Most of us living in the West have grown up with the excitement and thrill of the American space programme. How many people alive today have not heard of NASA? The acronym is synonymous with space exploration. The reasons are many, but one of the key factors is that NASA is a non military organization; it needs public support to function. It requires publicity.
In comparison the Soviet Union's space programme was controlled by the military and was shrouded in secrecy. Successful missions were announced, failures often kept classified. One might be surprised then by the number of Soviet achievements; first artificial satellite, first animal in space, first human in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk, first lunar impact, first lunar orbit, first image of the far side of the moon, first lunar soft landing, first robotic rover, first planetary probe, first planetary landing to list a few.
The veil of secrecy surrounding the Soviet space programme was partially lifted with Gorbachev's policy of Glasnost during the 1980's but full disclosure came only with the decline and eventual demise of the Soviet Union in the 1990's. A full account of the Soviet exploration of space has only recently come to light both in the East and West.
`Soviet Robots in the Solar System' tells this story in fine detail. Set against the cold war and the chilling development of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, which produced the rocket technology to enable large payloads to escape Earth's gravity, the book traces the dogged determination of the state and the dreams and ambitions of a select group of its people through the triumphs, the failures and the frustrations of sending machines into space. It is a fascinating insight into the space race seen from the Soviet perspective and is intriguing both in a scientific and historical context.
The book spans the period between the first Soviet lunar attempt in 1958 and their last deep space mission to Mars in 1996, focusing solely on those missions targeting the moon and planets and purposefully excludes Solar and Earth-Moon environment exploration.
Part one sets the scene with an account of the key political and scientific people whose power over funding and academic resources was instrumental in creating the Soviet space programme. The first part goes on to describe the main institutions which would fund, design, build and ultimately launch and track the missions and closes with a detailed look at the spacecraft and the rockets which lifted them, or valiantly attempted to, beyond Earth's atmosphere.
Part two, the main bulk of the book, is broken into campaigns covering a specific time period and objective. The campaigns are chronological in order starting with a failed attempt at a lunar impactor in September 1958. Campaigns are put into political and historical context but the majority of the text is given to the scientific, engineering and technical aspects of each mission. The spacecraft and science experiments they carried out are described in detail and a summary of the results given.
If I was asked to sum this book up in one word it would have to be `detailed'. There is a huge amount of information here which is probably all in one place for the very first time. Apart from the scientific detail the historical side of the book is a revelation and is well worth reading for that reason alone. The Soviet drive for achievement and international recognition, which they deservedly won with Vega in 1985 and lost with the `failure' of Phobos in 1988, along with a desperate need for superiority in space, at any cost, is palpable and runs through the entire book.
An interesting book a great read and a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in the history of space exploration.
Best Astronomy Books,
19th October 2011