July 01, 2020

Soyuz and Apollo Dock in Space



Soyuz and Apollo Dock in Space
Alexei Leonov (left) and Donald Slayton (right) after the linkup. NASA

I grew up amid an atmosphere of euphoria over space flights. It was taken for granted that every Soviet child wanted to grow up to be a cosmonaut. Every rocket launch generated great feelings of community and absolutely genuine excitement (in sharp contrast with the displays of enthusiasm orchestrated by the government on certain occasions). Space flights either brought people out onto the streets or kept them glued to their television screens. We knew all the first cosmonauts by name and face, and we could recite elements of their biographies.

Only much later did I realize that a frantic space race was underway between the Soviet Union and the United States. Sergei Korolyov, director of the Soviet space program, made a huge push to put a human into Earth orbit before the Americans managed this feat. With Yuri Gagarin’s April 1961 flight, Korolyov won that leg of the race by a few months. This was followed by the epic effort to put humans on the moon. As soon as President Kennedy declared in September 1962 that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, it became clear that the rivalry had entered a new stage. Everyone was sure that the USSR would win this round as well. In fact, we were pretty sure our country would consistently come out on top in the Space Race.

In 1935, the children’s writer Sergei Mikhalkov (father of the renowned filmmakers Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovsky), whose writing was always in step with the times, came out with a rhymed story titled Uncle Styopa, about a towering, kindhearted friend to local children who winds up setting off to serve in the navy, where he, of course, turns out to be a model sailor. In 1954, a sequel had Uncle Styopa serving as a policeman. By the sixties, alas, Uncle Styopa was too old for the author to send him off into space, but it turned out that he had a son, Yegor, who, like his father, was a true bogatyr – an oversized, strong, and courageous hero of the sort that populated traditional East Slavic legends. Yegor had been born a whopping eight kilograms (17-plus pounds) and quickly grew into an Olympic champion able to lift 330 kilograms (726 pounds). When asked by journalists about his dreams, he replied: “I want to fly among the stars.” So, after his weightlifting successes, Yegor trains at a “semi-secret base.” Here, Major Yegor Stepanov prepares for the journey to the stars he had been dreaming of. This new story ends with a promise that we would soon hear a report that “Cosmonaut Yegor Stepanov/Sends regards to the moon from Mars.” Sure – soon the Soviet Union would make it not only to the moon, but to Mars.


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