Technological advancement: one unusual case study

I wanted to share a quick book review I just wrote over on Goodreads, and for three hopefully relevant reasons.

Not, not because The Red Rockets’ Glare is the second-best book title of the 21st century.

First, because the book argues for a particular model of technological development that we rarely discuss.  That may have some interest or application to the present, as we seek to apprehend where the digital world is heading.  It involves the interplay between central authorities and distributed enthusiasts, plus some other stuff (read on).

Second, because the geographical focus is on Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I’m curious about how that plays out in 2017.  My personal take is unusual (see below), so I can’t generalize much from that perspective.  Instead, I wonder what it means to consider a developmental model based on a country whose leadership intervened to some degree in the United States election in 2016.  Will people opposed to Putin think it inappropriate to consider this model?  Will Putin’s fans embrace it?  At a related level, what is the cultural standing of the USSR in a post-Soviet 21st century?

Third, because this is about space exploration, and the United States has in many ways withdrawn from its Cold War glory days.  We rarely discuss space travel these days, and are, I think, more prone to viewing it as a nostalgia-drenched icon or Ballardian dreaming rather than a present activity or a future-oriented concept.  There are exceptions – Elon Musk, China’s taikonauts – but we’re fallen far away from the 1970s idea that lunar travel was commonplace.

So read on and reflect on the long, long road to a quiet beeping noise…

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How did Sputnik come about? What led the Soviet Union to take the world lead in the space race? Was there a pre-Soviet pro-cosmic Russian culture?

Before I say more, it’s time to confess that I came to The Red Rockets’ Glare from an unusual background. Like some, I’m a lifelong space exploration fiend, which predisposes me towards any book about the history of Russian and Soviet rocketry. Alongside that, I have a lifelong interest in Russian culture and history, marked by odd features like an undergrad stint doing Soviet studies, plus having a Russian heritage (mother was an immigrant from what it today Byelorus). So that, too, draws me closer to The Red Rockets’ Glare. I am either the ideal audience or just too nerdy for sanity.

Asif Siddiqi traces the prehistory of Sputnik’s 1957 launch. To do so he has to explore some very odd and divergent territory. And he has to make a case for the power of starry-eyed fandom to work in tandem with terrifying bureaucracies.

He begins with the astonishing figure of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii (1857-1935), a rural school teacher who, in the late 1800, invented on his own many of the ideas for 20th century spaceflight, from multi-state rockets to airlocks, space stations, and even the space elevator. Tsiolkovskii is a kind of mystery figure for the history of space, and Siddiqi takes care to show just how he attained prophetic status in the Soviet Union.

Tsiolkovskii won little attention from the tsarist scientific establishment, but inspired a great deal of fans, sparking a generation of space enthusiasts going into the Russian Revolution. Space enthusiasts are a special theme in The Red Rockets’ Glare, as they sought to advance their field on their own, often with few resources other than wide networks of mutual interest and support (56).

That enthusiasm led in two complementary directions. On the one hand, fans did the hard math and scientific work of figuring out how to make rockets work. On the other, they created a kind of Russian space mysticism, or Cosmism. The latter saw human and universal destiny in the stars, and reached stellar heights of imagination. For example, Nikolai Fyodorov prophesied a future where humans would spread throughout interstellar space in order to accumulate bits of the dead, in order to resurrect the human race.

…using all of the resources at its disposal, including science and technology, humanity should engage in a quest to reassemble the corporeal particles lost in the “disintegration” of human death…. Fyodorov believed that there would be no birth and no death, only the progressive reanimation of the deceased millions from history. (79-81)

This vision inspired a stray political-space group, the Anarchist-Biocosmists, who “briefly published a journal… under the banner ‘Immortalism and Interplanetarianism.'” (107)

In a very different but similarly inspired way, after the Revolution Viktor Khlebnikov

called on all Soviet artists to “create a common graphic language, common to all the peoples of the third satellite of the sun, to devise graphic signs intelligible and acceptable throughout this inhabited star lost in space.” (97)

And so on. Cosmism would go on to become a kind of subterranean Soviet meme, which would at times appear to power that nation’s more lyrical bursts of space travel. It also inspired practical work. Siddiqi shares a funny scene when a leading general visits a low-budget but energetic rocket lab in the 1930s, checking on the development of a new and very basic engine. One of the team “described his ORD-2 engine to the marshal but to everyone’s alarm could not resist digressing into a discussion on flights to Mars, to which Tukhachevskii responded with polite interest.” (141) . This gets funnier, or at least more absurd, when you remember than this was not only before Sputnik, but before the V-2, when Robert Goddard was hand-making little rockets and getting laughed at for his dreams.

Sputnik stamp

Yet Siddiqi’s book is not all about space fandom. He positions that movement alongside the Russian, then the Soviet government’s powerful and fearsome state apparatus, such as that important military leader in the previous example. At times the fans nudged the state into sharing precious resources. That’s a new way of understanding the great designer of the USSR’s initial space efforts, Sergei Korolev: energetic, practical, visionary, a political survivor, and dead at far too young an age. Korolev was skilled at uniting starry-eyed space enthusiasts with the Soviet military and scientific establishments.

At other times, the enthusiasts lost badly. The two worlds collide in heartbreaking passages when very geeky rocket scientists, caught up in Stalin’s great terror of the 1930s, turn on each other, using police denunciation and speedy executions to attempt to settle matters of engineering (173ff). Korolev himself spent awful years in the Gulag. Soviet space dreams were broken badly at this time, and only recovered with the pillaging of Nazi Germany’s rocket projects in 1945-1946.

At that precise point The Red Rockets’ Glare makes a subtle yet vital distinction. As victorious Soviet armies swarmed over the Third Reich’s ruins and political agents followed to set up what would become the Warsaw Pact, few were interested in what the Nazis had accomplished with rockets. Instead, it was a distributed network of rocket-interested individuals – fans, again – who discovered German scientists and machinery, then urged the state to pay attention to this windfall (196ff). Eventually, gradually, some military leaders caught on, and helped set up a very thin space research effort. I say “very thin” because Moscow had other priorities, such as atomic energy (both for war and peace), rebuilding a devastated economy, and scrambling to build an air force capable of global reach. Yet the space geeks made progress, building up bigger and better rockets, winning support from a cautious government, until in 1957 they cracked world history wide open with a tiny satellite riding a huge ICBM.

There are important lessons to be learned from this history. Siddiqi calls his approach “history from below”, and it’s a powerful reminder to historians and observers to not devote all of our attention to the actions of giant states. In his conclusion he offers a powerful contrasting vision, well worth quoting in full:

The prehistory of Sputnik contrasts strikingly with the other major post-[WWII] project of Soviet science, the development of the atomic bomb, which grew out of the interests of a community of physicists operating in elite academic, industrial, and educational institutions in the 1930s. The project of spaceflight, on the other hand, grew out of the musings of a half-deaf, lone autodictat in rural Russia, the work of amateur societies, and the handiwork of men and women who built rocket engines out of broken blowtorches in factory workshops. (364)

Let me take a step back in my recommendation. This is more of a scholarly monograph than narrative history, although the chapter about Sputnik’s completion and launch is gripping. Most of the book is an incredibly detailed analysis of Russian and Soviet organizational minutiae, from rocketry fan clubs to artillery unit politics, popular science magazine numbers, duelling rocket fuel paradigms, and multiple levels of bureaucratic hell within Stalinist terror. In other words, the reader is advised to get some background on events prior to basking in The Red Rockets’ Glare.

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So what do you think of my questions, way up above?  Is this an interesting model for technological development?  Is this something we can consider, or will political issues alter our approach?  And how do we think of space travel in 2017, looking ahead?

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