Where never lark or eagle flew
Now it can be told -- by Pravda. Yuri Gagarin was the first man to survive Russia's attempts to send a man into space.
As 40 years have passed since Gagarin’s flight, new sensational details of this event were disclosed: Gagarin was not the first man to fly to space. Three Soviet pilots died in attempts to conquer space before Gagarin's famous space flight, Mikhail Rudenko, senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office 456 (located in Khimki, in the Moscow region) said on Thursday. According to Rudenko, spacecraft with pilots Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov at the controls were launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome (in the Astrakhan region) in 1957, 1958 and 1959. "All three pilots died during the flights, and their names were never officially published," Rudenko said. He explained that all these pilots took part in so-called sub- orbital flights, i.e., their goal was not to orbit around the earth, which Gagarin later did, but make a parabola-shaped flight. "The cosmonauts were to reach space heights in the highest point of such an orbit and then return to the Earth," Rudenko said. According to his information, Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov were regular test pilots, who had not had any special training, Interfax reports. "Obviously, after such a serious of tragic launches, the project managers decided to cardinally change the program and approach the training of cosmonauts much more seriously in order to create a cosmonaut detachment," Rudenko said.
Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov were brave men. And it is fitting that the curtain, imposed by bureaucrats whose greatest risk was to admit failure, and which shrouded their attempts should be lifted. Being an astronaut in the early days was literally equivalent to riding a million part contraption, all supplied by the lowest bidder. In the case of the three Russians, the parts were supplied by the Russian lowest bidders. Bravery has no greater peak to climb.
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Yes and that, too.
The Soviets had a different engineering philosophy from the West. A friend of mine once described the Russian genius as the ability to make junk work. That didn't mean it wasn't junk; but that didn't mean it didn't work either. There's an interesting book called Commanding the Red Army's Sherman Tanks, by Dmitry Loza, available from Amazon which illustrates the point. It describes the experiences of a Red Army tanker who used US Shermans against Panthers and Tigers on the Eastern Front. I've read quotes taken from the book here and there, but one of the reviewers at the Amazon site highlights the most amazing thing about it. The Soviets thought the world of the Sherman, and thought it could take on the Tiger with proper tactics.
Strangely, Loza has more good things to say about the Sherman tank than Belton Cooper, who wrote Death Traps (which I just read). Cooper thinks the tanks were no match for their German counterparts, Loza argues that used properly, emphasizing speed and maneuverability, they could and did stand up to the Panthers and even Tigers tolerably well.
Another reviewer on the Amazon site writes, "It seems that the author had a high regard for the M-4 Sherman Tank, and this was from a national whose nation's specialty was the design and production of great tanks." The quotes from the book I've read over the Web are probably more revealing about the Russian character than the Sherman tank. Loza recounts, for example, how pairs of Soviet Shermans would take on a Tiger. One Sherman would pot at the Tiger's track. If hit, the Tiger would slew around as one side shed its track, leaving the other Soviet Sherman with a flank shot against the thin side armor. Another ploy the Soviets used was to surprise the Tigers or Panthers at point blank and melee around them. The Sherman's turret power traverse was so much faster than the hand-cranked German turrets. They'd get inside the gun lag and shoot the German armor full of holes. Not unsurprisingly, the Russians appreciated the comfort of the Sherman and what they regarded as its plush interior. I suppose that compared to misery of a T-34, it was the lap of luxury. But Loza's book goes to show how a poor country saw things differently from a country like the USA.
Maybe the Russians didn't think losing three cosmonauts in a row to learn what didn't work was a bad deal, though I'm sure the cosmonauts had a different view. The Sovs valued things differently. That's not to say they were right, but they sure were different.