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  • Richard Byrne

Contemplating Cosmonauts: THE WRONG STUFF

In the annals of U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the decades after World War II, the so-called "space race" between the two superpowers was by far the most gaudy and captivating competition.

Placing humans into space -- and, eventually, even landing them on the moon -- was thrilling blend of raw economic power and scientific know how. The stakes were high, and the successes and failures of that moment proved startlingly public.

Or so it seemed in the moment of New Frontiers and Five-Year-Plans. As John Strausbaugh observes in his terrific new book, The Wrong Stuff: How the Soviet Space Program Crashed and Burned (Public Affairs), what happened behind the scenes turned the well-worn tropes of American "space cowboys" and "grim interchangeable Commie robots marching lockstep into space at the command of their Fearless Leader" upside down.

Indeed, the space race was the occasion for "an apparent reversal of roles" for both Americans and their Soviet counterparts. "If anyone looked like robots," writes Strausbaugh, "it was the legions of faceless NASA bureaucrats and defense industry pencil-pushers in the US .... [c]ompared to them, the cosmonauts were the real buckaroos."

The all-too-brief opening of Soviet archives after 1989 brought many of the stories in The Wrong Stuff into public view, but Strausbaugh's skill in weaving them all into a breezy and compelling narrative gives readers a ready access to these "too-amazing-to-be-true-but-they-are-true" Cold War tales.

This sharply-etched and economical style is not the book's only strength, however. Strausbaugh's account of the dangers and debacles of the Soviet space program finds more than mere humor and pathos in its bluster, bullshit, and bravery.

Indeed, the author's imaginative sympathy with heroic cosmonauts so often betrayed by the Soviet Union's iffy tech, reckless ambition, and bafflingly bad bureaucracy find sa perfect balance. If there are heroes in the book, it is the outsized Iron Curtain characters who foreswore discretion and embraced a personal valor within a suppressive and often bankrupt system.

A 1964 postage stamp depicting Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. (Public Domain)

One such tragic figure is Vladimir Komarov -- a decorated fighter pilot turned cosmonaut whose tale is woven inextricably with not only the Soviet space program but the nation's politics. Komarov was placed in command of one of the most riskiest gambits of the space race: a ramshackle three-man mission in 1964 called Vokshod-1 that was the first trip to space with three men on board.

Komarov and two other crew members talked with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in the craft before their short 24-hour mission ended. But by the time they landed in miraculous safety, Khrushchev was out -- and Leonid Brezhnev had been installed in his place. The trio's victory lap was delayed as the Kremlin sorted out the political mess.

This wasn't the end of Komarov's journeys. His luck in 1964 ran out in 1967 on Soyuz-1 mission, when the parachutes of his Descent Module did not deploy on reentry. Komarov himself believed his mission was doomed -- and he plunged to earth and died in a blaze. The first man to die on a space mission was also dogged by conflicting accounts of his final communications provided by both sides of the space race divide. A U.S. version claimed he fell to earth cursing his "devil ship." The Soviet account had him calmly attending to his tasks.

What is not in dispute is that little was left of Komarov but a blackened and twisted mass that Soviet authorities somehow allowed to be photographed in a casket. As Strausbaugh notes tartly: "If he didn't plunge to his death screaming in 'rage and frustration,' he should have."

The Wrong Stuff is filled with dozens of harrowing anecdotes about the Soviet space program. Yet as the book recounts the follies and foibles of pursuing rocket science by the seat of nation's collective pants, its author offers a window into something perhaps more profound: How little the fierce competitors in one of the most renowned rivalries of the 20th Century actually knew about the true nature of their opponents.

U..S President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna on June 4, 1961 (NARA / Public Domain)

The Soviet space program may have been a mess, but the myth it built around its near misses was extraordinarily successful. Strausbaugh gleefully recounts Khrushchev's expert trolling of U.S. politicians through state propaganda, as well as the personal barbs he launched in person at summits and on visits.

One such moment came via a pointed reminder that the Soviet Union had put two dogs (Belka and Strelka) into space in August 1960 -- the first living creatures to survive a trip into orbit. When John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, Strausbaugh observes that Khrushchev "sent a diplomat to present [his] daughter Caroline with a gift from the Soviet people, a fluffy white puppy that was a daughter of Strelka. Kennedy did not miss the message: Game on."

The larger question that The Wrong Stuff raises is whether we know our global rivals any better today. And, of course, in not knowing, do we also deceive and doom ourselves to courses of action both unnecessary and unwise.

Get your copy of The Wrong Stuff at Amazon or Bookshop.

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