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Presented below is a pre-publication excerpt from the PBS series companion book, RED FILES - Secrets from the Russian Archives, written by George Feifer, published by TV Books, distributed by HarperCollins.

Secret Soviet Moon Mission

No, Mama, it's my life and my decision. My place is in aviation. I've decided.
    - 18-year-old Sergei Korolev answering his mother's pleas to consider other professions, 1924

Even now, ordinary propeller aircraft can't give us the needed superiority.
    - Prisoner Korolev to Joseph Stalin, 1938

Don't lecture...Too many academicians give lectures that aren't worth a shit.
    - Chief Designer Korolev interrupting the Academician who headed the Institute of Biophysics, 1961

Everything considered, the Soviet space effort demonstrated more brilliance and ingenuity - certainly greater courage and tenacity - than did the victorious American one. More important for what was achieved and what more would have been in an open society, it displayed the fusion of intuition and laboratory slog that propels the best science. Here, technological mastery coupled with the Russian propensity to dream big - in this case, about something relatively old. The pursuit of the moon did not originate in Cold War military needs, nor was it a flash in the Kremlin's pan of sometimes overboard schemes. It had a substantial tradition when the planning began in earnest in the 1950s.

Eighty-odd years earlier, a 27-year-year-old nihilist named Nikolai Kibalchich was condemned to death for his part in assassinating Alexander II in 1881. (Russian revolutionaries were as muddled as her reactionaries. The murder of that Tsar, probably the country's most liberal, caused a huge setback to every good cause.) Days before his own death, Kibalchich wrote from prison that he'd meet it calmly, "knowing that my idea will not perish with me." He meant neither his political goals nor his bomb-making expertise. Kibalchich was also revolutionary in scientific thinking.

A Russian writer later praised him for making "the first step in the history of space flight." That accolade was based on Kibalchich's prophecy, the world's first as far as is known, that a flying machine might be propelled by an engine fuelled by "slow-burning explosives." In other words, a jet engine - which other Russians soon imagined might be suitable for travel in space. Robert Goddard, often called the father of American space flight, was born the year after Kibalchich's execution.

Russia's scientific and artistic achievements benefited from certain advantages of backwardness. Backwardness spares the mind from filling with nuts-and-bolts considerations. It frees thinkers from the saddle of current styles and technologies, and from reluctance to scrap existing machinery that doesn't exist. It enables potential creators to seize on the very latest from more advanced countries. Most importantly, it promotes dreaming. To call late 19th-century Russia backward in the sciences would be misleading; exceptional achievements in physics, mathematics and chemistry were then made, including chemist Dmitri Mendeleev's 1870 plotting of the all-important periodic table of elements. Still, it's good to remember the country's political, economic and educational under-development during the decades when a few remarkable Russians envisioned interplanetary travel.

Of those inspired by Kibalchich, none would become as important as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a high school teacher of mathematics and physics who'd been deafened by scarlet fever as a young boy, then orphaned. Poor Tsiolkovsky worked from dawn to whenever his eyes would no longer stay open at night. His teaching occupied the middle of that very long day. The remaining hours were fervently given to the theory and practical needs of space travel, of whose possibility the eccentric was utterly convinced. Months before the Wright brothers took flight in 1903, he was demonstrating mathematically that a device would achieve earth orbit after attaining a certain velocity, and predicting a moon landing. Tsiolkovsky's contribution - including promoting the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that would fuel American rockets more than half a century later - is honored by a museum in his birthplace in Kaluga, two hours south of Moscow. Here, it may be enough to cite his turn-of-the-century insistence that mankind would not remain earthbound. Pursuit of light and space would take it beyond the atmosphere until "all of circumsolar space" was conquered.

Kibalchich and Tsiolkovsky were the forebearers of this chapter's protagonist. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev may have met the latter in 1929 or 1932, when the master Tsiolkovsky was in his 60s and his admirer a twenty-something newcomer to aviation. Russian sources disagree about whether such a meeting actually took place, but not about the influence of the elder upon the bold young man who would pilot the Soviet space effort during its glory years. Simply put, the mature Korolev would begin building what Tsiolkovsky conceived. Meanwhile, the vigorous neophyte, still bearing no signs of his destiny, devoured the high-school teacher's oeuvre, including The Reaction Engine, Jet-Propelled Aeroplane, The Theory of the Jet Engine, and The Maximum Speed of a Rocket. He also learned of Tsiolkovsky's amazingly foresighted concept of assembling several rockets to build an interplanetary space station - precisely the kind of device the Soviets would first launch in 1971, and keep in operation almost continuously since, presently as the ailing veteran Mir. At the earlier point, in the 1920s and early 1930s, those notions were no longer considered science fiction by everyone - but almost everyone.

 

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