Monday, April 23, 2012

Russian Space Craze of the 1920's

This is a little bit of history that deserves to be acknowledged because it preconditioned  the popular imagination for Russian participation in space long before it was possible.

It is also a reminder that the post revolution era of Russia worked initially for most people.  This was because the government was spending its way into the future by building plenty of infrastructure as China has also been doing.  Economic contradictions had not yet choked the system.  Stalin and Hitler had not yet begun their lethal dance.

There was plenty wrong, but things were getting done including Armand Hammer and his pencil factory.   Thus optimism was a natural outlet of human expression and space was a safe land.  The horrors of Stalin were mostly off stage and generally out  of sight.

So we had a blast of futurist speculation.

The Space Craze That Gripped Russia Nearly 100 Years Ago

By Adam Mann 
April 12, 2012 |  
3:24 pm |  

Newspapers proclaimed that hundreds of starships would soon venture out into the cosmos. People dreamed of moon colonies that were just a few years away. Ordinary citizens organized competitions to build rockets to reach the edge of space.

Welcome to Russia in the 1920s.

America’s fascination with space grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. But the Russians had already beaten us to it a generation earlier, during the world’s first space craze. The entire country seemed to become captivated by the idea of interplanetary travel.

Between 1921 and 1932, Russian media published nearly 250 articles and more than 30 nonfiction books about spaceflight. In contrast, only two nonfiction works on the subject appeared in the U.S during same period. Despite the huge technological hurdles, ordinary Soviet citizens were convinced that routine spaceflight was just around the corner.

“In the 1920s, the line between lunar aspirations and lunacy was often invisible,” wrote historian Asif A. Siddiqi of Fordham University in New York, in a 2008 paper in the science history journal OSIRISdescribing this remarkable period in Russian history.

On the 51st anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to reach space, it’s logical to look back to the famous Space Race between the U.S. and Russia. But the space fad that came before it is in some ways even more interesting.

Russians have long had a spiritual fascination with space. For centuries, the people told parables, folk tales, and myths about space travel. A mystical early-20th century Russian philosophy known asCosmism wanted humans to travel into the universe, recover the ashes of the deceased, resurrect the dead, and settle throughout the cosmos.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution and the end of World War I, the 1920s were a hopeful period for many Soviet citizens. People wanted to come together and help build a utopian socialist society.

The obsession with space travel was born in this climate, beginning in earnest in 1923 following the publication of an article titled “Is Utopia Really Possible?” in the newspaper Izvestiia. The piece focused on two early pioneers of rocketry — the Romanian-German Hermann Oberth and the American Robert Goddard — and their ideas of spaceflight.

This led Russians to rediscover their own homegrown rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who in 1903 produced the first mathematical calculations indicating that spaceflight was possible. Tsiolkovsky’s work was republished in 1924, and sparked many newspaper stories about the imminent rockets and spaceships that would be carrying people into space.

Soviet citizens were convinced that Robert Goddard was planning to launch a rocket to the moon (he had earlier speculated about such a mission, though no real plans existed). Mars was in opposition — coming closer to Earth than it had been in hundreds of years. And Moscow university students formed the world’s first spaceflight advocacy group, the Obshchestva Izucheniia Mezhplanetnykh Soobshchenii (Society for the Study of Interplanetary Communication).

The Society brought together workers, scientists, and inventors to work on ideas for living in space and traveling to other planets. One prominent member, Fridrikh Arturovich Tsander, constructed a lightweight greenhouse intended to supply fresh vegetables to space travelers and worked on a new kind of aircraft engine that could breach the atmosphere.

Like many other Society members, Tsander was a utopian who believed that mankind’s destiny was the stars. He traveled around Russia giving speeches about how “[a]stronomy, more than the other sciences, calls upon man to unite for a longer and happier life,” and that people living on the moon “could probably construct a habitation in which living conditions would be much better than on the Earth.”

The biggest impact the Society had was in bringing the idea of spaceflight to the masses. In May of 1924, they organized a lecture by engineer Mikhail Lapirov-Skoblo called “Interplanetary Communications — How Modern Science and Technology Solves This Question.” (“Interplanetary communications” was then a common phrase for “interplanetary travel.”)

Tickets to the event sold out two days prior and, on the day of the talk, the police had to be called in to control the frenzied mass of people jockeying to attend. The lecture sought to do away with the older, mystical notions of spaceflight and embrace a modern, scientific version. Lapirov-Skoblo ended his speech by calling on the Soviet people to build rocket engines to “transform into reality the centuries-old dream of flight into space.”

Further lectures and debates were held in Leningrad, Kharkov, Ryazan, Tula, Saratov, and elsewhere, disseminating the dream of space exploration all over the country.

Popular media also helped feed the space craze. Aleksei Tolstoi’s best-selling novel Aelita: Zakat Marsa(Aelita: Sunset of Mars), first published in serialized form in 1922–23, told the story of a Russian engineer who travels to Mars and incites a proletarian revolution among the bourgeois Martians. The titular Aelita, queen of Mars, helps the protagonist and later falls in love with him.

A silent movie based on the book came out in 1924. It was preceded by a viral ad campaign in the Russian newspapers Pravda and Kinogazeta: “What is the meaning of mysterious signals received by radio stations around the world? Find out on September 30!” The mob on the movie’s opening night was so large that even the movie’s director, Iakov Protazanov, couldn’t attend.

The film was a success, and featured exotic sets, a glamorous princess, interplanetary travel, and some pretty spectacular special effects for the time. (These days, you can watch it in nine parts on Youtube.)

In 1927, Russian organizers put on the world’s earliest international exhibition on space travel. The fair, named the “World’s First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials,” opened in Moscow, not far from one of the city’s biggest thoroughfares. Between 10,000 and 12,000 attendees visited the fair in over two months. At its entrance, visitors encountered an elaborate display of an imagined planetary landscape behind a large pane of glass.

It featured a hypothetical planet with blue vegetation and orange soil crisscrossed by straight canals. From the sky descended a giant silver rocket, while a space-suited astronaut stood at the edge of a crater. The exhibition’s organizer, Mikhail Popov, said that in entering the fair, he felt as if he had “crossed over the threshold of one epoch to another, into the space [era].”

Visitors, which included schoolchildren, workers, artists, scientists, and poets, wrote their impressions of the exposition in a book of comments. One attendee, reporter S. G. Vortkin, was so caught up in what he saw that he wrote in the fair’s guest book, “I am going to accompany you on the first flight. I am quite serious about this. As soon as I heard what you had done, I tried in every way to make certain that you would take me with you. Please do not refuse my request.”

By the end of the 1920s, the Russian space fad was nearing its end. The Soviet government refused to officially support the Society for the Study of Interplanetary Communication, citing the lack of scientific knowledge among its members.

When people discovered that their dreams of rockets and spaceships were years, if not decades, away, their interest waned. Eventually, widespread poverty and the growing Stalinist purges began to erase the idea from most people’s minds.

But this craze helped plant the seeds of Russia’s eventual early dominance in the space race. The first generation of Soviet space engineers, such as Sergei Korolev and Valentin Glushko, came of age during this time. The rocket designer Vladimir Chelomei named his proposed mission to send people to MarsAelita, after the movie he had watched as a 10 year old.

Though the U.S. frantically played catch-up after the launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961, and eventually placed the first people on the moon, the Russian people had been there long before, if only in their dreams.

Citations: Asif A. Siddiqi, “Imagining the Cosmos: Utopians, Mystics, and the Popular Culture of Spaceflight in Revolutionary Russia,” OSIRIS 2008, 23: 260 – 288 (.pdf)

Images: 1) Stills from the movie Aelita. 2) Robert Goddard at a chalkboard at Clark University in 1924.NASA

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