Sputnik Triggers the USSR–USA Competition

  • Umberto Cavallaro
Part of the Springer Praxis Books book series (PRAXIS)


In September 1956, for the first time ever, an artificial satellite was featured on a postal stamp. The Italian stamp, designed by Corrado Mancioli, was issued to mark the 7th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), which was hosted between September 17 and 22 that year in the Italian capital, Rome.

USSR-USA Space Race: Ignited in Italy

In September 1956, for the first time ever, an artificial satellite was featured on a postal stamp. The Italian stamp, designed by Corrado Mancioli, was issued to mark the 7th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), which was hosted between September 17 and 22 that year in the Italian capital, Rome.

Figure 1.1:

(top left) The first postage stamp ever to feature an artificial satellite. (top right) U.S. stamp issued to commemorate the International Geophysical Year – IGY 1957-8. (main) Cover commemorating the first International Astronautical Congress, Paris 1950.

The IAC is organized by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), a non-governmental international organization, with the first IAC held in Paris back in 1950. The 7th such Congress (which has no permanent home) in 1956 was hosted by the Italian Rocket Association (Associazione Italiana Razzi), headed by Professor General Gaetano Crocco. The chief topic of IAC-7 was the artificial unmanned satellite, heralded by the newspapers as the “first step towards sidereal space.” The Congress was attended by almost 400 delegates, coming from the 20 national astronautical societies that were members of the IAF. The Soviets were also invited to attend, for the second time, with ‘observer’ status.

A year earlier, during the previous IAC-6 Congress, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Soviet delegation had held a press conference in their hotel, during which they announced a plan to launch a man-made object into space during the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The IGY would run from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, to correspond with the maximum activity of the Sun’s eleven-year cycle.

This would be the Soviet contribution in response to the resolution adopted in October 1954 by the Comité Speciale de l'Année Geophysique Internationale (CSAGI), during its meeting held in Rome. That resolution had indeed called for the launch of artificial satellites during the IGY, to contribute to the mapping of the Earth’s surface. Quite coincidentally, the American president had issued a similar statement few weeks earlier, announcing the launch of Vanguard , the first American satellite.

Figure 1.2:

Postcard commemorating the 7th IAC in Rome, 1956.

During the IAC-7 Congress in Rome, a half-dozen American scientists circulated to illustrate the American plan in greater detail. It turned out that the UK, France, the Netherlands, and the USSR were all preparing their own satellites, unveiling a quiet scientific competition that until then had been played out in the greatest secrecy. However, no one gave much credence to the vague pronouncements of a possible launch by Leonid Sedov , the head of the Soviet delegation, whose statement was virtually under-valued and all but ignored1. Everybody knew that the United States would launch the world’s first satellite!2

Leonid Sedov , a university professor and Member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, with no direct connection to the space program, would be destined to achieve great notoriety as a figurehead, presented to the Western media as a guiding force of the Soviet space program. In fact, the fledgling Soviet satellite program was controlled with an iron fist by the military, and Sedov’s Commission had little real authority and virtually no contact with it.

Sedov , who was allowed to travel outside the Soviet state to represent the USSR, would be undeservedly credited with the successes achieved with Sputnik, Lunik and Vostok by the mysterious ‘Chief Designer’ Sergei Korolev , whose identity remained a State secret until after his death3. Though Sputnik’s launch in 1957 had become the talking point of the entire world, no one had a clue as to the identity of its chief designer. His deliberate anonymity would later be confirmed in an interview by Sergei Khrushchev , son of Soviet Premier Nikita: “At that time, nobody knew the name ‘Sergei Korolev ’; it was classified.” [1]

Korolev was never allowed to travel abroad, nor to meet foreign scientists at home in Russia, or at international congresses on space matters. As the sole concession, in recognition of the key role he played, he was allowed to write articles in the important publication Pravda – the Communist Party’s daily newspaper – but only under the pseudonym of either ‘Professor K. Sergeyev’, or ‘Konstantinov’. Khrushchev was always careful to keep Korolev away from the spotlight. Even when the Nobel Prize Committee decided, without polling the world’s scientists, to give an award to Sputnik’s Chief Designer and requested his name from the Soviet government, Nikita Khrushchev refused to reveal his identity, claiming that in order to ensure the country’s security, and the lives of these scientists, engineers, technicians and other specialists, it was not possible to make their names known or to publish their photographs.

According to Sergei Khrushchev , however, his father’s real concern was not confidentiality [2]. “The KGB knew that there was really no need to keep his name secret, but, as KGB chief Ivan Serov told me, the enemy’s resources were limited, so [we] let them waste their efforts trying to uncover ‘non-secret’ secrets. As for real secrets, the enemy’s arms were too short to reach them.” In fact, Nikita Khrushchev ’s main concern was that Korolev was the head of the council of chief designers, in charge of all space projects. Khrushchev knew that the other designers harbored their own ambitions and considered themselves no less significant. They would all have been madly jealous if Korolev alone had received such publicity. After the launch of Sputnik, all of the designers (including Korolev, Glushko , Chelomey , Tikhonravov , Keldysh , Mishin , Voskresensky , Chertok , etc.) had been jointly awarded the Lenin Prize and other Soviet honors. “If the Nobel prize went only to Korolev,” Sergei Khrushchev explained, “my father thought the [other] members would get upset and that the team would simply disintegrate, and with it, the hopes of [the] Soviet Union’s future space research and missile design. As my father saw it, you could order scientists to work together, but you couldn’t force them to create.

Perhaps, as Anatoli Fedoseyev observed however, there were also other, more subtle reasons: “There is another reason for the secrecy, especially as it applies to the leading scientists upon whom the level of science and technology in the Soviet Union really depends. It is not the fear of their being kidnapped which prompts the Soviet authorities to keep them incognito. It is rather because, if such people were known to the public, they might acquire sufficient fame and influence to represent a powerful and possibly dangerous opposition to the political leaders.[3]

In his reply to the Nobel committee, therefore, Premier Khrushchev stated that all the Soviet people had contributed to the project and that every Soviet citizen would deserve the reward… and the Nobel prize went elsewhere. This concept of collective achievement became one of the main recurring themes of the visual art of Soviet propaganda, designed to give all Soviet citizens a sense of pride and of belonging.4 The sentiment was frequently expressed through many well-known posters, which were widely circulated at the time (see Figure 1.3).
Figure 1.3:

(left) “Glory to the Workers in the Field of Soviet Science and Technology!” designed by Evgeny Soloviev in 1959. (right) “Glory of the Space Heroes – Glory of the Soviet People!” by Boris Berezovsky, 1963.

However, Khrushchev had deprived Sputnik’s creator of the highest honor in the field of science and, of course, Sergei Korolev felt deeply hurt. The price of technological success in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s was to disappear from public view. Korolev’s daughter, Natasha Koroleva , recalled in a book that the veil of secrecy had vexed her father throughout his life: “We are like miners – we work underground,” she recalled him saying. “No-one sees or hears us.[4]

Figure 1.4:

Sergei Korolev , featured on a 1986 stamp.

The man who could pick up the phone to call Nikita Khrushchev and who would ultimately humiliate the mighty United States of America in the early years of the Space Race was condemned to be a faceless nonentity. The rest of the Soviet Union, and the world, would only learn of Korolev’s name following his death in 1966.

Sputnik: The Opening Shot of the Space Race

When he returned from the IAC, Sedov reported back with the details of the announced American Vanguard program. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev  – the genial and mysterious Deus ex Machina of the Soviet space program, with an innate initiative, drive and energy – soon suggested the ambitious project to launch the first artificial satellite to Khrushchev . [5] The Premier was excited about the idea of being able to “overtake America5.”

Korolev had first raised the idea of space exploration with his government as far back as a meeting on April 30, 1955, but nothing had come of it. In an interview, the text of which was published after his death, Korolev recalled: “We had followed closely the reports of preparations going on in the United States of America to launch a sputnik called, significantly, Vanguard . It seemed to some people at the time that it would be the first satellite in space. So, we then reckoned up what we were in a position to do, and we came to the conclusion that we could lift a good 100 kilograms (220 pounds) into orbit. We then put the idea to the Central Committee of the Party, where the reaction was: ‘It’s a very tempting idea. But we shall have to think it over.’ In the summer of 1957, I was summoned to the Central Committee offices. The ‘OK’ had been given. That was how the first Sputnik was born.[6]

Unfortunately, the go-ahead came too late for what Korolev originally had in mind, because Mikhail Tikhonravov ’s satellite, Object-D6, carrying many scientific instruments in the spirit of the IGY, was behind schedule. Now, a desperate race against time would begin. The R-7 rocket7, capable of reaching orbital velocity, was almost ready, even though five out of its first six launch attempts had failed, but the same was not true of the heavy-duty satellite carrying several scientific instruments that Korolev and Tikhonravov were unofficially working on. However, sending any object into orbit would serve the political propaganda goals of the Soviet leadership, as long as it could announce its presence to the whole world. For this reason, and to save as much time as possible, Korolev decided to simplify the Sputnik down to basics, so that it would contain only a radio transmitter with sufficient power for even amateur radio enthusiasts to be able to track it. With the excellent collaboration of the equally brilliant Leonid Voskresensky , Korolev devised the new satellite configuration for an object that would simply be known as ‘P.S.’ (standing for ‘Prosteishy Sputnik ’, or ‘the Simplest Satellite’). The launch was scheduled for October 6, 1957.

Figure 1.5:

Sputnik (meaning ‘traveling companion’ in Russian) was a polished metal sphere with four long antennas. It was about 22 inches (56 cm) in diameter and weighed 184 pounds (83.6 kg), Circling the Earth every 98 minutes, it used a radio beacon that was able to pinpoint spots on the Earth’s surface. Image © NASA-NSSDC

When the program was announced for the 8th IAC, to be hosted in Barcelona, Spain, beginning on October 6, Korolev perceived that the Americans were about to launch their own satellite. He immediately cancelled some last-minute tests and moved up the launch of Sputnik by two days, to October 4.

The successful launch on that date saw the first man-made object accompany the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. The Soviet ‘Sputnik’ transmitted the first signals from orbit. The era of ‘cosmonautics’, as the Soviets called it, was inaugurated, and Sputnik became the first of a series of humiliations for the Americans in the early years of the space program.

Ironically, the great scientific cooperation that was called for to coordinate efforts to understand the mysteries of our world in the spirit of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–58 was precisely what had triggered the political-technological rivalry between the two superpowers. Both were resolutely engaged in demonstrating to their citizens, allies and opponents that theirs was the most technologically advanced and militarily powerful nation. Just as ironically, this momentous launch of the first artificial satellite in history, far from being the result of a well-planned strategy to demonstrate communist superiority over the West, was instead a spur-of-the-moment gamble, driven by the dream of one visionary scientist and iron-willed manager, who pressed the Kremlin to enter into an adventure which nobody desired and for which nobody felt the need.

After the successful completion of Sputnik’s first orbit, Korolev called Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev , who was in the Ukraine on military business, and reported the satellite’s success. But nobody immediately grasped the importance of this event, which would mark a turning point in history. Khrushchev’s son, Sergei, was in the Ukraine alongside his father at the time. He would recall later that they listened to the satellite’s ‘beep-beep’ signal and went to bed. “Sputnik’s launch made the front page of Pravda but without banner headlines or enthusiastic comments,” Sergei Khrushchev said in an interview in 2007. “The story occupied the same amount of space as a report on Zhukov’s visit to Yugoslavia but ran in a less prestigious position on the page. The reason was simple. My father and all the Soviet people thought that Sputnik’s success was natural, and that, step-by-step, we were getting ahead of the Americans. After all, we – not the Americans – had opened the world’s first nuclear power plant; our MiG jets set world records in the ’50s, and the Soviet Tu-104 was the most efficient airliner of its class8. So Sputnik did not surprise us. All of us saw that as just another accomplishment, showing that the Soviet economy and science were on the right track. A lot of popular books had been published in the Soviet Union about future space stations and flights to the Moon and Mars. Space travel seemed quite feasible, and the readers of those books – including me – looked forward to it. We just couldn’t understand why the engineers were taking so long.[1]

The article in Pravda on October 5 was, indeed, positioned modestly in a right-hand column part way down on the first page. Titled routinely ‘TASS Report’, it succinctly detailed the facts of the launch in a few paragraphs, plainly explaining to readers what ‘satellite’ meant. Two days later, Pravda led with a banner headline quoting the global furor.

The unexpected launch of Sputnik had surprised the whole world. It surprised the incredulous Khrushchev , who had only dreamed of success in outpacing the Americans with the satellite, and certainly didn’t expect its powerful effect and the Western consternation in response. It surprised the Soviet military and political leaders, who had always fought against the “useless satellites”, fearing that such ‘toys’ would interfere with the major intercontinental missile projects and slow down the development of the R-7 ICBM. It took them several days to understand the extent of what had happened. It surprised the U.S. experts, who had always believed that this was a competition which the Americans would win hands down and were now disappointed by the perceived ‘missile gap’, when Intelligence reports had always claimed that American missile technology was far more advanced than that of the Soviets. Apparently, it also surprised the Eisenhower Administration, which had so far considered these activities as mere scientific experiments9.

The Soviet satellite was now a nagging irritation in American heads, repeating its incessant ‘beep-beep’ signal – resembling the soundtrack of an early Mickey Mouse movie – and reminding the world of the USSR’s accomplishment. [7] It created a perception of American weakness and a wider sense of insecurity and apprehension.

Pravda also published a description of Sputnik’s orbit and the frequencies of the satellite’s radio transmitters, like a kind of ‘train timetable’, to help people watch and hear it pass. The article failed to mention that the light seen moving across the sky was not the tiny orbiter, whose size meant it was invisible to the naked eye, but was in fact the huge second stage of the booster rocket which was in roughly the same orbit. Other than this article, information remained scarce. No technical details, no name of the location from which it was launched, and no interviews with the people involved.

Figure 1.6:

The impact of Sputnik’s passage over the United States sky caused reactions ranging from amazement and anger to panic. Newspapers gave the times that Sputnik would be passing overhead and instructions on how to locate it in the sky. TV also emphasized the event, as evidenced by the cover shown in Figure 1.7. Postmarked in Summers, Arkansas. (From the collection of Steve Durst, USA)

After Sputnik 1, the world would no longer be the same. Its impact on the United States and on the wider world was enormous and unprecedented. On the morning of October 5, the New York Times printed an unusual three-line head in half-inch capital letters, running full length across the front page (see Figure 1.7). In Great Britain, the London Daily Mirror proclaimed the birth of the “Space Age” in huge headlines. Almost immediately, two new phrases entered the language: ‘pre-Sputnik’ and ‘post-Sputnik’. [8]
Figure 1.7:

Unusual three-line head from the New York Times announcing the flight of Sputnik 1.

The Western world realized that the Soviet success was due to a modified intercontinental ballistic missile, and this was enough to assume Soviet military superiority and their lead in missile technology, as well as speculating apocalyptically on what the Russians might now do with their perceived capability of hitting any chosen target anywhere in the world.

The French daily Le Figaro led with the banner headline “MYTH HAS BECOME REALITY: EARTH’S GRAVITY CONQUERED” and went on to report the “disillusion and bitter reflections of the Americans, (who) have had little experience with humiliation on the technical domain.” [9] In West Germany, a new name was coined for America's still unorbited Vanguard . They called it ‘Spätnik’, spät being the German word for ‘late’. [10] The idea of a Soviet-made object orbiting the skies above continental America terrified ordinary Americans, who feared that, with this kind of technology, the next thing the ‘Ivans’ would be doing would be “dropping nuclear bombs on them like rocks from a highway overpass10.” Building a backyard bomb shelter quickly became a cottage industry.

Western panic over the nuclear threat (covered by the most stringent secrecy, which only served to increase the level of panic) and the collective feeling of being at the mercy of powerful Soviet missiles and the target of direct nuclear attacks, led to that fascinating and, in some ways, worrying chapter of our recent history known as ‘The Space Race.’ As Neil Armstrong called it, “The most elaborate non-military competition in history. It is unlikely that the space race was the diversion which prevented war.” Nevertheless, it was a diversion and provided an outlet to replace the ‘brinkmanship’ of the early 1950s that might well have led to armed conflict. [11] We can say that the ‘Space Race’ sublimated the Cold War and moved the competition between the two superpowers beyond our planet, to a crossroads where technology, armaments, science and fantasy crossed each other11.

Soviet philately and propaganda

The launch of Sputnik initiated a clever new way of using stamps, for propaganda purposes. Once the Soviet Union grasped the importance of what had happened with the launch of Sputnik 1, space exploration became one of the favorite topics in Soviet philately for several years. During the late Fifties and the Sixties, the USSR issued more than 160 stamps with space topics, compared to just five stamps issued during the same period in the USA.

Because of how it is used, the postage stamp is widely circulated and goes from hand to hand and from town to town, reaching the farthest corners and provinces of a country, or indeed the world. The fact that it does not convey an obvious message enhances its peculiar effectiveness and makes it an ideal means for subliminally influencing public opinion. [12]

Philatelic propaganda reaches not only the recipient of the letter, but also everyone who handles that letter, starting with the individual who sends it. The envelope passes through many hands in the different postal offices and goes through many cities – and often through many countries – before reaching its final destination.

Advertising through the use of stamps is now an established practice, an effective and cheap way to spread a message far and wide. At some time, every nation has utilized its stamps to promote domestic products, vacation resorts and cultural achievements, or to advertise its industries.

Unquestionably, one of the key players in this regard was the Soviet Union. Once the Communists came to power, after the 1917 Revolution, they flooded the world with their stamps, almost invariably conveying the Soviet ideology and glorifying, in the most spectacular way, social and political milestones, such as the success of the Five Year Plans, or Soviet industrial achievements, the ideal citizens, workers, peasants and Red soldiers.

Particularly impressive were the stamps issued during WWII, vaunting its military power – especially its air force, infantry and navy – and showing pictures of Soviet forces in action; soldiers throwing grenades, sharpshooters, and planes destroying tanks.

Collectors and experts remark that old Soviet stamps quite often appear unused. Many of them have likely never been on sale in any Soviet post office but were distributed or sold by a special Soviet philatelic agency in Moscow to foreign buyers, as suggested by the high denomination of some of the most attractive stamps. There is no doubt that foreign markets were an important target. We know, for example, that the official commercial agency Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, used duplicates of official Soviet postmarks to produce philatelic commemorative covers that had never been in an actual post office, or were never run through the mail service, for the foreign markets.

During the era of totalitarianism in the USSR (under the rule of Stalin), stamp collectors were looked upon suspiciously because they had too many contacts and knew too much about foreign countries, while philatelic societies (as with any other unofficial community) were considered as potentially counter-revolutionary organizations and enemies of the people. Accordingly, active collectors were often prosecuted and either sent into forced labor or killed, with their collections confiscated and sold to finance the rising Soviet military industry.

In the 1950s, things changed in USSR and a new generation of internal collectors appeared, but the main goal, especially at the beginning of the Cold War, was to influence its dependent Eastern European states, the Warsaw Pact satellites. Russia adopted the stance of having a superior space program – a ‘We’re the best’ approach – that guided 1950s and 1960s propaganda. The USSR adopted the same approach with Western countries, sometimes more successfully as happened in France, always a strong supporter of the Soviet Union.

Soviet philately and liability

Soviet launches were decided and prepared in the strictest secrecy, and this was especially true for the launch of Sputnik 1, the first ever launch into space. Even the Soviet Post Organization were not prepared for the event and it was more than one month later – on November 5, 1957 – before they were able to issue the first set of two Sputnik commemorative stamps featuring the orbit of the satellite. The text, in Cyrillic, read “4 October 1957 – World’s first artificial satellite of Earth.”

One collector then doctored his commemorative cover (see Figure 1.8) by backdating the cancellation, a misuse not unusual in the USSR at that time, in order to have a cover seemingly issued on November 4, 1957, exactly one month after the launch of Sputnik. This of course did not take into account the fact that the stamp had not been officially issued until the following day. The cover was also cancelled in Moscow and not in Tyura-Tam, where the Sputnik was launched from. That was because the secretive site was absolutely unknown at the time and would be kept as a state secret until Gagarin ’s flight in 1961 when, for reasons we will see, it would be named ‘Baikonur’ (see Chapter 2, p. 102 ‘Baikonur and Soviet lies.’)
Figure 1.8:

Fake commemorative cover for Sputnik 1, with a backdated cancellation.

Figure 1.9:

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, featured on a 1957 stamp.

Another commemorative stamp was put in circulation a few weeks later, on November 28, with the Cyrillic text “4/10/57 – World Premiere: The First Soviet Artificial Satellite of Earth” overprinted in black on the 40-Kopek stamp. The stamp had originally been issued back on October 7 (shortly after Sputnik’s launch) in honor of the missile scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Unfortunately, many forged copies of this historic stamp exist on the market.

It is very hard to find covers “cancelled at the exact site and on the exact date” of the launch of a spacecraft – as prescribed by the rules of competitive astrophilately – from the USSR of the Cold War era. At that time, it was a rule to keep every piece of information related to the space program, including launches, absolutely secret until the authorities were certain about the success of the mission. This made it materially impossible to prepare envelopes or cancellations in advance, simply because there was no information available about a flight until it was all over.

The only information available, after the fact, was obtained from the stamps and from official postmarks issued after a considerable delay that gave – often in an emphatic tone – some vague idea of the spacecraft or the rockets and, for propaganda purposes, provided some data on missions, trajectories and so on.

Thus, while commemorative covers that celebrate anniversaries of space events are normally to be avoided in competitive astrophilately, for the early phases of the Soviet space program up to 1975, items that celebrate subsequent recurrences such as the 1000th or 3000th or 10,000th orbit of a satellite are often the only, somewhat belated, witnesses to these first space conquests.

The ‘French ’ fakes. [13]

In retrospect, it has to be said that as far as the early Soviet space program is concerned, there are grounds to be suspicious of any items that fulfil astrophilately rules by bearing the exact date of a specific space event. The secrecy of the Soviet space program and the total unavailability of information made it virtually impossible for collectors to produce covers or cards in time to document the events on the same day that they happened.

Years later , however, that same secrecy and unavailability of information allowed unscrupulous individuals to invent plausible and attractive covers that were supposedly issued by the Soviets as ‘witness’ to the early phases of the Space Race. Thanks to the total lack of official data, nobody at that time would have been able to challenge the authenticity of those suspected forgeries, and therefore they sold successfully for years. Nobody really knows about the origin of those fakes that, in their own way, commemorated the Soviet space program between 1957 and the mid Seventies.

The 1985 catalogue C.O.S.M.O.S. Catalogue des Oblitèrations Spèciale et des Marques Officielles Spatiales (6th Edition) – issued by Lollini, the French dealer of Space Philately – listed 300 of these ‘vintage’ Baikonur-Karaganda covers, as it called them. The number of forged covers continued to grow year after year, and they numbered 397 in the 7th Edition of the same catalogue (1994). The 8th Edition (1998) devoted 18 full-color pages to the “old cancel covers” (from page 299 to page 316), offering 400 quite expensive ‘junk’ covers to naive collectors. At that time, the ‘commemorative’ Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 covers were already sold out and the oldest items available were the covers for Sputnik 3, priced at $833 U.S. each.

It is possible to find a ‘commemorative cover’ for virtually every early Soviet space event, cancelled in the fictitious post office of Baikonur-Karaganda exactly on the day of that event. These covers were made out of an unusual semi-glossy paper, in an unconventional format that was smaller than the typical Soviet covers at the time (165 x 91 mm, which in the Lollini catalogue was named “international format[14]). Everything about them – in particular the postmark – is forged.

Usually such covers carry tirage (printing), which is normally “150” for each cachet (sometimes only “100” or “50”, as much as such figures could be meaningful or reliable), and an individual serial number. On this basis, it is easy to calculate that the family of Baikonur-Karaganda fakes should be quite significant globally and encompass no less than 58,000 items. There isn’t a complete list, however, and it is entirely likely that the total number of such forgeries is actually considerably greater.

Alas, these fake Soviet covers are very prolific and so widely spread that it is hard to find a space collector who doesn’t hold at least one of them in their collection. Paul Bulver noted in his book that he asked for clarification of these covers in 1972. [15] The French dealer replied that he was “absolutely sure that the black cancel with date has been affixed by the local post-office of the town Baikonur.” He added, “I wrote, already several years ago, to the Central Post-Office of Moscow, and they gave me confirmation of this fact,” although when he was asked to provide proof of such a letter, the dealer stated that he had lost it. [16]

It was not until cooperation began between the USSR and the USA during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) that verifiable data began to surface. In particular, it was established that no Baikonur-Karaganda post office had ever existed.

Figure 1.10:

Fake Sputnik 1 commemorative cover with cancellation of Baikonur-Karaganda, on October 4, 1957.

How unlikely it is for a commemorative cover issued for the launch of Sputnik 1, like the one shown in Figure 1.10, to exist is immediately clear when one realizes the degree of absolute secrecy under which the early Soviet space program developed, especially during the first decade. As already mentioned, no collector could know in advance about the launches, nor would anyone be able to prepare commemorative covers in time. Most importantly, nobody could possibly have covers cancelled at the location of the launch since – for many years – the site was treated as a State secret (even though the American U-2 spy planes had pinpointed the R-7 launch pad in June 1957).

The American collector Ray Cartier has referred to a casual encounter which happened during the Pacific 97 meeting between his colleague Les Winick, himself a collector of space memorabilia, and Professor Oleg Vaisberg from Russian Science Academy. [17] Professor Vaisberg revealed that the fakes had been produced in Moscow by Boris Korichev (who passed away in the early 1980s), “who had then sold them to a Frenchman.” I discussed this topic with a renowned expert of Russian fakes, who told me that it was difficult to believe this story. As he explained to me, philately was used in the USSR as a strategic propaganda factor and it is unlikely that a ‘business’ of this size, if it originated in the USSR, would escape the attentions of the KGB. They KGB, who had a special Philatelic Commission and, as everyone knows, kept a very strict control over territory.

The notorious Baikonur-Karaganda postmark exists in two different versions: Type ‘A’ (the most popular one) and Type ‘B’. The main peculiarity of the Type ‘A’ is the ‘α’ below the date, between the date bridge and the external crown. In Type ‘B’, the letter is replaced with a ‘b’ in the same position. The shapes of the letters and digits in the two postmarks are significantly different.

Figure 1.11:

Cover and cancellation for Baikonur-Karaganda fake Type ‘A’ (above) and ‘B’ (below).

An annotation box on page 316 of the previously mentioned Lollini catalogue (1998 edition) noted that the “old cancel” was in use until June 14, 1975, when it was replaced by a “new cancel” (see Figure 1.12). June 14, 1975 was a fictitious date invented for this catalogue.
Figure 1.12:

Annotation from the 1998 Lollini catalogue showing the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Baikonur cancellations.

Everybody is aware that this information is inaccurate, since a Baikonur Post Office didn’t exist before 1975 (and consequently no ‘old’ cancel exists because a Baikonur-Karaganda Post Office has never existed). The Post Office was officially opened only on April 27, 1975, during preparations for the joint Soviet-American ASTP program. Baikonur-Karaganda fake postmarks continued to be produced even well after that date, however.

The fake cover shown in Figure 1.13 ‘commemorates’ the launch of the Space Station Salyut-5 on June 22, 1976, when the official Cosmodrome Baikonur cancel had already been in service for more than a year. Since philately was very popular at that time in the USSR and there still remained little information available to collectors, forged cancelling devices could still be used with some impunity.
Figure 1.13:

Similar fake covers with the forged postmark were also produced to ‘commemorate’ events even after the official Cosmodrome Baikonur cancel had been brought into service in 1975.

For a number of reasons, there is little doubt today that these fakes were issued in Moscow and the expert I spoke to regarding the Cartier story hinted that they could have been produced by somebody close to the KGB’s Philatelic Commission that was strictly controlling this trade.

The French space memorabilia dealer kept these fakes listed in its catalogue for a long time and was still selling them until a few years ago, flooding the European market with fakes.

Both of the fake covers shown in the bottom half of Figures 1.14 are postmarked on March 27, 1968, to ‘commemorate’ the death of Gagarin .
Figure 1.14:

Baikonur-Karaganda fake covers for the flight of Yuri Gagarin (top pair; April 12, 1961 – printing 150) and for his death (lower pair; March 27, 1968 – printing 50).

The bottom-left cover in Figure 1.14 is cancelled with the fancy Baikonur-Karaganda postmark, while the bottom-right cover bears an even fancier “advanced use” of a forged duplicate of the postmark of Cosmodrome Baikonur , which would not be put into service until seven years later (as shown in the annotation from the Lollini Catalogue mentioned in Figure 1.12). One may spot, in the word ‘БАЙКОНУР’ on the second cover, the irregular letters ЙК, which are typical of another well-known fake that had already been reported in specialized books. [18]

The amazing similarity of the cachet of the two covers, their unusual format which is characteristic of the Baikonur-Karaganda fakes, the atypical semi-glossy paper, and the “usual FIRST DAY logo”, strongly suggest that there is some connection between the producer of the two well-known families of forged items. Such similarities are also found in the two covers shown in Figure 1.15.
Figure 1.15:

Fake covers ‘commemorating’ the flights of Soyuz 11 in 1971 (above) and Soyuz 35 in 1980 (below).

Once again, the two covers have the same physical characteristics (glossy paper, ‘international’ format, etc.) and the same cachet to ‘commemorate’, respectively, two different events: the tragic flight of Soyuz-11 in 1971 (postmarked at Baikonur-Karaganda) and the flight of Soyuz-35 in 1980 (postmarked with a fake Baikonur Cosmodrome cancel). The same cachet is used in two different ‘families’ of fakes. One peculiarity of this particular Baikonur-Karaganda cover is the unusual – and unlikely – red postmark.

Each of the two ‘families’ include several similarities. It is not yet clear who produced such covers and when. However, these two items suggest that the same hand is behind them. This still bears further investigation .

Sputnik 2: A Rocket Six Times More Powerful In Four Weeks!

The news about the launch of Sputnik 1 did not surprise the average Soviet citizen. For many years under Stalin, it was drummed into all of them that Soviet science was the most advanced in the world, and that all the major inventions worldwide had been made by Russians, including the lamp, the radio, the airplane, the locomotive, and the steamship. That the first artificial Earth satellite was a Soviet design was just another achievement that was taken for granted, but the average person also knew that the Sputnik would do nothing to improve their poor situation with regard to housing, clothes, food, wages, and other such everyday necessities.

Once Khrushchev realized the extent of the impact that Sputnik 1 had had on Western opinion, however, and that its disruptive, tremendous effect had far exceeded his expectations, he quickly summoned Korolev to his office in the Kremlin, barely three days after the launch of Sputnik 112. Khrushchev ordered the Chief Designer to launch a new satellite a few weeks later, this time to mark the forthcoming 40th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution on November 7. The Premier wanted another spectacular space event. [19]

Working round the clock, Korolev and his team built another spacecraft in less than a month. The result was Sputnik 2, which was launched on November 3, 1957, carrying the first living being in history to go into space: the mongrel dog named Laika. What concerned Western public opinion, however, especially in the United States, was not so much Laika (although animal-lovers the world over protested about the unfortunate dog which had been condemned to death in space), but the weight of Sputnik 2. The new satellite was reported to be six times heavier than the first, coming in at 1,118 pounds (508.3 kg,) compared with the 184 pounds (83.6 kg) of Sputnik 1. This implied that the Soviets had succeeded in constructing a rocket six times more powerful than the first one in the course of just one month.

Actually, as would only be revealed many years later, the second rocket was exactly the same as the launcher of the first Sputnik. The only difference was that on the second flight the Soviets used the “innocent trick” of including the whole of the rocket’s second stage that went into orbit as part of the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. The second stage had also gone into space with the original Sputnik and circled the Earth in roughly the same orbit, but it was not regarded as part of the satellite. [20]

The first two Soviet stamps celebrating Sputnik 2 were issued on December 30, 1957 (followed by two more, issued in the same set in 1958). They featured an allegorical representation of progress, with no allusion to Laika, the dog that travelled with a one-way ticket as, at that time, there was no capability of recovering capsules from space.

Figure 1.16:

Commemorative cover postmarked in Moscow to celebrate Sputnik 2 reaching 2000 orbits around the Earth.

Laika would eventually be depicted in some stamps issued by Soviet satellite states, but they were very slow in marking the event philatelically (with the exception of Romania and Czechoslovakia). [21]

Figure 1.17:

Romanian stamp commemorating the flight of the dog Laika .

During a space conference in Moscow on June 26, 1998, Oleg Gazenko  – one of the leading scientists behind the Soviet animals in space programs and a former director of the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, who had selected and trained Laika – expressed regret for the manner of Laika’s death: “We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.

In fact, this mission was more about the Cold War competition than it was about science. More so than with Sputnik 1, the goal of this new flight was propaganda. The launch of Sputnik 2 was a political decision, overruling the wishes of reluctant scientists who did not feel ready, and the science content was very much a secondary consideration. For example, Sputnik 2 crossed the Van Allen Belts and its simple onboard Geiger counter picked up the radiation, but no-one was assigned to find out what it was. The propaganda effect, however, was brilliant, and the Soviets would try to exploit its impact to highlight their perceived superiority.

Emblematic of this was the card issued by Radio Moscow, depicting the Earth smiling while looking at the two Sputnik satellites circling it (Figure 1.18). The meridian was tilted to show the southern part of the Earth, recalling in some ways the official logo of the IGY program. The accompanying text reminded everyone, in six languages, that “the Soviet Sputnik is the first in the world .
Figure 1.18:

The smiling Earth

A similar design was featured on the postal cancellation which represented the first Soviet special cancel ever issued with a space-related subject. It was used in Moscow on March 21, 1958 to celebrate Sputnik 2 reaching 2000 orbits of the Earth. Below the satellite circling the globe were the three Cyrillic capital letters МГГ, which is the Russian acronym for International Geophysical Year or IGY, again directly recalling the official IGY logo. (see Figure 1.19)
Figure 1.19:

(left) The Soviet cancellation commemorating the 2000 orbits of Sputnik 2. (right) The logo of the IGY

Explorer 1: One Of The Main Discoveries Of The Igy

On July 29, 1955, American President Dwight D . Eisenhower half-heartedly announced – through his press secretary – that as part of the country’s participation in the International Geophysical Year, the United States planned to launch a small, unmanned Earth-orbiting satellite called Vanguard , using the rocket designed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). Nothing much had happened since then.

Suddenly, the USSR had provided an unexpected show of overwhelming technological capability and had opened a new battleground between the two superpowers. American reaction to the perceived Soviet lead was one of distress, and public opinion turned against the Eisenhower Administration. Attempts to respond to the Soviet successes were not helped by internal competition between the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, which diverted resources and energies. Eisenhower’s own attitude to the situation was highly criticized in Congress. The President barely supported the space program, snubbed Soviet achievements and seemed not to understand the reasons for such consternation. One of the loudest voices protesting at Capitol Hill against the Soviet lead in space was Senator Lyndon B. Johnson , the powerful moderate leader of the Democratic majority in the Congress, who proclaimed that “Being first in space means to be first in everything” and “Governing space means governing the world.”

Part of President Eisenhower’s reasoning was that he wanted to keep the military out of the IGY program, which was dedicated to scientific purposes. He wanted to keep the satellite effort separate and distinct from the country’s military missile effort. This was viewed by many as an inadvisable “division of the indivisible.” [22]

On September 20, 1956, the U.S. Army had launched an enhanced Redstone Jupiter-C test missile, known as Juno, from Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral. Juno could have put a satellite into orbit, if Medaris’s13 team had not been ordered by the Pentagon to use a dummy fourth stage loaded with sand instead of a live stage. [23] Eisenhower was reluctant to see the United States being represented by a satellite launched on a rocket built by a former Nazi14.

The launch of the Vanguard , originally scheduled for December 4, was shifted for technical reasons to December 6. It reached barely four feet off the ground before losing thrust and falling back in a tremendous explosion that destroyed the rocket and severely damaged the launch pad. The whole thing was watched by President Eisenhower and followed via live TV, thus showing the American fiasco to the entire world. ‘Vanguard ’ had proven to be an embarrassing choice of name and public opinion once again expressed irritation and anger. The internal rivalries and tensions that had never been soothed flared up again into overheated debate. While the Soviets carefully kept their failures secret (and TIME magazine put Nikita Khrushchev on its cover as “Man of the Year”), America’s troubles made worldwide headlines. Newspapers bitterly derided the U.S. efforts with names like “Flopnik”, “Puffnik”, “Kaputnik” and “Stayputnik” (see Figure 1.20).
Figure 1.20:

Newspaper headlines denouncing the failure of the first U.S. attempt to launch a satellite, Vanguard , in December 1957.

The Vanguard program ground to a halt, and Eisenhower ’s attention and hopes unexpectedly turned towards Wernher Von Braun and the ABMA, the missile agency of the Army, who had continued to work on their Jupiter-C rocket. The missing ingredient was the satellite, for which Von Braun himself contacted William Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Pickering was already designing a satellite together with James Van Allen, a scientist from Iowa State University. By assiduously working together, the ABMA and JPL completed the required modifications to the launcher and built Explorer 1 in only 84 days. The payload capacity that the launcher was able to lift into orbit was quite limited, necessitating drastic reductions to the size and weight of onboard equipment and intensive research into the miniaturization of components. This latter research would lead to the creation of microchips. Explorer 1 was a 13.5 kg cylindrical satellite, carrying scientific instrumentation for monitoring the satellite’s temperature and for studying cosmic rays and micrometeorites.

After a weather delay caused by a sudden tornado, Explorer 1 (officially, 1958 Alpha 1, according to the Harvard designation) was launched from Cape Canaveral on January 31, 1958 at 22:48 Eastern Time, atop the first Juno booster derived – as in the case of Sputnik – from military technology. With both sides having launched satellites that passed over countries all around the globe, the Americans could hardly object to satellites orbiting over their homeland. Neither could the Soviets, who were in a difficult position to raise any such objections. Khrushchev’s efforts to show off Soviet power had coincided with the interests of the American Administration. [24]

As had happened for the previous failed launch of Vanguard , the launch of Explorer 1 had been announced in advance, giving collectors enough time to prepare postal items to document the success. There was no post office at Cape Canaveral at the time, with the closest ones being the civil post office of the nearby Port Canaveral or the military post office at Patrick Air Force Base, which was about 40 miles away.

Figure 1.21:

Postal covers postmarked respectively at Port Canaveral and at the Patrick Air Force Base (with a manuscript annotation by Wernher Von Braun that recalls the exact time of the launch). (From the collection of Steve Durst, USA.)

The Explorer 1 instrumentation package soon began to gather and transmit precious scientific data and continued to do so for four months, until May 23. The satellite discovered, among other things, the zone of energetic charged particles known today as the Van Allen Belts, which protects the Earth’s atmosphere from destruction. This was one of the most important discoveries of the IGY and ironically could have been ‘discovered’ earlier by Sputnik 2 if the onboard science had been properly investigated .

Vanguard 1: The Most Ancient Satellite In Orbit

On February 5, 1958, the pre-announced launch of another Vanguard was also unsuccessful, failing to reach orbit. One month later, on March 5, Explorer 2 was also aborted when the Jupiter-C’s fourth stage failed to fire.

Figure 1.22:

Cover commemorating the launch of Vanguard 1 in March 1958. The satellite is still in orbit to this day.

Finally, on March 17, 1958, the tiny 1.6 kg Vanguard 1 satellite was placed into orbit by the ‘civilian’ three-stage Vanguard launch vehicle. This was the first satellite powered by solar cells (which were directly mounted on its body), a pioneering technology that was far from being as efficient as it is today. The battery transmitter ceased operating in June 1958 when the batteries ran down but the solar-powered transmitter continued to operate until May 1964. The satellite is still in orbit today, making it the oldest man-made object in space, and has an expected lifetime of 240 years.

Maintaining the spirit of internal competition between his Army team and the Navy-backed Vanguard team, Von Braun successfully launched Explorer 3 only nine days later (March 26), the third successful U.S. launch in less than two months .

Sputnik 3: The Emblem Of The Soviet Satellites

The American successes had angered Khrushchev and in one of his more irritable speeches, he had derided the U.S. satellites as “oranges”, underlining the fact that the Soviet Sputniks were much bigger.

Khrushchev ordered Korolev to put something more impressive into orbit, so the Chief Designer moved quickly to finalize the Tikhonravov satellite, Object D. This cone-shaped research laboratory included a large array of instruments for geophysical research that had originally been planned for the first Soviet satellite, Sputnik 1, until the rush to beat the Americans forced Korolev to put together an extemporary solution. Object D, housed within the upper stage of the launch rocket, weighed 1,327 kg and carried 12 scientific instruments. These included: a magnetometer and field-mill electrometer to measure fields in space; four space radiation detectors to study cosmic and solar particle radiation; a mass spectrometer and two pressure gauges to analyze the rarified outer atmosphere; an ion trap to measure plasma; and a piezoelectric microphone to count micrometeorite strikes. Also onboard was an experimental solar battery to power one of the transmitters. Sputnik 3 reached orbit on May 15, 1958. It was the only Soviet satellite launched that year, but it meant that the Soviets had finally succeeded in putting their first truly scientific satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year. Shortly after the launch of the satellite, the famous early space poster “Motherland! You Were the First to Spark a Star of Peace and Progress Above the Earth… Glory to Science, Glory to Labor, Glory to the Soviet System!” was produced by Valentin Viktorov (see Figure 1.23).
Figure 1.23:

Valentin Viktorov’s poster was published in Moscow by the Izogiz photo studio in 1958.

As usual, knowledge of the launch was disclosed only when it was all over, and once again genuine postage covers could not be produced on the day of the launch. Two months later (July 16), a commemorative stamp and corresponding ‘First Day Cover’ were released (Figure 1.24), postmarked in Moscow as the launch site remained a State secret.

Figure 1.24:

‘First Day Cover ’ for the issue of the Soviet stamp commemorating the launch of the Sputnik 3 satellite. The stamp can be seen in more detail on the right.

Over the following months , commemorative covers were prepared with special postmarks to celebrate the 3000th, the 6000th and then the 10,000th orbit (Figure 1.25).

Figure 1.25:

Commemorative covers celebrating, respectively, the 3000th orbit (on the left; cover cancelled in Moscow on December 19, 1958, with a special postmark) and the 10,000th orbit (on the right; cover cancelled with a special postmark in Leningrad on April 4, 1960).

Figure 1.26:

For several years afterwards , the silhouette of Sputnik 3 would remain one of the favorite subjects of greetings cards for the New Year. These images show cards issued in 1958, 1959 and 1975 respectively.

The silhouette of Sputnik 3 would be widely used for many years as a metaphor to represent Soviet satellites. [25] As Soviet censorship would not allow realistic representations of rockets or satellites in order to maintain secrecy about the space program, the stamps of the early Sixties – as well as the annotations and vignettes of the commemorative envelopes – often featured stereotypical propagandistic drawings that referenced the silhouette of Sputnik 3. Sometimes, these were modified to show a more cylindrical body, a more rounded nose, an additional cylindrical collar to the base, or additional radial antennas (Figures 1.27, 1.28 and 1.29).

Figures 1.27 and 1.28:

The silhouette of Sputnik 3 would be widely used for many years as a metaphor to represent Soviet satellites, as realistic representations were not allowed in order to maintain secrecy.

Sputnik 3 ‘French’ Fake

There is a ‘French’ fake available for Sputnik 3, which carries a Baikonur-Karaganda postmark bearing the exact launch date of May 15, 1958 but was produced many years later. The cover has the anomalous format of 16.5 x 9.5 cm, which was unusual for Soviets covers of that time, as was the atypically glossy paper from which it was made. A print run limited to 150 copies was declared, as usual.

Figure 1.30:

A ‘French’ fake cover produced for the mission of Sputnik 3.

Rivalry And Inefficiency In The Soviet Space Program

Contrary to popular perception, the Soviet space program was not managed by a goal-oriented, centralized organization with a systemic management and long-term plan. Sergei Korolev developed the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7 or ‘Semyorka’ (Little Seven), which was never deployed for military operation but was launched, in different configurations, to carry Sputnik, Luna, Molnya, Vostok, Voskhod, and, later, the first Soyuz. While Korolev was referred to as the mysterious, top-secret ‘Chief Designer’, he was not the only designer of missiles in the Soviet Union. When the confusion of the post-Stalin months prompted a major restructuring of advanced technology industries such as nuclear and rocket weapons in 1953, the position of Korolev remained uncertain and he was still trying to overcome the deleterious effects of his ‘rehabilitation’ in prison15. He had been unjustly convicted at the height of Stalin’s purges in 1938 and had been sent to a gulag camp in the far east of Siberia, in the Kolyma River region. Even after joining the Party, he continued to hold ill feelings towards many of the leaders of the old Soviet government. [26]

Korolev’s situation only changed under Khrushchev, who considered him to be at the heart of the successes of the early Soviet ballistic missile program and the one who brought together the abilities and talents of thousands. As former cosmonaut Alexei Leonov recalled in his book, “There was no authority higher. Korolev had the reputation of being a man of the highest integrity but also of being extremely demanding. Everyone around him was on tenterhooks, afraid of making a wrong move and invoking his wrath. He was treated like a god.” [27] Korolev’s biographer described him as “the concretization of the history of our land in one man.[28] But he was not the only one.

Korolev’s main rival under Khrushchev was the highly credited Vladimir N. Chelomey who, as an ‘external specialist’, was ‘supervisor’ of the projects that Korolev had developed during his detention in Siberia. Following his release, Korolev was decorated with the badge of honor for his “contribution to the design and implementation of rocket engines for military aeronautics.” Surprisingly, Chelomey was also decorated, with a superior honor.

Pleased with the liberation of Korolev , Chelomey obtained sanction from Stalin to open his own research institute – named NII 88 – and offered Korolev the position of chief engineer. The newly-freed Korolev declined the offer, unwilling to work under the direction of his former overseer, and his place was instead assigned to Valentin Glushko . Chelomey eventually outmaneuvered his rival during Khruschev’s leadership by hiring the Premier’s son, Sergei. That family link offered a great advantage in a political system in which personal connections were often all-important. With Khruschev’s blessing, Chelomey soon had the biggest project budget of all the bureaus in the USSR and gained access to any secret document concerning German rocketry. He began to expand his research institute, encroaching into what had been Korolev’s domain.

Chelomey soon secured a valuable ally in Glushko , the primary designer of Soviet rocket engines. He had been sent with Korolev to Germany in the aftermath of WWII to study the German V-2 rocket and had subsequently worked with Korolev to develop the strategic R-2 missile and then the R-7 (the first ICBM and satellite launcher), with Glushko’s bureau designing the engines and Korolev’s bureau designing the rockets. But there were long-standing resentments between the two, dating back to the 1930s when the testimony of Glushko  – himself a prisoner – helped to have Korolev sentenced to six years imprisonment in a Siberian correctional labor camp.

Glushko also opposed Korolev’s technical choices, favoring the storable but highly toxic hypergolic propellants over the highly energetic new cryogenic fuels such as liquid hydrogen preferred and chosen by Korolev. The hypergolic chemicals were based on nitric acid and hydrazine and while they were easier to manage, Korolev declined to use them due to their toxicity. Glushko, who would never be able to count on important political support by himself, found a sympathetic ear in Chelomey and took his new, highly efficient RD-253 rocket engine to NII-88, where it was adopted into Chelomey’s series of Universal Rockets (Universalskaya Raketa, or UR.)

Up to this point, Chelomey had designed and developed missiles for military purposes and had no experience with space launchers. On April 29, 1962, however, he was given the go-ahead for this program, with the initial goal being a three-stage space launcher called UR-500K, later to be known as the Proton rocket. This was created simply by taking the UR-500 ICBM first stage and adding a small two-stage UR-200 rocket to the top of it. In 1964, Chelomey was also entrusted by Khrushchev with the preparation of the LK-1, the spacecraft designed for circumnavigation of the Moon.

In early 1954, Khrushchev had already instructed Minister Ustinov to draw up a plan to dilute Korolev’s power and absolute monopoly in the rocket-building business. [29] Ustinov created a new independent group in the Ukraine (OKB-586 Design Bureau), led by Mikhail Yangel , a strict Party man who was another recognized pre-eminent designer of strategic ballistic missiles in the Soviet Union. At the start of the 1950s, Yangel had also been a supervisor of Korolev (at that time, still officially an “enemy of the State”). He would have liked to work with Korolev again, but Chelomey prevented this. Yangel dealt with the development and mass production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and was a pioneer in the use of hypergolic propellants. The office he was to direct would design the R-12 (SS-4 Sandal), R-16 (SS-7 Saddler) and R-36 (SS-9 Scarp) missiles. During the development of the R-16 missile, Yangel barely escaped death in the Nedelin catastrophe16.

In 1962, Yangel designed the R-56 rocket to perform a manned mission to the Moon. The design was to use a cluster of at least four long, pencil-like first and second stages to create a heavy-lift lunar booster. As with Chelomey ’s proposal, the R-56 was intended to use the engines produced by Glushko , including the giant 7,000kN thrust RD-270, which was as powerful as the F-1 rocket used on the American Saturn V first stage. Little is known of Yangel’s proposal, but it was abandoned in 1964 in favor of Chelomey’s R-500 rocket, which was supposed to service an orbital mission around the Moon, and the N-1 (or Nositel-1) rocket of Korolev to be used for the actual landing. Yangel turned his attention to the design of the lunar module LK, the landing craft that was supposed to detach from the Soyuz spacecraft to take cosmonauts to the lunar surface. Following the failure of the N-1 rocket, however, the project to land Soviet cosmonauts on the Moon was at first suspended and then definitively cancelled.

Personal rivalries and the dispersal of resources characterized the management of Soviet space projects and as the years went by, the situation did not improve. Parallel projects were prepared and developed by rival design offices, but that was welcomed, as it allowed the politicians to keep the situation under control according to the old principle “Dīvide et imperā” (divide and rule). Any decisions about what would fly were taken by the Central Committee of the Party, according to the recommendations of the Academy of Sciences.

In an interview released at the beginning of the 1990s, Vasily Mishin (Korolev’s deputy, who replaced him after his death) blamed underinvestment in the space program (only U.S.$4.5 billion compared to Apollo’s U.S.$24 billion) and the lack of cooperation between design bureaus for the Soviet failure to beat the Americans to the Moon. He recalled: “Five hundred organizations were involved in the space industry, referring to 26 ministries and government agencies. Only nine of them were under the direct control of the Military-Industrial Commission. All the others had to be constantly convinced and prodded and there was no government resolution to keep. The assignments given to the organizations were not their specialty and they often failed to fulfill them in time.[30]

The resulting duplication of effort was something that the Soviets could afford even less than the Americans. In the end, failure to control its competing schools of rocket and spacecraft designers, and dispersing efforts and resources, were significant contributing reasons why the USSR – which misjudged American intentions and resources and mobilized its own resources far too late – lost the race to the Moon.

NASA Starts Its Adventure

In parallel to the Soviet situation, there were also internal rivalries and competition in the USA, between the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force. Senator Lyndon Johnson , the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Preparedness Subcommittee (who eventually founded NASA’s largest research center that would ultimately bear his name) was alarmed by the possible loss of technology leadership and the danger to national security. It was Johnson who called upon the space-sceptic President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Democrat-controlled Congress to put aside their differences in order to claw back the Soviet advantage.

In a bipartisan cooperation, Johnson succeeded in having the Space Act (NASA’s founding law) approved by Congress and signed off by Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officially began operating on October 1, 1958, as a civil government administration which directly reported to Congress. It was derived from the staff and research facilities of NACA, the civilian National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

Figure 1.31:

The historic decision of November 4, 1959 is immortalized on an envelope by Clyde J. Sarzin, one of the most active producers of astrophilatelic covers. The cover is signed by Wernher Von Braun , the father of the Saturn project, who became the first NASA Technical Director.

With the establishment of NASA, American space policy was finally consolidated and, for the first time, explicitly affirmed its non-military stance, although military research facilities such as the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, were integrated into the new space agency.

The Redstone and Jupiter missiles remained under the control of the Army, as did all the missile research activities which were strongly linked to military and strategic interests. Since 1957, under the Army, Wernher Von Braun had been working on a new concept of space propulsion using a cluster of relatively small rocket engines to develop a booster with a thrust of 6.7 million Newtons. The project was approved as Juno-5 by the Department of Defense in August 1958, and in February 1959 it was decreed that the project would not have military purposes. The rocket was renamed Saturn. That decree ultimately led to the historic decision taken in November 1959 to transfer the project to the control of NASA, and to transfer Von Braun (who became the NASA Technical Director) and his team, including the ninety scientists who built the V-2 in Germany, to the new agency. Somewhat reluctantly, President Eisenhower approved the funding for the ambitious program.

While NASA stressed the peaceful uses and scientific purposes for such rockets, it was also true that their use in space projects would advance research towards the obvious secondary objective of developing and testing new, more powerful missiles and implementing relevant infrastructures. This was precisely what the Soviets were also doing with their R-7 program.

Figure 1.32:

Commemorative stamp issued by Monaco to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of NASA (signed by Claude Andreotto, the line-engraver and designer of the stamp).

Pioneer And Lunik In A Race To The Moon

The establishment of NASA created new expectations in the States and its main players were now invigorated with a new spirit. The United States Air Force (USAF), whose projects were not favored by Eisenhower , entered into the International Geophysical Year arena – in competition with the Army and the Navy – and launched a probe called Thor-Able 1. The probe, which would retroactively be renamed Pioneer-0, carried a TV camera and other scientific instruments. It was the first launch ever attempted to go beyond Earth orbit, its ambitious goal being a lunar mission to study the surface of the Moon. The mission was also intended to study the lunar far-side, with an innovative TV system using infrared scanning, as well as studying magnetic fields and micrometeorites in both Earth and lunar orbit.

The probe was launched from Cape Canaveral on August 17, 1958, but unfortunately its first stage blew up after just 77 seconds, while it was merely 16 km above the Atlantic Ocean. A month later, on September 23, 1958, the USSR secretly launched Ye-1, its own first ‘lunar rocket’. The missile exploded 93 seconds after lift-off. According to some reports, if Pioneer-0 had launched successfully, then the Soviets would have made their first lunar attempt the following day. They would have launched Ye-1 on a shorter lunar trajectory mapped out by Korolev and Tikhonravov . If all had gone well, the Soviet probe would have reached the Moon before the American one. The Space Race was already on!

Once Korolev , who had been closely following the early preparations in the United States, realized that the American mission had failed, he brought his rocket back to the shed for more careful testing, returning it to the launch pad once again on September 23. Ye-1 was part of a modest Soviet lunar exploration plan – endorsed by the Soviet government in March 1958 – that included four probes. Ye-1 was intended to impact the lunar surface; Ye-2 and Ye-3 were designed to photograph the Moon’s far side; and Ye-4 was intended to be armed with a nuclear bomb to blast the lunar surface. [31]

A specially-modified launcher , Semyorka 8K72, was designed for mission Ye-4, and a full-scale mock-up was built. But when all the first three launches failed and exploded after a few seconds, there was a fear that the probe with the nuclear warhead could fall back to Earth. In addition, nuclear experts had warned that a nuclear explosion on the lunar surface, with its lack of atmosphere, would be difficult to observe. The mission was quietly dropped. Needless to say, all of these missions remained top secret until the Fall of the Wall.

The Americans had a similar plan at about this time. In parallel with the preparations for the Pioneer project, the USAF developed a top-secret plan to detonate a nuclear warhead on the Moon as a display of military might. The documents of the U.S. project remained secret for nearly 45 years, and the existence of Project A119 – euphemistically named “A Study of Lunar Research Flights” – first emerged in 1999 in a biography of U.S. scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan. It was confirmed the following year by Leonard Reiffel, the former NASA executive who had led the project in 1958, with the support of Sagan17. “It was clear,” according to Reiffel, “that the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large that it had to be visible on Earth… I made it clear at the time there would be a huge cost to science of destroying a pristine lunar environment, but the U.S. Air Force were mainly concerned about how the nuclear explosion would play on Earth.

Figure 1.33:

The launch of Pioneer-1 was openly announced, and Collectors had time to prepare commemorative covers for the mission.

On October 11, 1958 , the USAF and the newly-formed NASA attempted another Pioneer mission, under the supervision of Charles F. Hall of the NASA Ames Research Center. Due to a software bug in the upper stage, there was a slight error in the burnout velocity and angle, and the probe – intended to achieve lunar orbit – flew only a ballistic trajectory with a peak altitude of 113,800 km (70,712 miles) before returning to Earth. It did, however, confirm the existence of the Van Allen Belts. This was NASA’s first space mission, just a few days after its formation.

A few hours later on the same day, the Soviets also attempted a repeat mission, launching their Ye-1 No. 2 from Baikonur, intending, as with Ye-1 No.1, to impact on the lunar surface. Korolev was confident that he would beat the Americans to the Moon by a few hours, but the Luna booster exploded 104 seconds into the flight, scattering debris over the steppes of Kazakhstan. The investigation into the crash revealed that vibration had set up oscillations in the boosters. Once again, documents commemorating the failed Soviet mission do not exist due to the policy of secrecy. In contrast, commemorative covers would be produced for the next U.S. missions – Pioneer-2 launched on November 8 and Pioneer-3 launched on December 6, 1958 – even though both failed due to different malfunctions.

Figure 1.34:

Commemorative covers celebrating the launch of Pioneer-2 and Pioneer-3. The elegant Goldcraft Cachet covers were designed by George Goldey, a pioneer space cover maker who used an innovative thermography technique.

On December 18, 1958, America successfully orbited the Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment (SCORE) satellite using an Atlas rocket. This was the world’s first communications satellite as well as the first successful use of the Atlas as a launch vehicle.

Figure 1.35:

Cover commemorating the launch of SCORE , cancelled at the Post Office of Port Canaveral and signed by Brig. Gen. McNabb, who was responsible for operation of the project. (From the collection of Dennis Dillman, USA.)

The “Talking Atlas” as it became known, captured the world’s attention by broadcasting a Christmas message from U.S. President Eisenhower via short wave radio and an onboard tape recorder. While Sputnik had communicated with the world by transmitting simple radio beeps, the SCORE satellite transmitted a human voice from orbit for the first time: “This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space. My message is a simple one: Through this unique means, I convey to you and to all mankind America’s wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere.

The payload weighed 68 kg (150 pounds) and was built into the fairing pods of the last stage of the Atlas missile. The combined weight of the on-orbit package was 3,969 kg (8,750 pounds). Now, the Americans could claim that they had put four tons into orbit.

By the end of 1958, there had been five Soviet launches – four of which had failed – and 17 American launches, of which only seven had been successful. Despite the fact that the Americans had more resources available, they were still having great difficulty in terms of transport capability to space. Ironically, much of their difficulty had derived from their technological superiority. All the launchers were evolutions of missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads. The USA, with the most advanced nuclear technology and lighter bombs, did not therefore need particularly powerful launchers. In contrast, the USSR had bulkier and heavier nuclear devices and thus had to develop more powerful rockets. They would retain this power superiority over the next few years .

Luna 1: The Year Begins With A New Soviet Record

The beginning of 1959 would be a triumph for the Soviet Union, as it accumulated a number of new space records over the United States. On January 2, 1959, the “Cosmic Rocket” (as the Soviet press dubbed what would retroactively be named Luna 1, or Lunik 1 in imitation of Sputnik, after 1963) became the first man-made object to reach escape velocity and overcome Earth’s gravitational force. The following day, some 119,500 km away from Earth, Luna 1 released a large cloud of sodium gas, thus creating the first artificial comet in human history. The cloud, visible for a while over the Indian Ocean and with the brightness of a sixth-magnitude star, allowed astronomers to track the spacecraft. It was another significant propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. The cloud also served as an experiment to investigate the behavior of gas in outer space. During its trip, Luna 1 detected the existence of high energy particles just beyond the Van Allen Belt, which suggested the existence of a solar wind. This would later be confirmed by Luna 2.

Figure 1.36:

Cover and stamps commemorating the mission of Luna 1, the first man-made object to reach escape velocity and leave Earth orbit.

Luna 1 missed its main objective of crashing into the Moon and passed within 5,995 km of the lunar surface on January 4, after 34 hours of flight. It went into a heliocentric orbit, between the orbits of Earth and Mars, and thus became the first man-made object to reach heliocentric orbit and the first artificial satellite in the Sun’s orbit. It was dubbed “the Tenth Planet,” and propaganda art promptly exploited this unplanned ‘success’ (see Figure 1.37).
Figure 1.37:

The success of “the Tenth Planet” (Luna 1) was widely celebrated by Soviet propaganda art. (left) The well-known poster “The Tenth Planet Symbolizes the Victory of Communism!” (1959) by Viktor Ivanov, an important Soviet artist who worked as a political poster designer and won numerous State prizes and international awards. (right) The poster “We are Born to Make a Fairy Tale Come True!” (1960) by Valentin Viktorov (1909-1981).

On April 13, after 100 days, the Soviet Post Administration celebrated Lunik 1, or ‘Solnik’ as it was later nicknamed, with the release of two stamps depicting Earth and the orbits of Lunik 1 (Figure 1.36). Thus, the first late commemorative covers of this mission appeared more than three months after the launch, with the cachet bearing the usual emphatic allegorical representations. This began the Lunik program, the forerunner of Soviet space exploration that would allow the USSR to accumulate several new records.

Luna 2: The First Man-Made Object On The Moon

The Soviets set another new record with the September 12 launch of Luna 2. Two days later, it became the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon, landing east of Mare Imbrium near the craters Aristides, Archimedes and Autolycus on September 14, 1959. Before its impact with the lunar surface, Luna 2 released its own vapor cloud of sodium, which served both as a way of studying the behavior of gas in a vacuum and in zero gravity, and to check the accuracy of the vehicle’s trajectory. The sudden cessation of the signal sent by the probe on September 14 marked the impact of the spacecraft on the Moon. For the first time, an artificial human-made artifact had landed on another celestial body. Thirty minutes later, the third stage of the carrier also arrived on the Moon.

As would happen with subsequent Soviet interplanetary missions, the probe carried two small spheres (see Figure 1.38) whose surfaces were made of identical titanium alloy pentagonal elements, featuring the State Seal of the USSR and the Cyrillic letters СССР СЕНТЯБРЬ 1959 (USSR September 1959). [32]
Figure 1.38:

An example of the titanium alloy spheres carried aboard Luna 2.

It is likely that the spheres were fitted with an explosive charge, designed to be fired from the spacecraft to disperse pentagonal pennants across the lunar landscape as a symbol of Soviet scientific might. However, they most likely vaporized on impact. It was later calculated that they had struck the Moon at a relative velocity of 3.3 km/sec and that the kinetic energy was converted into heat, generating a temperature of almost 11,000 degrees C.

On September 15, 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev presented American President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a replica of the spherical pennant as a gift. That sphere is kept at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. For the next few years, the pennant became the preferred subject of propaganda posters, postcards and commemorative philatelic covers created to celebrate the triumphant success of Luna 2.

Figure 1.39:

Propaganda postcards paying tribute to Luna 2. (left) The poster “42nd October. Glory to the Soviet System of Governance and to the Heroic Soviet People!” by Anatoly Antonchenko (published by Izogiz, Moscow) was created for the 1959 celebration the “Pennant on the Moon” and was chosen as the perfect expression of the success of the October Revolution. (center) The “Pennant on the Moon” is also the main message conveyed by another popular propaganda poster, “In the Name of Peace” (1959) by Iraklii Toidze. This poster was inspired by another well-known poster by the same artist, “The Motherland is Calling!” (July 1941). It features the same female figure, in the same red outfit and headscarf, which was already familiar and recognizable to the Russian citizen from the earlier artwork. (right) The “Pennant on the Moon” was also featured in the “Glory to the Soviet Scientists, Engineers, Technicians and Workers” poster by Mikhail Soloviev. This poster hails the two major Soviet achievements of 1959: the successful Moon probe Luna 2 and the launch of Lenin, the world ’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker ship.

Figure 1.40:

(above) The “Pennant on the Moon” is also featured on the postcard “Glory to Soviet Science” by Viktor Semenovich Klimashin 300,000 copies of which were distributed. Klimashin was a famous and talented Russian watercolor artist who created posters, postcards and stamps. For many years, he designed the covers of the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok. (below) The first anniversary of the launch of Luna 2 was celebrated with a commemorative philatelic cover and a special postmark featuring, once again, the pentagonal “Pennant on the Moon” as well as the orbital track of the Luna 2 probe. The text along the orbit reads: “First anniversary of the launch of the Soviet cosmic rocket to the Moon.” Below the word ‘Moon’ is the identifying mark of the post office that used the postmark, in this case Leningrad. Four different versions of this special cancellation were produced, for the postal facilities of Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk and Moscow.

Figure 1.41:

(left) While simultaneously hailing the latest Soviet achievements in space exploration (the first Moon probe) and in the peaceful use of nuclear energy (the launch of the nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin), the poster “Let There be Peace” by Nikolai Litvinov features a common motif of the Soviet Union’s propaganda, depicting them as peace loving and proclaiming Soviet support for the Peace movement. (right) In another popular poster, the Soviet space achievement of Luna 2 is used to suggest that “Science and Communism are Inseparable” (Anatoly Antonchenko, 1959).

Two Soviet stamps were issued on November 1 , 1959, featuring the trajectory of the probe (Figure 1.42).
Figure 1.42:

Two Soviet stamps depicting the lunar trajectory of the Luna 2 probe.

The “Pennant on the Moon”, the pentagonal USSR Seal, Khrushchev’s glory, became very popular on the commemorative covers and was also used in postal postmarks (Figures 1.39, 1.40 and 1.41). Luna 2’s arrival on the Moon made it the first item of lunar debris. It has been estimated that humankind has so far sent and abandoned approximately 170 tons worth of objects since then, most of which are no longer useful and can be considered lunar garbage.

Luna 3: A New Soviet Triumph

A month after Luna 2 , on October 4, 1959, the second anniversary of the original Sputnik, the Soviets launched the “Automatic Interplanetary Station”, which later became known as Luna 3 (Figure 1.43). This was one of the first real triumphs of space exploration. On October 7, Luna 3 became the first mission ever to photograph the far side of the Moon, sending back to Earth pictures of something no human had ever seen before: the hidden face of the Moon. The 29 shots, taken in about 40 minutes, albeit in low definition, covered approximately 70 percent of the far side, at distances ranging from 63,500 km to 66,700 km above the lunar surface. At the time, the surface was perfectly illuminated by sunlight18.

On October 12, a stamp was issued in Moscow showing the satellite’s trajectory around the Moon. It was accompanied by a ‘First Day Envelope’ which adopted the emphatic standard cachet that had already been used to celebrate Luna 1 .

Figure 1.43:

First day cover and stamp (enlarged on the right) commemorating the Luna 3 mission, the first to photograph the far side of the Moon.

News of the photographs taken by Luna 3 first began to circulate in the press on October 19, but the first images of the lunar far side were not revealed until October 26. An “automatic photographic laboratory” aboard the satellite enabled the film to be developed, fixed, dried and finally scanned with a low-resolution camera for transmission of the images back to Earth. It was some time later before it was revealed that the photos received in the early days were very disappointing due to the low signal strength. In fact, it was not until October 18, after repeated attempts, that the satellite had been able to convey 17 (some say 12) readable images successfully back to Earth – via the tracking stations in the Crimea and Kamchatka. All contact with the probe was lost on October 22, 1959.

The pictures showed a hemisphere completely different to the familiar one, consisting mainly of valleys and mountains, with much smaller and denser craters separated by two ‘seas’. Up to the very end, Eisenhower continued to snub this Russian success, calling it a “stunt.”

A Soviet Academy of Sciences Commission studied the Luna 3 pictures and created the Atlas of the Far Side of the Moon. This Atlas included names for 19 lunar features, seven of which were identified in the design of the stamp issued by the USSR on April 30, 1960. Of the 19 identified lunar features, 15 were craters, which the Soviets named after scientists and other international personalities . [33]

Figure 1.44:

Soviet stamp issued on April 30, 1960 , detailing seven of the 19 features named by the Soviet Academy of Sciences from the images provided by Luna 3.

Six of those individuals were Russian: I.V. Kurchatov (atomic scientist); N.I. Lobachevski (mathematician); M.V. Lomonosov (scientist, astronomer); D.I. Mendeleyev (chemist); A.S. Popov (radio pioneer); and K.E. Tsiolkovsky (spaceflight theorist). When the IAU convened its General Assembly in 1961, 18 of the 19 lunar features and most of the names proposed by the Soviet Union were adopted. The main modification made to the Soviet names was the translation of the feature names from Russian into Latin (as seen in the stamp). For example, “Sea of Moscow” became “Mare Moscoviense”. The one feature whose name was amended was the “Sea of Dreams”, which became the “Mare Ingenii”, with “Ingenii” translating into English as “Cleverness ”.

Figure 1.45:

Numerous commemorative covers were prepared on October 7, 1960, to celebrate the first anniversary of the Luna 3 mission. A special postmark was made available for the event at the Main Post Office in Moscow, as well as Kaliningrad, Kiev, Leningrad and Minsk.

The Luna or Lunik Soviet program began in 1959 and ended in 1976, with 17 successful launches (out of the 24 Luna missions) and 38 failures. The probes that failed to launch or remained in low Earth orbit however were never officially named Luna, but instead were grouped under the ‘Cosmos’ label19.

The Luna program provided the Soviets with many world records, including the first probe on the Moon’s surface, the first orbit with lunar images, the first soft landing, and the first probe to circumnavigate the Moon and return to Earth. A few lunar landing missions (Luna 9, 13 and 22) would eventually be designed to capture images of the lunar surface that could be used to determine the possibilities of landing with human teams .

Luna 3 ‘French’ fake

Figure 1.46:

A ‘French’ fake cover produced to ‘commemorate’ Luna 3.

As with all the main Soviet space missions of the pioneering era, a ‘French’ fake appeared for the Luna 3 mission many years later. In its usual limited edition run of 150 items, it bore the cancellation of the launch site at Baikonur-Karaganda and the exact date of the launch, October 4, 1959. As we know, the launch site remained a secret at that time – and would continue to do so for many years – and, as usual for the Soviets, news about the mission only began to be released after the government authorities were certain of its success. Once again, it would have been impossible for a collector or cachet maker to prepare a cover in time .

Corona : Eye In The Sky

With fear of the threat of an imminent surprise nuclear attack increasing following Soviet propaganda successes in space, the need to uncover what the Soviets were actually doing behind the impenetrable Iron Curtain became more urgent in the United States. After an American U-2 aircraft was shot down in May 1960 and its CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers , had been captured and forced to confess to spying on the Soviet Union, the Paris Summit of the Big Four collapsed as Khrushchev, the first speaker, demanded an apology from the U.S. and Eisenhower refused to do so. The U-2 program was discontinued.

However, in the meantime, in cooperation with the Air Force and private industry, the CIA had developed a better, more secure and more effective space-based reconnaissance system: The Corona program. Corona would incorporate 144 U.S. reconnaissance satellites, equipped with sophisticated imaging systems. They would be launched between 1959 and 1972 to monitor the Soviet bloc countries and China and, above all, to identify missile launch sites and production facilities. Corona camera systems were integrated into an Agena upper stage and launched into polar orbit aboard a Thor booster. Corona satellites, which were launched under the cover name ‘Discoverer’, used an innovative, constant-rotation panoramic camera system, which provided a stable platform that was constantly pointed toward the Earth. The basic camera technology was a breakthrough developed as part of the Genetrix Project. Film was loaded into a recovery capsule and returned to Earth, for air recovery by a USAF C-119 aircraft while the capsule was floating back to Earth under a parachute . [34]

Figure 1.47:

Cover commemorating the test flight of Discoverer 1 , launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on February 28, 1959. ‘Discoverer’ was the cover name of the Corona reconnaissance satellite, officially described as a scientific research program.

Unfortunately, the first Discoverer/Corona test mission was a failure. Discoverer 2 (April 14, 1959) carried a recovery capsule for the first time and was the first satellite to be placed into polar orbit. The main bus performed well, but the recovery capsule was lost. It apparently came down near Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic (Norway), but was never found. Rumors circulated that it had been recovered by the Soviets, but specialists were quite skeptical about this after examining many incorrect details in Russian reports that appeared to describe objects that did not match Discoverer 2. Another reason was that no images were ever made available and experts wondered why the Soviets, who had used and displayed the U-2 wreckage, camera and film to embarrass the Americans publicly, did not do the same with this satellite if they had recovered it.

Between 1959 and 1960, Corona experienced 13 failed mission attempts in succession. The CIA and its partners endured these setbacks and kept persevering through the endless frustration, until their persistence finally paid off. The first successful recovery of Corona film from space (Discoverer 14) occurred on August 18, 1960. The mission yielded 3,000 feet of film and stereoscopic space imagery, covering 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory and including 64 Soviet airfields and 26 new surface-to-air (SAM) sites. Discoverer 14 provided more overhead photographic coverage than all of the U-2 flights over the USSR combined. Reassuringly for the Americans, the new intelligence revealed that the Soviets had greatly exaggerated their military capabilities and that the ‘missile gap’ in fact favored the United States .

Figure 1.48:

The first picture recovered from Discoverer 14 (Corona ) on August 18, 1960, showed the Soviet Mys Shmidta Airport (Мыс Шмидта, also known as Cape Shmidt) with a military airport for bombers in the far north-east of Siberia (north is roughly toward the bottom of the picture). (Credit: SRO, KH-1 Corona).

Over the next 12 years, more than 100 Corona satellites collected 800,000 (unacknowledged) pictures over areas of eastern Europe and Asia (individual images on average covering approximately 100 x 120 miles of the Earth’s surface), enabling the U.S. to monitor all deployed missiles, bombers and fighter forces, sorting them by type and location and providing mapping for Strategic Air Command targeting and bomber routes.

The imagery allowed the Americans to determine the precise locations of Soviet air defense missile batteries, identify those missile batteries located to protect the Suez Canal, and prove the Soviet contribution to the Chinese nuclear program. They also identified the Plesetsk missile test range, north of Moscow, and provided information about which missiles were being developed, tested and deployed. In addition, the missile launching sites of the People’s Republic of China were identified and the Soviet surface and submarine fleets were mapped20.

The entire Corona program was carried out with the utmost secrecy, disguised as a function of the Discoverer research and engineering spacecraft. Even the Discoverer Project staff did not know about Corona. They were unaware that the scientific instruments placed on Discoverer satellites were secretly removed beforehand and replaced by reconnaissance cameras. It was not until President Bill Clinton’s decision to declassify the Corona archives in 1995 that details of the operation became widely known, some 35 years after the event.

The Corona program allowed the United States to accumulate a number of records – undisclosed at the time, of course – including: the first photoreconnaissance satellite; the first satellite in polar orbit (Discoverer 2); the first recovery of an object from space (Discoverer 13); the first mid-air recovery of a vehicle returning from space (Discoverer 14); the first mapping of Earth from space (Discoverer 14); the first stereo-optical data from space; the first multiple reentry vehicles from space; and several others.

The initial reaction by the USSR to the Corona overflights was with formal protests. That attitude soon changed, however, when they began their own Zenit program .

The first document in the history of ‘space mail’

The Discoverer/Corona program is also remembered because it represents the first milestone in the history of ‘space mail’. On November 12, 1960, Discoverer 17 carried 28 letters into space, under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force. The 28 envelopes, shipped from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, contained letters addressed to President Eisenhower , Vice President Richard Nixon , and 26 other high-ranking dignitaries.

Figure 1.49:

One of the 28 letters transported to space aboard Discoverer 17 . (From the collection of Walter Hopferwieser, Austria.)

The letter specified that to reach the recipient, the envelope had traveled over 800 million kilometers, making 17 orbits around the Earth at a speed of 29,000 kilometers per hour. It also emphasized the this was “the first time that letters have been sent by a satellite and is in the tradition of airmen who less than thirty years ago pioneered in the first use of airmail .”

Zenit: The Soviet Corona

Having incorporated over 500 spy satellites in a 33-year period, the Soviet Zenit program (Зенит) flew the largest number of satellites in the history of spaceflight, most of them under the ‘Cosmos’ designation.

Figure 1.50:

Covers commemorating the launches of Cosmos 4 (left) and Cosmos 7, the first two Soviet spy satellites of the Zenit program.

Despite some initial tensions and protests, both superpowers soon realized that spy satellites would become an important stabilizing factor: each of the contenders would be fully aware of the military capabilities of the other. In contrast, anti-satellite systems (ASATs) tested by the USA – including the 12 Bold Orion tests in 1958–59 yielded poor results. In 1961 and 1962, both the USA and the USSR performed several nuclear tests outside the atmosphere, and there were some bizarre proposals such as using nuclear warheads to intercept and destroy satellites. President Eisenhower put a stop to such operations by the U.S., by declaring that the principal uses of space should be peaceful.

Even though they would never be used effectively, the USSR conceived sophisticated programs to intercept and destroy enemy satellites. In March 1961, the OKB-52, headed by Chelomey , developed the fearsome co-orbital ‘Istrebitel Sputnik’ (lit. ‘fighter satellite’), a missile interceptor guided by an onboard radar. This would take between 90 and 200 minutes (one or two orbits) to reach its target and could then explode a warhead in close enough proximity to kill it. The interceptor, which weighed 1,400 kg, could be effective up to one kilometer from its target .

Kennedy: The Space Program Leads To A Winning Presidential Campaign

President Eisenhower ’s term of office drew to a close at a time of heightened tension in America, living with the perceived superiority of the Russians and the fear of an imminent nuclear attack. In the context of growing international fears, John F. Kennedy , the Democrat competitor to the Republican candidate Richard Nixon , cleverly used the first electoral campaign ever dominated by TV to leverage the apparent technological gap in space, and the perception that America was trailing behind, to support the need for space technological innovation in the U.S. He evoked a vision of a “new frontier”, beyond which were “uncharted areas of science and space” to revitalize the American people.

This was a new approach, with space taking on a leading role. Many people began to feel emotionally involved with space programs and the potential threats coming from space, and began to demand the recovery of national prestige. They started to ask questions, avidly began reading books and magazines, and watched the TV reports about space more closely. This quickly evolved into a ‘movement’ to which the politicians had to respond carefully. The space program became an election campaign that successfully brought John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the White House. However, once he had achieved office, President Kennedy realized that the gap between the two superpowers was less significant that he believed and began to push concerns about space to the background.

Within a very short time, space soon pushed to the forefront once again, for two reasons: the need to divert attention away from the failed military attempt to invade the Bay of Pigs and overthrow the increasingly communist government in Cuba led by Fidel Castro; and the need to restore confidence to the nation once more after a new humiliation by the Soviet Union when, on April 12, 1961, they sent the first man into Earth orbit .


  1. 1.

    The same would happen the following year on September 30, 1957, just a week before the launch of Sputnik, when Sergei M. Poloskov, the Soviet speaker at the CSAGI Conference in Washington, announced that the Soviet launch was imminent, but the expression he used could not be literally translated.

  2. 2.

    The name ‘Vanguard ’ reflected American confidence that their satellite would be the first in the world, as Nikita Khrushchev ironically pointed out during his speech for the 40th anniversary of the Revolution, on November 6, 1957.

  3. 3.

    The most objective biography of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev is “Королев. Факты и мифы” (Korolev: fakty i mify – in English “Korolev: Facts and Myths”), issued in 1994 by the Russian writer and journalist Yaroslav Golovanov . Between 1965 and 1966, Golovanov was one of the team of three journalists who were unofficial cosmonaut candidates. The team was disbanded after Korolev’s death. Golovanov became a space correspondent of the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda for almost 30 years and worked on the biography of Korolev by interviewing about 300 people who personally knew him. It is noteworthy that, in 1964, Korolev was able to persuade the Kremlin to let him co-opt trustworthy newspaper reporters into his cosmonaut corps, in the hope that the ensuing publicity would inspire greater support for space exploration. This was decades before NASA realized the public-relations value of sending schoolteachers and senators into space.

  4. 4.

    Visual art took on a very important role during the October proletarian revolution in Russia and the subsequent civil war. Very few newspapers existed in those days, so such posters often replaced the tabloids. Millions of posters were reproduced and circulated, posted on walls in cities and villages, where they were widely accessible to the less literate masses. The simple, emphatic, vibrantly colored designs they depicted were easily understood by everyone, while the short and energetic slogans with powerful propaganda messages that accompanied them stuck in the viewer’s mind as a rallying call for action. Soviet posters continued to keep pace with the times. During the ‘Space Era’, their unique laconic, expressive and straightforward style delivered vigorous and effective slogans, glorifying the Soviet Union’s technological prowess and importance in the world (and in the universe) and focused on the role that the workers played in the Space Race. They helped to inform, educate and instill pride in the average citizen about the achievements of the space program and Mother Russia’s accomplishments.

  5. 5.

    Korolev is often described as a man who favored a cautious, step-by-step approach to space exploration, but who was pressured by Khrushchev into staging space spectaculars to beat the Americans. Although the pressure from the Kremlin should certainly not be underestimated (starting after the launch of Sputnik 1, when Khrushchev realized the propaganda effect of space), Golovanov describes Korolev himself as a man almost obsessed with clinching space firsts. At one point, he even quotes Khrushchev’s son as saying that the Soviet leader was somewhat vexed at Korolev’s excessive urge to set space records. It was Korolev , not Khrushchev, who masterminded, up to a certain point, most of the spectacular space firsts.

  6. 6.

    ‘Object D’ (or D-1) was so named because it would be the fifth type of payload to be carried on an R-7 rocket. Objects A, B, V and G were designations for different nuclear warhead containers.

  7. 7.

    An evolution of the ICBM developed in a forced cooperation with Valentin Glushko , for whom Korolev held a long-standing antipathy.

  8. 8.

    Experts and historians point out that the first nuclear power plant (Chicago Plant-1 or CP-1) was assembled and designed in the USA by Enrico Fermi on December 2, 1942. MiG jets were powered by unlicensed copies of the Rolls-Royce Nene engine which had been supplied by Great Britain. The De Havilland Comet, making its maiden flight in 1949, and the Boeing 707, the first widely-used jet airline, were the movers and shakers, not the Tu-104. The main reason the Tu-104 was the most efficient airliner of its class was because it was the only member of its class, a twin-engine airliner powered by Rolls-Royce Nene clones. ( - accessed in February 2018)

  9. 9.

    The Sputnik crisis depicted President Eisenhower as passive and unconcerned. This led to bitter accusations of complacency and contributed to the election of John F. Kennedy , who emphasized the space gap and the role of the Eisenhower Administration in creating it. According to some historians, however, Eisenhower knew far more than he could publicly admit about the status of the Russian missile programs. On the basis of the secret U-2 surveillance intelligence, he knew that there was no missile gap, and had strategic reasons to support his ‘Open Skies’ policy. (see the following section on “ Explorer I : one of the main discoveries of IGY”, p. 27).

  10. 10.

    On the other hand, the same fear was true for the Soviets. Shannon Lucid reported long conversations she had with Yuri Onufriyenko and Yuri Usachev during her record-setting expedition on the MIR in 1996 and concluded: “After a while we realized we had all grown up with the same fear: an atomic war between our two countries. I had spent my grade school years living in terror of the Soviet Union. We practiced bomb drills in our classes, all of us crouching under our desks, never questioning why. Similarly, Onufriyenko and Usachev had grown up with the knowledge that U.S. bombers or missiles might zero in on their villages. After talking about our childhoods some more, we marveled at what an unlikely scenario had unfolded. Here we were, from countries that were sworn enemies a few years earlier. I was living on a Russian space station, working and socializing with a Russian air force officer and a Russian engineer. Just 10 years ago, such a plot line would have been deemed too implausible for anything but a science-fiction novel.” (Cavallaro [2017] p. 70).

  11. 11.

    As Boris Chertok  – the brilliant engineer who designed most of Korolev’s guidance systems – annotated in his book, the recurring early American humiliation by the USSR in space “served to stimulate the beginning of competition on another plane, in a field that objectively led to the weakening of the positions of Cold War apologists. The historic paradox of cosmonautics was that the achievements of missile technology stimulated confrontation between the two superpowers, while the successes of the piloted space programs based on these achievements promoted rapprochement, cooperation, and a desire to exchange ideas and experience. The flights of our cosmonauts and American astronauts diverted a great deal of resources from weapons technology and did not contribute to meeting military challenges. Each new piloted flight around our shared planet objectively served as a call to unite and to reduce confrontation.” (Chertok [2009], p. 79).

  12. 12.

    Among other things , the Sputnik had the immediate effect of blotting out the memory of recent events in Hungary. The Soviet Army’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian people’s revolt had taken place less than a year before and had had a very serious effect on the Soviet Union’s international prestige. But in some strange way, the Sputnik seemed to reconcile both Western statesmen and Western communist leaders with the Soviet Union. (see Vladimirov 1973], pp. 70-71).

  13. 13.

    General John Bruce Medaris was the U.S. Army officer who was commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) during the 1950s. As such, he was the head and sponsor of Wernher Von Braun , who developed the Redstone, Jupiter-C, and Saturn I boosters there.

  14. 14.

    According to some historians, there was another motivation behind this surface reason, ironically based on military strategy. Eisenhower had intelligence on Soviet intentions and strategic capabilities. In the early Cold War, he authorized the first top-secret high-altitude espionage use of balloons, involving overflights and photographic surveillance of the Soviet Union, as the balloons could reach altitudes unattainable at the time by airplanes. (The final report of Project Genetrix, also known as WS-119L (Weapon System 119L) has recently been declassified as CIA-RDP89B00708R000500040001-0.) The President was aware of the remarkable progress of U.S. rocket technology and was committed to averting nuclear war at a time when the threat was very real.

    As his ‘Open Skies ’ policy proposed at the 1955 Geneva summit meeting (which would allow both sides to conduct mutual inspection of military capabilities over each other’s territory) had been resolutely rejected by Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Eisenhower became much more interested in launching surveillance satellites that could tell American Intelligence where every Soviet missile was located. From the beginning, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had played a key role in early U.S. space policy (see NSC 5520, declassified as CIA-RDP86B01053R000100060039-7), including the development of the U-2 spy plane and spy satellites such as Corona and Samos for surveillance of Soviet military bases.

  15. 15.

    Korolev was one of the last of the major rocketry designers to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A convicted “enemy of the State”, he first had to be formally rehabilitated for his ‘crimes’ of the 1930s. He attended classes on Marxism-Leninism at the Mitishtinskiy Evening University in 1950, finishing his coursework with distinctions. Unable to forget the toils of his past, however, Korolev remained unsure whether to join the ranks of card-carrying communists. In 1952, prompted by several local Party officials at Kaliningrad, Korolev finally decided to begin the application process, formally applying for full Party membership in early June 1953. Despite his worries, as it was by no means certain that a former prisoner would automatically be accepted as a Party member, he was accepted as a candidate member the following month (Siddiqi [2000], p. 160).

  16. 16.

    See Chapter 2, page 79.

  17. 17.

    The project was first revealed in a British newspaper (see: “U.S. Planned One Big Nuclear Blast for Mankind,” Anthony Barnett, The Guardian, May 14, 2000). The news was then spread by American newspapers (see “U.S. Planned Nuclear Blast on the Moon, Physicist Says,” William J. Broad, New York Times, May 16, 2000; and “U.S. Weighed A-Blast on Moon in 1950s,” Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2000).

  18. 18.

    The imaging system was developed by P.F. Bratslavets and I.A. Rosselevich at the Leningrad Scientific Research Institute for Television, using the temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film invented by Kodak for the top-secret American Genetrix Program (previously mentioned – see footnote 14, p. 27). Genetrix was the mid-1950s precursor to spy planes and satellites, and used stratospheric balloons launched from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany and Turkey for overflights and photographic surveillance of the Soviet Union, under the cover of “Meteorological Survey” missions. The Soviets recovered a number of such American photographic films and copied the technology, thus solving the problem they were having with producing a film resistant to cosmic radiation .

  19. 19.

    The ‘Cosmos’ label was a clever umbrella title to use with any ‘inconvenient’ Soviet satellites. Like their American counterparts, the Soviets soon learned that creating scientific cover stories for programs, when they were hardly announcing any results of the missions in public, generated expectations within the scientific community that had the potential to become problematic for the military. To hide their intentions, the Soviets devised the ‘Cosmos’ label for all of their satellites, ranging from spy systems to oceanographic mapping to failed deep-space probes. By the end of the program, the USSR had launched more than 2,400 satellites under the Cosmos designation (see Lies, damned lies, and cover stories, Asif Siddiqi and Dwayne A. Day , in, accessed in February 2018).

  20. 20.

    In the end, it turned out that America had an indisputable nuclear superiority and the Soviets had a mere 25 missiles capable of reaching American soil (Russian experts today put the number as low as four), which would have taken so long to be fueled that they could be caught on the ground if America struck first.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Umberto Cavallaro
    • 1
  1. 1.Italian Astrophilately SocietyVillarbasseItaly

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