60 years ago, a Space Race was being fought between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. The two countries competed for first: first satellite, first man in space, first woman in space, and the first people on the Moon. Today, space exploration efforts include more than 70 countries with research institutes and space agencies. Like so many technical and scientific advances, only a few of them have real launch capability: NASA in the USA, Roscosmos in Russia, People’s Republic of China’s China National Space Administration (CNSA)and the European Space Agency.
Most people know of the USA’s space history, but the Russian efforts occurred largely in secrecy for many years, even when their launches were public. Only in recent decades has the full story of the country’s space exploration been revealed through detailed books and revelations by former cosmonauts.
Russia’s space efforts started with World War II. At the end of the war, German rockets and rocket parts were captured by both the USA and the USSR. Both countries had dabbled in rocket science before that, but the chance to study and improve upon Germany’s designs was incentive to both countries and they entered the Cold War of the 1950s each striving to outdo the other into space. Not only did the U.S. bring over rockets and rocket parts from Germany, but they also transported a number of German rocket scientists to help with the fledgling National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
The Soviets captured rockets and German scientists, and won the first round in the space race when they put Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957. It was a huge win for Soviet pride and propaganda and a major kick in the pants for the fledgling U.S. space effort. The Soviets followed up with the launch of the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. Then in 1963, they sent Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space and did the first spacewalk, performed by Alexei Leonov in 1965. It looked very much like the Soviets might score the first man to the Moon, too.
The first setback in the Soviet program happened in 1967 when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when the parachute that was supposed to settle his Soyuz 1 capsule gently on the ground failed to open. It was the first in-flight death of a man in space in history and a great embarrassment to the program. Eventually, the good old USA beat the USSR to the Moon, and NASA turned its attention to sending unmanned probes to the Moon and Venus.
The Soviets were then interested in orbiting space stations, particularly after NASA announced its Manned Orbiting Laboratory. When the USA announced Skylab, the Soviets eventually built and launched the Salyut station. In 1971, a crew went to Salyut and spent two weeks working aboard the station. Unfortunately, they died during the return flight.
Later on, the two countries cooperated on a building of the International Space Station in partnership with Japan and the European Space Agency.
But before that, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the USSR closely guarded its technological secrets keen not to let the Americans get the upper hand. So. how did the USSR go about creating propaganda for an industry which is so heavily classified? Posters were the answer.
The 20th century Soviet space program will always be remembered as one of the greatest in the world. And it came with one of the world’s most beautifully designed propaganda campaigns, too.
Here is a current American version, published by NASA in 2016