The Little Satellite that Triggered the Space Age

On this day in 1957, the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the first, largest, and most active space port to this day). Thus, began a series of pioneering Soviet firsts—from nonhuman lunar landings to explorations of Venus—that would in turn trigger the Space Race with America culminating in the Moon landings.

60 Years Since Sputnik | Space | Air & Space Magazine

Ironically, despite the centralized and authoritarian nature of the Soviet political system, the U.S.S.R. never developed a single coordinating space agency like NASA. Instead it relied on several competing “design bureaus” led by brilliant and ambitious chief engineers vying to produce the best ideas. In other worlds, these Cold War rivals embraced space exploration with the other side’s philosophy: the Americans were more government centered, while the Russians went with something closer to a free market. (Of course, this oversimplifies things since the U.S. relied and still relies on independent contractors.)

Sergei Korolev - Wikipedia

Hence Sputnik was the product of six different entities, from the Soviet Academy of Science to the Ministry of Defense and even the Ministry of Shipbuilding. The satellite had been proposed and designed by Sergei Korolev, a visionary rocket scientist who also designed its launcher, the R-7, which was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. He is considered the father of modern aeronautics, playing a leading role in launching the first animal and human into space, with plans to land on the Moon before his unexpected death in 1966—three years before the U.S. would achieve that feat (who knows if the Russians would have made it had Korolev lived).

As many of us know, Sputnik’s launch led to the so called “Sputnik crisis”, which triggered panic and even hysteria among Americans, who feared the “free world” was outdone by the communists and that American prestige, leadership, scientific achievement, and even national security were all at stake. (After all, the first ICBM had just been used to launch the satellite and could very well do the same with nukes.)

Surprisingly, neither the Soviet nor American governments put much importance in Sputnik, at least not initially. The Russian response was pretty lowkey, as Sputnik was not intended for propaganda. The official state newspaper devoted only a few paragraphs to it, and the government had kept private its advances in rocketry and space science, which were well ahead of the rest of the world.

The U.S. government response was also surprisingly muted, far more so than the American public. The Eisenhower Administration already knew what was coming due to spy planes and other intelligence. Not only did they try to play it down, but Eisenhower himself was actually pleased that the U.S.S.R., and not the U.S., would be the first to test the waters of this new and uncertain frontier of space law.

But the subsequent shock and concern caught both the Soviet and American governments off guard. The U.S.S.R. soon went all-in with propaganda about Soviet technological expertise, especially as the Western world had long propagandized its superiority over the backward Russians. The U.S. pour money and resources into science and technology, creating not only NASA but DARPA, which is best known for planting the seeds of what would become the Internet. There was a new government-led emphasis on science and technology in American schools, with Congress enacting the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest loans for college tuition to students majoring in math and science.

After the launch of Sputnik, one poll found that one in four Americans thought that Russian sciences and engineering were superior to American; but the following year, this stunningly dropped to one out of ten, as the U.S. began launching its own satellites into space. The U.S.-run GPS system was largely the result of American physicists realizing Sputnik’s potential for allowing objects to be pinpointed from space.

The response to Sputnik was not entirely political, fearful, or worrisome. It was also a source of inspiration for generations of engineers, scientists, and astronauts across the world, even in the rival U.S. Many saw it optimistically as the start of a great new space age. The aeronautic designer Harrison Storms—responsible for the X-15 rocket plane and a head designer for major elements of the Apollo and Saturn V programs—claimed that the launch of Sputnik moved him to think of space as being the next step for America. Astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Deke Slayton, one of the “Mercury Seven” who led early U.S. spaceflights, later wrote of how the sight of Sputnik 1 passing overhead inspired them to pursue their record-breaking new careers.

Who could look back and imagine that this simple, humble little satellite would lead us to where we are today? For all the geopolitical rivalry involved, Sputnik helped usher in tremendous hope, progress, and technological achievement.

Fated for Conflict?

Nearly two centuries ago, a French traveler to America noted that the U.S. and Russia were destined to become great powers, fueled by their own conflicting but similar sense of manifest destiny and exceptionalism.

In many respects, the two countries are foils of each other, with their visions shaped by very different historical and geographic forces.

The U.S. benefited from inheriting a fairly liberal constitutional monarchy (by European standards) and an entire continent to itself, protected by two big oceans and lacking any rival powers in the entire hemisphere. It made experimenting with democracy far easier.

Russia was hemmed in by nomadic tribes and left open to raids and conquests by its flat steppes. Hence the eventual reliance on strongmen who could provide peace and security (such as the Rus Vikings) and the obsession with expanding as far out as possible to create buffers of security. Hence also a more cynical foreign policy, shaped by a history of foreign invasions.

Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in his 1835 treatise, Democracy in America:

There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived … Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

This also goes to show how much geography shapes destiny. It is difficult to imagine we would could have developed a representative political system if we were subject to the constant existential threats that prompted Russia’s embrace of authoritarian security. We already significantly constrain civil liberties over threats much further away or less drastic.

The Nations Founded on Ideas (Purportedly)

By my count, there have only been three countries (possibly four) that claimed to be founded on ideas—rather than a particular religion, culture, or ethnicity—and which believed these ideas were objective, universal, and needed to be spread across the world.

The first and most obvious is probably the United States, for reasons most of us know.

Coming shortly afterward was France, which in some ways took things even further—mostly because it was going up against a thousand years of entrenched monarchical traditions, in a continent full of hostile monarchies. For example, to this day, the French constitution forbids the government from collecting data on race, religion, or national origin to preserve the idea that all people are equal in their status as citizens (and that citizenship is not contingent on such things).

Finally, there the Soviet Union, which tried to forge an entirely new nonethnic identity (Soviet) based around an entirely new idea (communism), upon a society that had previous been deeply religious, multiethnic, and largely feudal. Soviet ideologues even devised the idea of the “New Soviet Person”—someone defined by traits and virtues that transcended nationality, language, etc. We all know how well that turned out.

Of course, all three countries did not live up their ideals in practice, with the Soviets failing altogether. “True” Americans were (and to many people remain) narrowly idealized as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, so that even black Protestants or white Catholics were, in different ways, seen as suspect. Both France and the Soviet Union gave greater privileges to white French and Russian speakers, respectively, etc.

But these are still the only countries that had at least the pretense of being universalist and idealist in their national identity (at least to my mind).

(Switzerland comes close, uniting four different ethnic and linguistic groups, and several religious sects, on the basis of a shared alpine identity and a commitment to constitutional federalism. But it never developed anything close to the manifest destiny of the U.S., the French Republic, and Soviet Russia.)

Whataboutism and Geopolitics

As China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey hypocritically but accurately call out the United States. for its various social and political dysfunctions—usually as a snide counterpoint to whenever we do the same to them—I am reminded of the old Soviet Cold War strategy of “whatboutism“.

In 1947, when William Averell Harriman, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, mentioned “Soviet imperialism” in a speech in Seattle, the official Soviet publication Pravda wasted no time in punching back. To paraphrase its response: “American warmongers want to drop bombs on the Soviet Union because they don’t like its social order, but the Soviet people, though they consider U.S. laws on race to be insulting to human dignity, “do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.”

In short, you want to bomb us for human rights abuses, but by your standard we could just as well do the same to you.

This exchange is indicative of a rhetorical strategy in international relations known as whataboutism, which Olga Kazan explains in the Atlantic “occurs when officials implicated in wrongdoing whip out a counter-example of a similar abuse from the accusing country, with the goal of undermining the legitimacy of the criticism itself. (In Latin, this fallacious rhetorical defense is called tu quoque, or “you, too.”)

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Courtesy of the Altlantic: A cartoon from a 1967 issue of Pravda depicts racial tensions in U.S. cities. Under the Statue of Liberty, armed troops are marching with labels reading, “Newark, Detroit and Milwaukee,” the sites of riots. A caption underneath read, “Shame of America” 

This strategy is also encapsulated by the Soviet / Russian catchphrase, “And you are lynching blacks!” This stems from an old Russian political joke about a dispute between an American and Russian. After receiving criticism of his country because of the deadly 1903 anti-Jewish Kishinev pogrom, the Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve pointed out “The Russian peasants were driven to frenzy. Excited by race and religious hatred, and under the influence of alcohol, they were worse than the people of the Southern States of America when they lynch [blacks]”.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet government continued deflecting from their own sins by highlighting America’s, and we gave them plenty to work with:

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“This guy has an honest, open face”
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To this day, similar strategies are used by America’s rivals to undermine our position while strengthening their own. China went so far as to attack our own bumbled response to COVID-19 (through LEGO blocks no less).

Of course, hypocrisy is not unique to the United States, nor any society for that matter; the “great powers” of the world have always had their skeletons, which are all too easy to expose and criticize given the presumptions that come with being a leader (real or perceived). But pronouncing yourself the greatest country in the world and blustering through every international effort or organization makes your pedestal all the higher to be thrown from.

A Multipolar Post-COVID-19 World?

Russia now has the third highest number of COVID-19 infections after the U.S. and Spain, with Putin reportedly seeing a drop in his usually high approval ratings. (Though the country seems to be faring relatively well otherwise.)

It is interesting how virtually all the major world powers have been brought low by this pandemic. Meanwhile, countries like Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and Greece (among others) have seen their geopolitical stars rise, to varying degrees, from their effective responses.

The first three have become especially more influential, with leaders across the world turning to them for guidance and assistance. Taiwan, which is officially shunned by all but fifteen countries, now has more friends in the world fighting for its inclusion in the international system. Germany’s economic and political policies are seen as the gold standard by rich and poor countries alike.

Obviously, different countries were hit in different ways, and larger nations like the U.S., China, and Russia would ostensibly have a harder time containing an outbreak. But that doesn’t matter: These nations—especially the U.S.—claim to have the superior political model with which to lead the world; they also generally have more resources than smaller countries. Thus, they have raised the standard by which they are judged.

Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been much talk about whether we are entering a “multipolar” world, one in which no country really dominates. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. and China not being the most influential nations, but it’s likely their influence will continue to fall in -relative- terms: Not a decline so much as the rise of everyone else.

But I’m just thinking out loud.

Happy Birthday to Mir

On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first modular space station, the largest spacecraft by mass at that time, and the largest artificial satellite until the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.

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Assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996, the station was the result of efforts to improve upon the Soviet Salyut program, which produced history’s first space station. It served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and spacecraft systems, all with the ultimate goal of preparing humanity for the permanent occupation of space.

Through the “Intercosmos” program, Mir also helped train and host cosmonauts from other countries, including Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, France, Germany, and Canada.

Mir was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days (roughly 10 years), until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It also holds the record for the longest single human spaceflight, with Valeri Polyakov spending 437 days and 18 hours on the station between 1994 and 1995.

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This is all the more remarkable considering that Mir lasted three times longer than planned, and even survived the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed just years after it was launched. The fact that Russia managed to keep it afloat despite its tumultuous post-Soviet transition speaks to both ingenuity and the goodwill of global partners like NASA.

In fact, the U.S. had planned to launch its own rival station, Freedom, while the Soviets were working on Mir-2 as a successor. But both countries faced budget constraints and a lack of political will that ultimately quashed these projects. Instead, the erstwhile rivals came together through the Shuttle–Mir, an 11-mission space program that involved American Space Shuttles visiting Mir, Russian cosmonauts flying on the Shuttle, and an American astronaut flying aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for long range expeditions aboard Mir.

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With various other nations, from Canada to Japan, also cancelling their own space station programs due to budget constraints, Russia and the U.S. soon brought them into the fold to create a new international space station—today the ISS we all know and love.

Thus, by the time the aging Mir was finally cut loose and allowed to deorbit in 2001, the ISS had already begun taking occupants, building upon the old station’s technical, scientific, and political legacy. (In fact, Russia has contributed most portions of the ISS after the U.S., and both its spaceport and its spacecraft serve as the primary—and for many years, only—source of crew and supplies.)

In its detailed tribute to Mir, NASA notes its importance to all of humanity as a milestone for human space exploration:

“The Russian Space Station Mir endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. It outlasted the Soviet Union, that launched it into space. It hosted scores of crewmembers and international visitors. It raised the first crop of wheat to be grown from seed to seed in outer space. It was the scene of joyous reunions, feats of courage, moments of panic, and months of grim determination. It suffered dangerous fires, a nearly catastrophic collision, and darkened periods of out-of-control tumbling.

Mir soared as a symbol of Russia’s past space glories and her potential future as a leader in space. And it served as the stage—history’s highest stage—for the first large-scale, technical partnership between Russia and the United States after a half-century of mutual antagonism.”

Despite all the geopolitical rivalry and grandstanding that motivated incredible breakthroughs like Mir (and for that matter the Moon landing), the value and legacy of these achievements go far beyond whatever small-mindedness spurred them. Wrapped up in all this brinkmanship was—and still is—a vision of progress for all of humanity.

A fun note about the name: The word mir is Russian for “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and has historical significance: When Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom (virtual slavery) in 1861, freeing over 23 million people, mir was used to describe peasant communities that thereafter managed to actually own their land, rather than being tied to the land of their lord.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

How the World Views China, Russia and the U.S.

Researchers at Pew asked populations in different countries about which countries they saw as their biggest allies and threats.

Nearly a quarter of Americans saw Russia as the country’s greatest international threat, which put it on par with China.

One in ten Canadians named Russia as their greatest threat — but one in five said the same about the U.S.

The number of people who see Russia as the greatest threat has decreased as Putin has helped the country achieve more visibility on the international scene. Across 25 nations, 42 percent of people believed that Russia had become more influential globally; more than half of Americans concur.

Of course, this didn’t mean more people seeing Russia more positively: With the exception of India and Turkey — at 15 percent and nine percent, respectively — no more than four percent in any country named Russia as their most dependable ally.

As for China, the majority of people in most countries agree that its influence on the world stage has grown considerably, in particular seeing China as the world’s biggest economic powers alongside the U.S.

But only a median of six percent considered China their most reliable ally, compared with 27 percent who named the US.

Moreover, China is considered a threat by many neighbors: 62 percent of Filipinos, half of Japanese, 40 percent of Australians, 32 percent of South Koreans and 21 percent of Indonesians. Among the last two, the perception of China has worsened, though among the Japanese, it has gotten better.

In Canada, 32 percent of people saw China as a threat, the biggest figure for any state there.

Finally, as for the U.S., things are rosier than one would think. Many countries saw the U.S. as their biggest ally, including China’s neighbors (South Korea at 71 percent, the Philippines at 64 percent and Japan at 63 percent). Unsurprisingly, Israelis are the most enthusiastic in this regard, at 82 percent.

The caveat: Though large numbers of Canadians, Australians, and South Korean saw the U.S. as an ally, many also saw it as a big threat, making the country’s place in the world more polarizing.

Source: TRT World

Alexander Pechersky and the Sobibor Uprising

On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.

Sobibór_extermination_camp_(05b)Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.

As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.

Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber. Continue reading

China and Russia: The New Defenders of the Global Order

As the U.S. loudly retreats from the global stage in favor of insularity and “patriotism”, its principal rivals are more than happy to fill the void with their own vision for a stable and prosperous international system. As PBS reported:

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi denied his country was trying to eclipse the U.S. as a world leader, but his speech at the U.N. General Assembly was a stark contrast to Trump’s “America First” message. It came amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China, which Trump accused this week of interfering in the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. China denies the claim.

Russia is also facing U.S. accusations of election meddling, which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced as “baseless,” but didn’t dwell on.

His country has been working to make itself a counterweight to Washington’s global influence, and Lavrov used his speech to lash out at U.S. policies in Iran, Syria and elsewhere and vigorously defended multilateral organizations such as the U.N.

“Diplomacy and the culture of negotiations and compromise have been increasingly replaced by dictates and unilateral” moves, Lavrov said. In a swipe at U.S. and EU sanctions over Russia’s own activities abroad, he said the Western powers “do not hesitate to use any methods including political blackmail, economic pressure and brute force.”

Lavrov and Wang were hardly the only leaders to defend the concept of multilateralism at this week’s U.N. gathering of presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and other leaders. But coming in the wake of Trump’s proclamation that Americans “reject the ideology of globalism,” the Chinese and Russian speeches sounded a note of rebuttal from competing powers.

Both countries are also walking the walk when it comes to establishing their credibility as proactive and responsible global powers. For instance:

China has been asserting itself on the world stage under President Xi Jinping, though it continually stands by a foreign policy of noninterference in the affairs of other countries. It has long used that policy to rebuke other countries that criticize its record on human rights.

And gesturing at China’s influence in one of the international community’s most pressing issues, he encouraged North Korea — which counts China as its traditional ally and main trading partner — to keep going in “the right direction toward denuclearization.”

At the same time, he said the U.S. should “make timely and positive responses so as to truly meet the DPRK halfway” in their ongoing efforts to reach a deal that would bring an end to the nuclear ambitions of the nation formally called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. China says it has been instrumental in reducing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.

Still, “China will not challenge the United States — still less will China take the place of the United States,” Wang said earlier in the day at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Lavrov, meanwhile, spotlighted Russia’s role in efforts to end the civil war in Syria, where the government counts Russia as its closest ally.

And he said Moscow will do “everything possible” to preserve the multinational 2015 deal deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program, despite the U.S. decision to withdraw from it. Lavrov called the U.S. move a violation of U.N. resolutions and a threat to stability in the Middle East.

Seeking to maintain leverage in discussions on North Korea’s denuclearization efforts, Lavrov met with North Korea’s foreign minister earlier this week on the same day that Ri Yong Ho met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

It is interesting that neither country wants to outright declare itself the next global power, nor frame their respective rise as eclipsing or challenging the U.S. Either this denotes a recognition that America is still a potent power that is not to be openly challenged, or it reflects an acknowledgment that the 21st century is a fragmented place where global power is to diffuse for any single country to be a superpower. Perhaps there is no coherent and cohesive global order to defend, but rather a series of norms that most of the world has accepted for economic or political interest.

What are your thoughts?

The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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