race to space

The news that a Soviet VA space capsule is to auction in Brussels on May 7 is hugely exciting for space memorabilia collectors.

To those with a more casual interest in the subject, it may appear less exciting, yet its story may surprise you.

The Soviets developed the VA in the early 1960s, with the intention of using it to land a human on the Moon.

VA space capsule

The VA space capsule

While today we think of the Americans as the undisputed victors of that particular aspect of the space race, in reality events didn’t really play out exactly as they were portrayed in the Western media.

In fact, the Russians were the first to get an object to land on to the surface of the satellite in 1959 (even if it did crash). In 1966, they made their first unmanned soft landing in January with the Luna 9 probe, a full five months before the Americans managed the same with Surveyor 1.

Sputnik was the first man made object in Space

Sputnik was the first satellite to be launched into Space

Add this to the wealth of other Russian firsts (first man in space, first woman in space, first lunar orbit etc) and you begin to understand why the US was so desperate to land a man on the Moon.

This wasn’t just about proving technological superiority. This was ideological.

The most crucial aspect of this narrative is that the Russians were never really committed to manned missions, mainly due to the enormous expense of such a project. A half hearted attempt, begun in 1964, never left the ground, having been floored by a lack of funding.

Had they levelled the entire apparatus and resources of the state at the project, as happened in the US, it’s entirely possible that the first words transmitted from the Moon may have been in Russian. They’d proven that they had the technical ability, they simply lacked the will.

So the VA capsule, designed to ferry passengers to the Moon, was used instead to transport cosmonauts between the first space station (1971) and earth – a feat of equal importance.

If we think of the space race as a relay rather than a series of events building up to the Moon landing, the Russians come out ahead every time.

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