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What If America Had Beaten the Soviets Into Space? 255

Posted by Roblimo
from the on-your-mark-get-set-go dept.
MarkWhittington writes "April 12 is the 50th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first space flight. Coming less than four years after Sputnik, Gagarin's orbital space voyage galvanized the United States and led to President Kennedy announcing the race to the Moon six weeks later. The question arises: what if America had beaten the Soviet Union into space instead?"
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What If America Had Beaten the Soviets Into Space?

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  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @08:09AM (#35773136) Journal

    That would imply that American ballistic missile program would have also went ahead of Soviet one. Which, I suspect, would mean some glowing rubble in place of Moscow and some other major Soviet cities.

    • by NotSoHeavyD3 (1400425) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @08:31AM (#35773210)
      Umm well

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missile_gap#Fact_vs_Fiction [wikipedia.org]

      It is known today that even the CIA's estimate was too high; the actual number of ICBMs, even including interim-use prototypes, was 4.

      • Does it matter? If your enemy has zero, and you have any number greater than zero, you have a significant advantage - bombers could be intercepted, but ICBMs (then) could not. All that's needed is the will to strike.

      • It is known today that even the CIA's estimate was too high; the actual number of ICBMs, even including interim-use prototypes, was 4.

        So, let's see: Washington, New York, Chicago, Detroit? Or would they put San Francisco on that list? Los Angeles?

        I don't think any leader in the world would risk losing his main four cities like that.

        • Would that be enough? Lets just look at 1 city...Detroit, since I am familiar with it (living in the general area). Would 1 ICBM be enough to devastate and cripple the area? I don't know. The manufacturing basis here is over such a large area. For instance, I know that at least some of the tank manufacturing was done in Warren, which is about 12 miles north of downtown.

          So the question is...what is the size of the area of effect of the warheads carried by ICBMs at that time? I honestly don't know. I know bo

    • Perhaps a more interesting question is if the Americans would ever have bothered going to the moon if not for the extremely competitive nature of the space race and consequently loosing the leg of the race to the Russians?
    • by ultranova (717540)

      That would imply that American ballistic missile program would have also went ahead of Soviet one. Which, I suspect, would mean some glowing rubble in place of Moscow and some other major Soviet cities.

      So... What you're saying is that it's a good thing the Soviets were there to keep the Americans in check?

      Frankly, I think you're right, and I add that it's also good that the Americans were here to keep the Soviets in check. Things have really gone to Hell since the Cold War ended, and why shouldn't they: th

  • Hypotheticals... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LordNacho (1909280) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @08:13AM (#35773146)

    I suppose I might as well start the game by saying nothing would have been much different. Getting first to the moon would still have been a matter of prestige, so why wouldn't that contest have happened? And would it change who got there first? IIRC the soviets weren't that close, having some issues with the willingness to back the project, and one of the main designers passing away. Here's a link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_Moonshot [wikipedia.org]

    • by avmich (194551)

      I would argue against big advantage of Americans in Moon race. Similarly, if some events happened another way, the outcome could be very different.

      Interestingly enough, Alan Shepard flew to suborbital trajectory a few days after Gagarin flew to orbit. Soviets were really close to fly around the Moon in a Zond, but after Apollo-8 did not just that, but also made some 10 circles around the Moon, Soviet bosses decided there is no point to fly on just a fly-by trajectory. I guess, Soviets were about that much b

      • Soviets were about that much behind Americans by the December of 1968, as Americans were behind Soviets by the April of 1961.

        Huh? (That translates as "what have you been smoking?)

        In Dec 1968:

        • The Soviets were considering a flyby because they couldn't go into lunar orbit. (And the manned flyby was delayed multiple times because of safety problems with the spacecraft.)
        • They didn't have, and never successfully tested a craft that could go into lunar orbit. Both attempts to test it (both in 1969) fail
        • No, not smoking at all :) and I hope you'll agree.

          Remember, what I'm trying to say is "Yuri Gagarin's flight in April 1961 was approximately as far ahead of Alan Shepard's flight in May 1961 technologically and timewise, as Apollo-8 Moon orbital mission in December 1968 was ahead of - cancelled - Zond mission soon afterwards".

          I don't think that's too far from the truth. Let's review your objections and see.

          In Dec 1968... Soviets were considering a flyby because they couldn't go into lunar orbit. (And the manned flyby was delayed multiple times because of safety problems with the spacecraft.)

          True, I agree - but similarly in April 1961 Americans were considering a suborbital flight because the

      • by Miamicanes (730264) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @12:59PM (#35774606)

        Really, we can all blame Mao. There's no glory in being #2, but people will still try their best to avoid ending up as #3. Thanks to the mess Mao created with "the Great Leap Forward" (which stopped China in its tracks for an entire generation), the Soviet Union had no real incentive to get to the moon once it was obvious that the US would beat them to it, and the US had no real incentive to keep going to the moon once it was obvious that the Soviet Union wasn't even going to waste its time or money bothering.

        The (mainly US-influenced) doctrine that "nobody" can "own the moon" (or even legitimately own a small, well-defined and populated part of it) is part of the problem, too. Had the US staked a claim to a 100km area surrounding each landing site, and pledged to respect similar claims from other nations, the late 70s and 80s would have seen a mad international space race to plant flags on the moon -- a race that would have almost certainly included countries like Britain (most likely forming its own Commonwealth Space Agency that included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries), France (probably being the dominant member of what ended up being the European Space Agency, but without Britain), India, Pakistan (possibly as a part of Britain's CSA), China, and everyone else.

        The point when things started getting ugly would have been the late 80s/90s, when there were thousands of flags planted, but the main defenders of those claims were lawyers rather than armed soldiers on the moon. The US, Soviet Union, Britain/CSA, and France/ESA would have probably never challenged each other's claims in public, but you can bet there would have been lots of screaming and angry speeches at the UN if someone like Indonesia staked a claim for 100 square miles of land claimed by one of them in the late 70s, then never looked at again once the claim formalities were taken care of.At that point, the UN would have probably settled on a policy that required demonstration of active settlement and use to challenge adverse possession, and automatically allowed intruders to keep a small chunk of any claim that was undefended when they arrived.

        Would it have been a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. But there would almost certainly have been a lot more people living and working on the moon than there are today (zero).

    • I dunno... If we hadn't been repeatedly beaten in the space race, would we have been willing to pour so much time/effort/money into a moon landing?

      It'd probably still make a nice goal... And I assume the Soviets would have been aiming for it...

      But would the "we do these things because they're hard" speech, with the aggressive deadline, have ever happened?

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Hognoxious (631665)

        I dunno... If we hadn't been repeatedly beaten in the space race, would we have been willing to pour so much time/effort/money into a moon landing?

        You obviously didn't pour enough in. I mean the shadows are all wrong, and what's with the fluttering flag...

    • Because the Soviets didn't really start trying until they were already behind. Khrushchev didn't take Kennedy's speech serious at first, considering it propaganda drivel and an attempt to make the Soviets divert funds away from the military missile program so the US can catch up, it was not until late in the "space race" that the USSR realized the US were dead serious with their "moon lunacy" and tried, and half-hearted at that, to catch up.

      The Soviets failed to see any "sensible" reason to go to the moon.

    • by mjwx (966435)
      Moscow, February 20 1957.
      Soviets cancel space program.

      Moscow, August 20 1958.
      Politburo decides to put money from cancelled space and reduced missile program program into domestic development.

      Washington May 5 1961,
      Alan Shepard, an American is the first man in space.

      Belgrade, September 14 1987.
      Soviet leaders hail the 23rd straight year of growth for the great Soviet Union.

      Washington, September 7 2007
      US government takes control of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac.

      Moscow, September 8 2007,
      So
      • by mjwx (966435)

        Groom Lake, August 4 2012,
        Skynet goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defence. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

        One day, I will learn to proof read what I copy and paste.

        • You forgot to mention the 66th Amendment that would have allowed Schwarzenegger to be President. I'd go into more detail, but I've got a reservation at Taco Bell, and I don't want to be late for a nice place like that.

    • by localman (111171)

      I agree - I don't think it would have made all that much difference. Both countries developed lots of space tech over the years. Like most things that seem critically important at the time, a few decades down the road they often don't seem nearly as important. What was important was that that mankind spent a lot of money on technology. That pushed society forward in many ways. What's kind of pitiful is that we only seem willing to devote those kind of resources to technological progress in wartime (hot or c

  • No faked moon landing, and humans might have really visited the moon by now.
  • Gosh, what if, huh? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Seumas (6865) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @08:22AM (#35773178)

    Would it really matter? I guess it helped us fuel other areas of advancement, but as far as space itself? All we've accomplished in the 42 years since we landed on the moon is sending out a bunch of probes and fancy RC cars. No doubt, the photographs from these endeavors are amazing and we're still acquiring knowledge. It's just too bad we've reached a point where we aren't willing to do anything that might put a person at risk of so much as chipping a fingernail, we've exhausted our shuttle program and are currently having to rely on transport from other nations, and are put off by spending any money on space at all, because we've got to save all that precious monopoly money to bail out corporations and foreign banks at a number that dwarfs the entire space program.

    Don't get me wrong - I know that a lot of our advancements are being off-loaded to privacy industry and that we are making enough advances in other areas of technology and science so that whenever we really do make another massive push into space, we will be doing so from a more capable point (kind of like you might have been able to start a computer at the task of decrypting some data in 1980 and that same computer would still be trying to decode it in 2011, while a computer you got last month and set to the task of decrypting the same data would have finished by now).

    However, can you really imagine people's responses in the last half of 1969 if you had told them "revel in this, because mankind won't touch the moon or any other soil or make it beyond our low orbit for the next fifty years"? They would have said you were a fucking lunatic.

    I'm thrilled that the space race brought us the home computer and memory foam, but my mom was a little girl when we landed on the moon and I would love more than just about anything for us to have another world-stopping-all-eyes-on-television space-moment like that during my life time. I suspect I'll be long dead before that happens.

    • Private industry goes where the money is. Com-sat, mostly. And weather. Low earth orbit or geostationary. There just isn't any money to be made in things further afield, or in manned space flight of any type. There are mineable resources, but it's a lot cheaper to mine them on Earth than it would be to send mining equipment and operators into space. Space tourism has too small a market of the filthy rich to justify setting up the infrastructure. There are some science things that can be done in microgravity
  • It is before my time but I seem to recall being told that the big wake-up call was sputnik. The first men in space was big as well but easily diminished because it was essentially a ballistic shot not a real space trip. Sputnik was up there a long time, beeping all the way, undeniable.

    Anyway, the Americans were to focussed on giving nazi war criminals a cozy ride and failing miserably to realize that there was a reason the german lost the war, their tech sucked. Still American history teaches that german te

    • by damburger (981828)
      Vostok 1 wasn't a "ballistic shot" - it went into orbit. The first American in space, however, did not.
      • by ultranova (717540)

        Vostok 1 wasn't a "ballistic shot" - it went into orbit.

        Which would make it a ballistic shot. The world you're looking for is "suborbital".

        • by damburger (981828)
          Except that it had to make two burns after it had left Earth; one to circularise its orbit, and another to deorbit. Don't presume to lecture me on orbital dynamics.
    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @08:44AM (#35773260) Homepage Journal

      The first men in space was big as well but easily diminished because it was essentially a ballistic shot not a real space trip.

      Vostok_1 flew a full orbit with a re-entry burn [wikipedia.org]. Without that burn it would have flown many more orbits. Freedom_7 flew a simple ballistic trajectory [wikipedia.org].

      If the US had been first to fly an astronaut I suspect the USSR would have been slightly more likely to make the first landing on the moon. They would have been more motivated, but their integration ability was (and is) pretty poor.I would argue that this is a reflection of top-down architecture in their politics and engineering culture. They are more likely to say we will build a single system to do X where the US would say we will build systems to do A, B and C; then we will put them together to accomplish X.

      • Russian technology is the epitome of the KISS principle. But that's also its weakness (and the weakness of our developments lately): It will work to spec, and ONLY to spec. There is no "hey, let's add $simple_thing, that could make $next_step a lot easier" thinking. Vostok could put a man into space, but only that. No enhancement possible. Voskhod exposed this flaw, it was an attempt to build on the Vostok example and it was allegedly a horrible experience for the cosmonauts using it. So they had to pretty

        • Huh? What's still flying? Apollo or Soyuz? The latter is probably the most flexible bit of space hardware known.
          • Yes, Apollo could probably also do that job, but it would be HEAPS more expensive. Also, the Soyuz was not quite ready for lunar flight when the mission description was changed, which actually was pretty close to "get people and supplies into orbit" at that time, and I guess the Soviets learned something from the early blunders concerning the reuse of designs.

    • by mlush (620447) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @10:22AM (#35773666)

      Anyway, the Americans were to focussed on giving nazi war criminals a cozy ride and failing miserably to realize that there was a reason the german lost the war, their tech sucked.

      German tech [wikipedia.org] did not suck ,they had rocket and jet propelled aircraft, radio guided bombs the V1 and V2, the finest tanks in the field etc.

      What sucked was there procurement process. Unlike the allies each service had their own committees R&D and proving grounds and the secret of success was not to make a better mouse trap but get the ear of ah high ranking official (preferably Hitler) and keep pulling strings.

      To quote the American investigators after the war:"Very defiantly we believe there were no other German proximity fuse is worth following up - there were more crackpot notions getting political support that we could have imagined" and "The device was made by a set of irresponsible inventors with no manufacturing connections. They would have been shut down without their political connections".

      Their problem (aside from massive waste and duplication of effort and that Hitler cancelled and disbanded most of the German weapons research in 1940) was that their tech was too good but not appropriate to their situation Germany simply did not have the resources to make enough of it to win the war

    • Anyway, the Americans were to focussed on giving nazi war criminals a cozy ride and failing miserably to realize that there was a reason the german lost the war, their tech sucked. Still American history teaches that german tech led to space conquest...

      The Soviets didn't use captured Germans or their technology? That's not what I heard. Wikipedia's article on the father of the Soviet missile program [wikipedia.org] says

      Along with other experts, [Korolyov] flew to Germany to recover the technology of the German V-2 rocket. The Soviets placed a priority on reproducing lost documentation on the V-2, and studying the various parts and captured manufacturing facilities. That work continued in Germany until late 1946, when the Soviet experts and some 150 German scientists an

    • Anyway, the Americans were to focussed on giving nazi war criminals a cozy ride and failing miserably to realize that there was a reason the german lost the war, their tech sucked.

      Holy poop. Are you actually serious?!

      The Germans lost the war because they went into a fight with the Soviets, where they had over 5 (five) MILLION men killed (more than the size of their entire army on the western front!!!), as well as tens of thousands pieces of expensive and advanced military equipment.

      That's why they lost. To think otherwise just means you've been watching too many movies about saving private Ryan. What Germany lost on the eastern front is an order of magnitude greater than the losses o

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Hey mods, not insightful. As others pointed out, and the article states, Gagarin was in orbit. Shepherd, the American follow on, wasn't.

      Also, take a look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:S-IC_engines_and_Von_Braun.jpg [wikipedia.org]

      Those are F1 rockets, forming the first stage of a Saturn V. See the guy standing in front of them? That's Werner von Braun, the famous Nazi rocket designer, who played a key role in designing those rockets. Wikipedia says he was their "creator."

      Regardless of how you feel about t

    • It wasn't. Examine WHY this was the case before you go into fantasy land. WHY was a 3rd world nation that had suffered a decimating war ahead of a country that was swimming in money and the only effect of war had been fewer unemployed? Once you can answer that, you have learned a lot about the true nature of the US and might even be able to use to help explain the current mess it is in.

      Frist, the USSR wasn't 3rd world, they were 2nd world. They are the definition of 2nd world. 3rd world were countries that

  • by damburger (981828) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @08:29AM (#35773200)

    It was 50 years ago, get over it.

    The hang-wringing in the western press about this seems to me to be largely due to an inability to fit the event into the triumphalist narrative that has endured in government and media since the end of the cold war. The idea that capitalism, specifically our version of capitalism is best always, everywhere and forever.

    Its disquieting to such dogmatists to be reminded of even a single success from an alternative way of doing things. Even if that way of doing things ultimately imploded on itself decades later, it makes a rational person question the absolutism of the narrative, and thus the narrators must try and dissect and blunt the impact of the threatening event.

    • by prefec2 (875483)

      They can't get over it, as it is connected to some Western fears. The West and especially the USA are not that important anymore and the Chinese are considered to be commies (even if they are not). So the USA fears to loose against the commies after all. "We are all doomed!" This leads to the problem that the US think they are safe when they can control everything. But this normally piss of others. Now when they are getting closer to bankruptcy they feel other gaining on them. Even if this is just a normali

    • by ultranova (717540)

      The hang-wringing in the western press about this seems to me to be largely due to an inability to fit the event into the triumphalist narrative that has endured in government and media since the end of the cold war. The idea that capitalism, specifically our version of capitalism is best always, everywhere and forever.

      The true irony here is that the central idea of capitalism is that competition creates efficiency and lack of competition allows inefficiency. Thus, when capitalism no longer has any competi

  • What would have happened if the Russians had invented TV? Nothing different. What would have happened if the French had been the first to the South Pole? Apart from the penguins speaking french, nothing.

    Being first actually confers very little commercial advantage (just look at the first web browser - much good it did them, or the first personal computer). So far was geographical firsts goes: unless there's something there which can be exploited, even less benefit. The only reasons the americans went to t

  • You might ask why:

    America discovered the Airplane but Europeans are beating us big time with Airbus.

    America discovered the transistor but it was not until the Japanese came that we saw its true potential. No wonder all electronics in America are Asian made.

  • by mbone (558574) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @09:21AM (#35773372)

    Apollo 8 was rushed and sent to the Moon (the first manned test of a Saturn V went to lunar orbit, not staying in Earth orbit), specifically to beat a manned Soviet lunar flyby planned with the Zond spacecraft. (I.e., the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 missions were swapped; the reasons for this were kept secret at the time.) As we beat both Zond and the Soviet lunar landing program (Zond was more or less flight ready, with 2 unmanned test flights, the landing program, not so much) before the Soviets actually flew any people to or around the Moon, the Soviets were able to pretend that they didn't have a manned lunar program, which made it possible for the Nixon administration to kneecap manned space flight a few years later. NASA and the US have never recovered from that, and the USA has (to be blunt) never really done much with manned space flight since.

    Arguably, if Apollo 8 had stayed in Earth orbit, Alexei Leonov would have commanded the first mission to circle the Moon, the "space race" would have extended to lunar operations, and humanity would probably have multiple bases on Mars at this moment.

    • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday April 10, 2011 @12:38PM (#35774456) Homepage

      the Soviets were able to pretend that they didn't have a manned lunar program, which made it possible for the Nixon administration to kneecap manned space flight a few years later.

      (Sigh.)
       
      When will people actually study space history rather than repeating urban legends?
       
      The Apollo program was killed in the budget battles of 1965-67, when the Apollo Applications program was all but canceled and the Apollo Lunar Landing program was capped at Apollo 20. By the time we landed on the Moon, the production lines were already starting to shut down.
       
      The idea that throwing spacecraft away was a bad one dates from the early 60's - in fact, even earlier there were some in NASA that regarded Mercury as nothing more than a cheap way to get medical information on man in space and a temporary distraction from the Real Thing - reusable space infrastructure. The first contracts for what became the Shuttle were signed on July 18th 1969 (while Apollo 11 was enroute to the moon), and had been budgeted for in 1968 (before Nixon was even elected).
       
      At worst, Nixon gave the orders to pull the plug on a patient on advanced life support and already near death. If anything, the Shuttle program fared as badly as it did because of continued Congressional insistence that it be done on the cheap.

      • by mbone (558574)

        I was around at the time. Von Braun and all of the original space enthusiasts (German and American) were retired. Most of the Apollo middle tier of engineers and scientists were let go. (I remember PhD's pumping gas in Cocoa Beach near the Cape in '73 or '74.) Nerva was canceled. Manned Venus flyby was canceled. It is true that LBJ was not a space enthusiast, and the Democratic Congress certainly went along with all of this, and even pushed for some of it, but all of this happened on Nixon's watch.

        Note that

  • by Bloodwine77 (913355) on Sunday April 10, 2011 @09:45AM (#35773462)
    We could learn a thing or two about capitalism from the Russians. We are retiring our fleet and will be hitching rides on Russian shuttles over the next 4 years. While I do think private and commercial space flight will play a major role in future space flight, I think NASA Is a bit optimistic in thinking that we'll have private rockets in place by 2015. I suspect we'll still be riding on Russian shuttles well past 2015.
    • by petes_PoV (912422)

      We could learn a thing or two about capitalism

      Capitalism isn't the issue there. The issue is focusing on what you do best. For the russians, (and the europeans, to a lesser extent) their space industry can trace its lineage back to the first manned rockets in the early 60's. Sure, there have been refinements, upgrades and innovation since then - russian rocket engines being a good example. Whereas the american approach seems to be: develop a project for a specific goal, achieve that goal, throw away the technology, go on to start again for the next pro

    • by mbone (558574)

      We are retiring our fleet and will be hitching rides on Russian shuttles over the next 4 years. While I do think private and commercial space flight will play a major role in future space flight, I think NASA Is a bit optimistic in thinking that we'll have private rockets in place by 2015. I suspect we'll still be riding on Russian shuttles well past 2015.

      First, they're not shuttles, they are Soyuz's (one use re-entry vehicles).

      Second, there is Space X and its new Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Unless things blow up (literally), I think that US astronauts will be flying on SpaceX iron by ~ 2015.

  • The amount of butthurt USSR did to the USA amazes me. I still have a space encyclopaedia for teens composed by USA authors, which doesn't mention Gagarin or "Mir" space station. Actually, the chapter about space station only mentions some fictional US project to build one (which never came into fruition) , as if it had never been done before. Lulz.

  • Then the Americans would probably have made it to Mars before 1980. And then never bothered to go back again.
  • The question arises: What if ______________________________________?

    The question then goes away and stops bothering people.

  • After WWII, the USA put significant effort into creating a light weight A-bomb because the size of the rocket you need to put a bomb on the other side of the earth grows exponentially with payload weight. Stalin, OTOH, pretty much said: "This one's good enough. Now go build a rocket big enough to throw it." The result of this is that the USSR had launch vehicles with a larger throw weight than the USA.

    Launching a person into orbit requires a certain minimum throw weight because you need room for the perso

  • The submitter, Mark Whittington, is also the person who wrote the "Yahoo! Contributor Network" story he links to (i.e., a blog). And at the articler, he links to an Amazon page to buy a book that Mark Whittington wrote and self published.

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