I recently finished reading SEKRET by Lindsay Smith and I thought it was a fascinating and trilling look at a period of US and Russian history that was marked by distrust and espionage. Haven’t heard about SEKRET? Here’s a little bit about the book:
I asked Lindsay to write about the space race of the 1960s, which was a time of huge advancements in space travel and also a time of deep tensions between the US and Russia. Since I make my living through the US space program, I was particularly interested in this aspect of the book. A big thanks to Lindsay for writing this fascinating piece!
The Cold War, the Space Race, and the Awesomeness of Science
In many ways, the Space Race became a proxy battle for the Cold War itself. The world’s superpowers, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, were briefly allied in World War II, but after dividing defeated Germany between themselves, they were once again locked in a geopolitical stalemate. Both experienced resurgent post-war economies, and by 1948, both had nuclear weapons, brought about by a renewed focus on technology and scientific advancement as well as impressive feats of espionage. While even a small cache of nuclear missiles on both sides was enough to assure mutual destruction should one country choose to attack the other, they continued to stockpile like mad.
If you can destroy the entire world with the press of a button, why bother with the cold void of outer space? Space did offer some military applications, like the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance offered by satellites (certainly a step up from the camera-equipped pigeons employed during World War II!), but it’s not like either country was in a position to set up a moon base (Ian Fleming’s romantic Moonraker notions aside). I’m convinced the short answer is that science and outer space are freaking awesome.
The long answer’s a little more complicated. The International Council of Scientific Unions (I bet they have a rockin’ holiday party) declared that 1958 would be the International Geophysical Year, when the whole world would join together to do awesome space-based things, like study distant planets and launch an object capable of orbiting the Earth. America was developing a satellite called the Vanguard at the time, and looked forward to the big global party. But the Soviets couldn’t contain their excitement (or their determination to be first, after they had to steal secrets of the atomic bomb from the US), and launched their first satellite, the Sputnik-1, in 1957.
Gauntlet: thrown. America quickly passed the Space Act that established NASA, but the Soviet Union’s head start gave them several firsts—the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin (aboard the Voskhod-1); the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova (in theVoskhod-6). The US satellite Explorer 6 took the first photograph of Earth from space, but the Russian Luna-1 was the first object to achieve lunar orbit. The US’s Mariner 4 was the first manmade object to fly by Mars. I chose this frantic era, with the US and USSR juggling probes and satellites and craft carrying dogs and monkeys and plants and people, as the setting for Sekret precisely for its chaos and uncertainty—both powers felt equally matched, and both appeared committed to devoting whatever resources were necessary to win.
Then the US president, John F. Kennedy, issued the ultimate mic drop: the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The story that follows has almost become a Cold War trope—American ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness combining to defeat the militaristic precision and rigidity of the Soviet Union. On July 20th, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew walked on the surface of the Moon.
The superpowers called a Space Race truce in 1975, when they agreed to cooperate on the International Space Station and Apollo-Soyuz joint missions. Sadly, the end of the Cold War has also ended much of the funding for space-based exploration and similar scientific endeavors. I can’t help but wonder what more we could achieve if we set our laser focus and innovation on similar advancements.
But true to our scrappy Cold War-era archetype, scientists at NASA and US companies alike are bringing about a renaissance of space exploration. The SpaceX company fulfills a number of NASA contracts while privately funding an eventual mission to Mars; numerous competitions, like the X Prize and Google Lunar Prize, have revitalized engineers’ passion for space by challenging designers to create ever more efficient, powerful, and ecological solutions to make the Space Age a reality. New national efforts, too, are underway—China recently announced its focus on Mars exploration. And how can you not be awed by the Curiosity rover, truckin’ its way across Mars?
In the 1960s, anything seemed possible, as entire nations competed to explore the awesomeness that is space. Whether as a stand-in for geopolitical conflict or for science’s own sake, I hope our global thirst for the marvels of the cosmos is never slaked.
Thanks, Lindsay! I just want to add a little bit to this wonderful post by saying that NASA and the Russian Space Agency still work very closely, cross training astronauts and maintain the International Space Station. At this time, our only way to reach the ISS is by using the Soyuz, the Russian Space Vehicle. There is a large Russian population in the Houston area and the Johnson Space Center in Houston still operates Mission Control, develops new technologies, and trains the current astronaut corps.
Lindsay Smith’s love of Russian culture has taken her to Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and a reindeer festival in the middle of Siberia. She lives in Washington, DC, where she writes on foreign affairs. SEKRET is her first novel.
Macmillan is generously allowing me to give away one finished copy of SEKRET. It’s open to residents of the US and Canada and you must be 13+ to enter. Good luck!