I recorded a TV programme this week entitled “Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race”, because it is a subject that intrigues me.
I find Russia fascinating: The architecture, music, language, iconography, culture, and history, are all so different from what is familiar to me. It appears exotic and intriguing. I have been lucky enough to visit different parts of Russia several times and it never disappoints. You can read about these visits by following these links to previous blogposts.
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The reason that this particular programme appealed to me was because of something I stumbled upon during a visit to St Petersburg in 2003. But before I explain, do let me tell you a little about my trip to this fabulous city.
By rights I should not have been in St Petersburg at all! President Putin was meeting the leaders of the G8 and the European Union countries for a summit meeting and to celebrate the city’s Tercentenary. Apart from VIPs, dignitaries and invited pop stars like Paul McCartney and Elton John, no foreigners were supposed to go to St Petersburg during the celebrations so that Russians could take pride of place. Of course I didn’t know that when I made my arrangements!
St Petersburg is built on land reclaimed from the sea and made up of 101 islands linked by canals. Its unofficial symbol is, appropriately for a great shipping port ~ a ship, while Russia’s symbol is an eagle.
The city has changed its name several times since 1703 when it was built by Peter the Great. During the First World War it was called Petrograd. It was here that the October Revolution started when a cannon was fired from the battleship “Aurora” ~ accidentally I was informed. I saw the ‘Aurora’ which was still on the River Neva. In 1924 after the death of Lenin the city was renamed Leningrad. Then in 1991 after Perestroika, the first democratically elected mayor of the city, Anatoly Sobchak, returned the city to its original name of St Petersburg.
Many of the people in St Petersburg live in communal apartment blocks. Indeed the first place I stayed in was a tiny flat in one of these buildings. It was reached by going off the main street, behind some shops and up a very dark and dingy staircase to a door which, like all the others, was padlocked, chained and reinforced with steel! Not quite the self contained apartment I was expecting! But as I went to put my cases away it got worse – I found a strange old man sitting on a dining chair – in the wardrobe! This is the absolute truth. I never found out why he was there and I moved out as soon as I could.
Despite this I found St Petersburg as a city incredibly beautiful. I was there during the period of the “White Nights” when the sun never really sets and the night is as light as daytime.
I was spellbound by the beauty and grace of the canals, rivers and bridges; I was overawed by the beauty of the churches, the cathedrals, and the mosque; I was impressed by the well-kept parks and gardens; I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale and grandeur of the architecture; And I was mesmerised by the Hermitage and countless other museums stuffed with cultural treasures. To me St Petersburg seems to have the best bits of London, Rome and Bruges all rolled up in one great city.
The Hermitage Museum is of course world famous for its outstanding collections which cover every aspect of art, history, geology and culture. I was overwhelmed to see Rembrandt’s masterpiece, “Return of the Prodigal Son”. This painting is huge and it was placed just inside a vast room but facing double doors so that as the visitor steps into the room through the doors, it seems as if she is stepping into the painting to be welcomed and forgiven by the loving father. It was truly an emotional experience.
Having asked a Russian friend to rescue me from the tiny flat with the ‘lived-in’ wardrobe, I stayed in a luxurious apartment block next door to where Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s best-loved poet, lived and died after being shot in a duel. Daily I walked up and down the worn stone stairs which Pushkin himself would have climbed. I also visited the flat where Fyodor Dostoevsky lived and wrote Crime and Punishment.
By default I got to enjoy St Petersburg at its best with a full programme of activities planned for the 300th anniversary. The Festivities started in earnest during the last week in May, the 27th being the official birthday, and continued throughout June. Celebrations included a parade of ancient ships on the Neva, folk festivals, sculpture projects, orchestral concerts, fireworks on the river, sailing competitions, sports events, laser shows, a carnival procession, and art and history exhibitions. Most of the events were outdoors and free! There were new gardens being planted with countless trees, and rose bushes specially bred to withstand the very low winter temperatures.
Huge stages were erected in Palace Square for Alexander Rozenbaum and Elton John’s concert, and while I was there Paul McCartney and his then wife, Heather Mills, arrived to launch a new children’s charity. Very appropriately Heather Mills announced she was expecting her first baby! Sir Paul also received an honorary doctorate from the University.
Now to get closer to the point of my blogpost I will tell you about my visit to the St Peter and Paul Fortress where the first stone was laid for the foundations of the new city. It was a memorable visit in many ways. Firstly, I didn’t realise until I saw the blue and white flag flying on the fortress, that St Andrew is the patron saint of St Petersburg as we’ll as Scotland! This fascinated me, especially as I know that our St George is also the patron saint of Moscow! It’s a small world isn’t it?
The weather was also very memorable, as there was the most amazing storm while I was at the fortress. Following a lovely start to the visit in glorious sunshine, there was torrential rain, thunder and lightning, then hailstones to follow! I got soaked to the skin and took refuge in a deserted low building, a sort of museum that was unknown to my Russian friends, and was not advertised or publicised in any way. It turned out to be a real gem full of information, photographs and technology about early space exploration. It was the actual building where the solid and liquid fuels were first developed for the rockets which enabled space travel. Inside this museum, which surely would have been secret until very recently, we saw the actual Sputnik artificial satellite and all the technology that went into developing it. I was amazed by how small and cramped it was. There was also a display dedicated to Laika, the first dog to go into space and the preserved bodies of Belka and Strelka, the first two dogs who survived being in orbit. Among many other fascinating displays of capsules, docking vehicles, probes, rockets, and space shuttles, there were the remains of the Luna and Soyuz spacecraft, and a display about Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin (1934-1968) who was a Russian cosmonaut and the first man to orbit the earth, in 1961. There was also the actual St Petersburg flag that had been on the Mir Space Station for 161 days. The flag was returned to earth in time for the tercentenary.
Sadly there was no printed material about this museum and we were not allowed to take photos or film so it was just another wonderful moment to drop into the bottom of my memory. But the thing that struck me most and has puzzled me since, was that it displayed in great detail the co-operation that had existed between the USA and USSR since the early days of space exploration. I always thought that there was deep rivalry between the two superpowers but it seems there was actually a lot more co-operation than people generally knew.
So I watched the programme and it was confirmed!
I learned that rockets were being built as early as the 1930s but it was the 1945 Hiroshima bomb that kick started the Russian drive to build a rocket as a weapon because they felt threatened. The Russian Sergei Korolev was part scientist, part engineer, part manager of the project. By 1957 he had developed the R7 rocket which was 9 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb but hopeless as a missile because it was too big, too heavy and too slow. But it was kept for space exploration which was Korolev’s passion. In October 1957 this rocket would carry and launch the first satellite to orbit the earth. It was named Sputnik, which means ‘fellow traveller’. It travelled at 18000 miles an hour and beamed radio messages back to earth. Nikita Kruschev was president of USSR as it was then and he asked Korolev to develop and launch another satellite for the 7th November holiday. To everyone’s surprise this was Sputnik 2 and it carried a passenger, the ill-fated stray dog Laika. Although she had a capsule with food and water, the cooling system failed and poor Laika died of overheating within 6 hours of take-off.
By 1961 a man was prepared to be launched into space. As everyone knows, his name was Yuri Gagarin and he must have been incredibly brave. It took him just 11/4 hours to circle the earth. His re-entry was alarming with flames rushing past the windows and a burning smell in the capsule followed by ejecting at 7000 metres above the earth. However he landed, off target but alive, and he became a world hero.
In 1965 another satellite, Voskhod 2 was launched by the R7 rocket, this time with two men squeezed into the capsule. Once in orbit around the earth one of the cosmonauts went through the air lock and drifted in space 500km above the earth. He was almost lost as his space suit expanded due to the greater air pressure inside it. His hands and feet were tingling and he knew he would not fit back through the air lock unless he took drastic action. So risking being starved of oxygen, he had to release air from his suit and get back into the raging hot air lock as fast as possible. He did it but lost 6kg in that one day through sweating. On the return trip the cosmonauts again had to eject and landed in a forest where they had to wait for 2 days to be found ~ no GPS or mobile phones then!
Unfortunately things started to go badly wrong in USSR after these triumphs. The genius Sergei Korolev died in 1966 aged 59 after a routine operation. In 1967 the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, in Soyuz 1 was killed on re-entry. Yuri Gagarin was killed in a plane crash in 1968. And in 1969 an explosion wrecked the N1 rocket and the entire launch complex. The worst disaster happened in 1971 when 3 Russian cosmonauts were asphyxiated on re-entry due to a technical failure.
Meanwhile the USA was forging ahead realising a successful moon landing in 1969. This was a great achievement but did not lead to further exploration, whereas the USSR was working towards manned space stations where people could live, work and carry out research in space. By mid 1980s the first permanent orbital station was ready. It was called MIR which was taken to mean peace, world or village; but actually “the word “mir” referred to a Russian peasant community that owned its own land”. On MIR cosmonauts could live and work for over a year. In 1991 as the MIR space station orbited successfully overhead the USSR disintegrated here on earth. Money for the space programme was cut, indirectly causing another near disaster. The cargo ship bringing supplies to the MIR space station crashed into it knocking out the electricity. For a while the cosmonauts observed the sheer beauty of countless stars, polar lights and a spectacular aurora, from a position of the total darkness and absolute silence that can only be found in space. One of the astro-physicists on board that day was an Anglo/American called Michael Foale, who recently retired. In the TV programme he repeated the comment that it was “a beautiful sight but a terrible day”. After this the MIR space station was abandoned to its fate and it burned up eventually when it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere after 15 years orbiting the earth. It is amazing to think that over 100 cosmonauts or astronauts, male or female, from 12 different countries visited MIR. MIR brought together two superpower adversaries from a long “Cold War” and taught them how to co-operate. Mir also showed that we can live and work in space if needs must. Men and women of courage can overcome terrible problems, and survive life-threatening situations by working together.
The International Space Station ISS, was launched in 1998 to replace MIR. This is a collaboration between the USA, Russia, Canada, Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, South Korea and Spain.
I don’t pretend to understand the work that is done on this space station, and I may be very naïve, but I do think that this peaceful collaboration can only be a positive thing.