Leaving Earth: Learning Through Failure

People today likely remember Mir and Skylab, but the early Soviet Salyut stations were where much of the real innovation happened. Fires, propellant leaks, repeated docking failures and failures in all sorts of science experiments (particularly attempts at plant growth) characterize much of the early history. Failures in crew relationships were at least as frequent – some crews (generally 2 men for the Salyuts) got along famously, but others quickly got on one another’s nerves and bitterly endured through months of orbital isolation.

Human failure is here too – the toothaches, infections and heart problems of normal life, and then also the worrying problem of loss of bone mass – up to 2 percent a month, in zero gravity. And political failure, which showed up in relationships with ground controllers who seemed to cease caring, in later years, about what were very serious problems in orbit.

The first failures were docking problems, and sadly, the loss of three cosmonauts. Brezhnev gave the go-ahead to the Salyut program apparently to improve international public relationships for the Soviet Union, and so missions were much more public than they had been in the past. Soyuz 10, the first mission to Salyut 1, failed in attempts to dock, and had to return. Soyuz 11, carrying a last-minute crew, successfully docked, and was met by the smell of burning insulation when they opened the hatch. At least half the equipment they’d been asked to work with didn’t work as planned in zero gravity. The three men spent three weeks on the station, dealt with another electrical fire, broadcast to the world from orbit, and managed to magnify a few personality conflicts along the way. And then, in their descent module shortly after leaving the station, a pressure equalization valve opened, and, despite their best efforts, they were dead in minutes.

The US Skylab came next, and it too started in failure – the last launch of a Saturn V rocket – during launch part of the meteor/heat shield was ripped away, destroying one solar panel and tangling another so it could not open, and exposing the workshop enclosure to direct sunlight, raising its temperature to as high as 130 degrees (F). Skylab’s first crew, launched 10 days later, managed to fix essentially all the problems (except for the lost solar panel) through ingenuity and hard work. Follow-on crews learned a lot about living in space – but ironically, the science experiments approved did not include any of the plant-growth experiments the Soviets were so keen on – growing plants in zero gravity was not something US scientists were funded to study, despite the apparent usefulness for long-term living in space.

The Soviet Salyut stations followed one after another; the first really successful one, as described by Zimmerman, being Salyut 6, launched in 1977. They had learned a lot from earlier failures and experiences, and now had a station that could sustain itself for long periods in orbit, with human assistance. Salyut 6 had a fire too – these early experiences with fires in space explain why the later fire on Mir was much more frightening to the American on board, than to the Russians. Salyut 7, which was still orbiting when Mir’s first pieces launched in 1986, suffered a very severe propellant leak that nearly disabled the station; a later crew ripped open the outer shell of the station to get at the various bits of tubing they needed to test and replace, and managed to make the repairs needed over a series of space walks that amounted to more than all previous Soviet space walks combined.

The Russians had learned how to deal with problems in space, how to fix them with their own ingenuity. Since Salyut 1 they have not lost a single person, not even had any severe injuries. There had certainly been some very close calls – the fire on Mir and the later collision of a Progress freighter with the station could have been very serious. But somehow they managed, through luck and ingenuity, to keep things working. As Zimmerman puts it, the station had proved that the technology for going to other planets was available, and buildable. “Provide human beings with the necessary tools and supplies and they can go anywhere.”

The Soviet space program had become, in the new Russia, independent and profit-oriented – driving hard bargains and keeping a technology edge. In the US, in contrast, things had become very rigid, bureaucratic, and “focusless”. In Zimmerman’s phrase, the two “ships passed in the night”: America’s efforts in space now resemble those of the early Soviet Union; astronauts have little freedom to do their own things, with everything prescribed down to the minute. No room for learning, or ingenuity among those who are actually experiencing spaceflight firsthand. Problems and risks are ignored or downplayed by the bureaucracy. Commonsense is thrown out the window. And the Dennis Tito’s are seen as threats, not vindication.

One of the strengths of Zimmerman’s book is the focus on the people – but this also leads to somewhat tedious and repetitive biographies of the many early space station crews. The psychological interactions among the different crews are certainly interesting, as are all the wonderful historical details Zimmerman has dug up. A great book for space history buffs, and anybody interested in the experiences of the first to practice what we’ll need to do to travel between the planets.

3 thoughts on “Leaving Earth: Learning Through Failure”

  1. I couldn’t remember ever hearing about the deaths of the three cosmonauts before this, so I had to google around a bit for more information. It is covered pretty well in a page at the NASA website. Apparently, at the time the bodies were found, the cause of death was not readily apparent (which is not the impression I’ve gotten of decompression from movies like Total Recall, in which Gov. Schwarzenegger’s eyes bug out when he’s exposed to vacuum). People’s first thoughts were of heart failure, due to the extended period of weightlessness or other effects of spaceflight itself!

  2. I was in Germany at the time, visiting relavites – and I was pretty young. So I couldn’t read the account, but I saw the pictures of the three cosmonauts, and my parents described what had happened. I think it was the first time the Soviet Union had ever so publicly admitted to a major mistake. Killing off folks who have been broadcasting on your TV sets for three weeks is pretty dramatic.

    Part of Zimmerman’s thesis is that the openness changes that the civilian space program forced on Russia were a significant part in the path that led from Stalin to Gorbachev and the end of the Soviet Union. It’s an interesting argument – and a perhaps unusual justification for continued spending on cutting-edge, dangerous, failure-prone public projects.

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