the Soviet Union made such an astonishing technological advance amazed the world - particularly the US. I learnt only recently, from his secretary, Carol Rosin, that Wernher von Braun used my own The Exploration of Space (1952) to convince President John Kennedy that it was possible to go to the Moon. I find it appalling to learn that a substantial percentage of Americans believe that the Apollo project never happened, and that the whole lunar programme was staged in a Hollywood studio. That a project involving 500,000 people and ten years of time, as well as most of US industry, could have been fake is too absurd to require contradiction. But once again it proves the truth of Einstein's remark: "I know only two infinite things - the Universe and human stupidity. And I'm not sure about the first."

Leaving Earth is of particular interest to me because I must have been one of the first westerners to visit the Russian training centre at "Star Village", and I have met most of the pioneer cosmonauts. Alexi Leonov, the first man to do a space walk, and now a good friend, once confided that he had been chosen to pilot the first Soviet spaceship to the Moon, before the programme was cancelled. He was probably lucky: if it had gone ahead, by now he might have a crater on the Moon named after him - and made by him.

This year is the centennial of heavier-than-air flight, and it is astonishing to realise that, in 1895, the Russian theoretician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had already published his classic papers. These inspired premature space cadets throughout the world, including, notably, the young von Braun who was involved briefly in a hilarious episode with the good citizens of Magdeburg. Its councillors were convinced of the totally insane theory (see Einstein quote earlier) that, although the Earth was undoubtedly a sphere, we were on the inside of it - the so-called Hollow Earth Theory. This could be proved, they believed, by launching a rocket that would presumably hit the other side. Von Braun and his colleagues cheekily accepted the money to build a rocket to prove this theory. Perhaps luckily for all concerned, it failed to take off.

As a longtime member (since 1933) of the British Interplanetary Society (one of three good things to emerge from Liverpool - the other two being Meccano and the Beatles), I can remember the huge scepticism with which our beliefs were received - and how the possibility of travel to the Moon was dismissed by some of the "experts". My favourite example is evidence given before a secret committee called in 1942 to deal with the rumour that the Germans had built a large rocket - in fact, the V-2 was undergoing tests at Peenemunde. The head of a pyrotechnics firm solemnly informed the committee: "My family has been building fireworks for generations, and I can assure you that no rocket will ever cross the English Channel." I hope he lived to see one reach the Moon.

Perhaps an even worse gaffe was that made by The New York Times, when, on January 13 1920, it commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer: "That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react - to say that would be absurd. Of course, he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

I am happy to say that the Times apologised profusely in its special July 17 1969 issue devoted to the Apollo mission. By then, it was rather too late, as Goddard had been dead for 24 years.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke is the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel

Author - Robert Zimmerman
ISBN - 0 309 08548 9
Publisher - Joseph Henry Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 520

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