How the Soviets Beat the U.S. into Space
The Soviet’s big leap ahead in space was not due just to Charley Wilson’s intransigence and diminutive thinking on the part of officials and researchers. The U.S. was developing IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) with a range of 1500 nautical miles and ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) with ranges of 6000 nautical miles (a nautical mile is 6000 linear feet as opposed to the 5280 feet of a statute mile).
As soon as the captured V2s and the German scientists reached the Soviet Union, the Kremlin set to work to turn a revered Russian scientist’s dream into reality. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903 had proposed using rockets to reach and fly in space. He even developed the concept of multistage rockets before Oberth.
The Soviets flew their V2s, but immediately built their own, larger version, the G1. This had a range of 600 miles, and used an uprated version of the basic V2 motor.
A series of other designs followed quickly, culminating in an IRBM, the R5. This was the ultimate exploitation of the V2 technology. After the R5, the Soviets introduced their own rocket technology.
The breakthrough was the RD-107 engine, a cluster of four motors developing a total of 213,000 pounds of thrust. The Soviet brilliance was to cluster these engines to create a booster with a total of almost one million pounds of thrust. The R-7 booster clustered four strap-ons using RD-107s around a central RD-107 powered core with slightly more power.
This became their ICBM. It also launched Sputnik and several more of their early satellites.
On April 12, 1961, an R-7 with an upper stage put Yuri Gagarin into orbit to become the first human in space. Once again the U.S. had been beaten into space.
But in a short time, rocket history development would change dramatically, as we will see in part 3.