Russian cosmonaut discusses U.S.-Soviet space teamwork during Cold war

Cosmonaut Georgy Grechko: Soviet cosmonauts didn't see their American counterparts as rivals during the space race the 1960s. We treated them as colleagues. Source: Vostock Photo

Cosmonaut Georgy Grechko: Soviet cosmonauts didn't see their American counterparts as rivals during the space race the 1960s. We treated them as colleagues. Source: Vostock Photo

Cosmonaut Georgy Grechko, a twice-awarded Hero of the Soviet Union, talks to RBTH about the era when the Soviet Union and the United States launched the space race. He was in the thick of those events.

In 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel to space. It was the era of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The RBTH correspondent sat down with Cosmonaut Georgy Grechko – a twice-awarded Hero of the Soviet Union who was in the thick of those events.

Russia Beyond the Headlines: Can the space race be described as a Cold War in outer space?

Georgy Grechko: I don’t know how the politicians felt about it, but we cosmonauts and those who were in charge of the technical part of the space programs did not see Americans as our enemies. We treated them as colleagues: We had a common cause, faced common dangers and had joint projects, such as Soyuz-Apollo. We relied not on politicians, but on each other’s professionalism. Politics came last.

RBTH: The Soviet Union scored major triumphs in outer space. It was leading on practically every count: the first satellite, dogs in space, Gagarin’s flight, the first space walk, the docking of spaceships, pictures of the far side of the moon. And yet, although the Soviet Union was the first to reach the moon's orbit, the United States was the first to land an astronaut on it. Why did this happen?

G.G.: If you open the Soviet philosophical dictionary of those times you will read that “cybernetics is a pseudo-science.” Therefore, those who studied cybernetics in this country were all but imprisoned as ideological enemies. But cybernetics developments were needed to control a spaceship.

I once saw a stand with instruments – some ours and some American. If one of our instruments was the size of a fist, the American version was the size of a thimble. Our lunar spaceship simply could not hold all the necessary equipment. The popular joke among us was that we produced the biggest calculators in the world.

We lost time in the race to the moon. When the Americans were ready to land astronauts on the moon, we could only fly around it and return to Earth. The politicians canceled that flight, reckoning that, if Americans had already landed on the moon, the project made no sense. However, all those who worked on it believed we had to go ahead with it and obtain some valuable experience and test new technology.

RBTH: How did the death of Chief Designer Sergei Korolyov impact the development of our space industry?

G.G.: Sergei was a man who could unite everyone. He had such authority that all the top designers – though they knew their own worth – worked as a single team in which their skills were not combined, but multiplied. Under him, the designers association was truly an association.

RBTH: When President Kennedy took office, he approached Khrushchev with the proposition that we explore outer space together. Did the Soviet Union do the right thing by turning down the proposal?

G.G.: If the potentials of our countries were about equal at the time, we would probably have accepted the offer. But we were well ahead of the United States back then, and Khruschev did not want to share our achievements. And then they gained the lead and it was they who were reluctant to cooperate. But, in general, I think that space projects must be joint projects and the flight to Mars, when it takes place, will be an international one.

RBTH: So, the Soyuz-Apollo project was a breakthrough in relations between the two countries, based on rivalry?

G.G.: Absolutely. It was not only a space breakthrough, but a major milestone in relations between the two countries. The leaders and ordinary people said that, if we are cooperating in space, then why couldn’t we cooperate on Earth? It was a very important flight that changed people’s mindsets – and that is much more difficult than changing the design of a rocket.

RBTH: Speaking about the present, things are not perfect in our space industry…

G.G.: The market reforms – which I call “bazaar” reforms – have practically ruined the space industry. It does not bring quick profit. The old-timers, who possessed colossal experience, were ejected from the industry. They recruited young specialists who started everything from scratch. They are now gaining the experience that we had in the 1950s­-1960s.

The best current indicators are about the same as we had at our worst times. We may achieve decent results in 10 or 15 years’ time, but who knows where our rivals will be by then.

RBTH: During the Cosmonauts Day celebrations, Vladimir Putin said a lot about the need to uplift the space industry and promised to splash out a lot of money. Do you think it will work?

G.G.: I am 80 years old, and all these years I hear the country’s leaders saying the same things. Korolyov used to tell us that. After launching the first satellite, Khrushchev summoned him and said: “Come up with something new in a month’s time.”

Sergei Korolyov replied that not everything depended on him and his people, and that the government ministries involved in the process could delay it. Khrushchev replied: “I’ll give you an office at the Kremlin, sit down and give instructions to everyone. And they’d better fulfil them.” And what is the situation now? Can Popovkin of the Russian Space Agency give orders to government ministers, oligarchs and so on?

Formerly, the space industry was the locomotive for many other industries. You should realize that we had unique workers who were able to process metal with their tongues, so to speak. We had fantastic technicians who did not ask the engineers to provide them with drawings; they worked from sketches, and we had scientists of genius.

But now great specialists do not get the treatment they deserve, though they are welcome there [by NASA – Ed.]. So, even if many fine words are being said today, they cannot immediately be backed up by actions.

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