modest review of the book "The Rocket Men" by Rex Hall and David J. Shayler
The book "The Rocket Men" by
Rex Hall and David J. Shayler was published by Springer-Praxis Verlag in
2001, ISBN 1-85233-391-X.
The subtitle of this book is
"Vostok & Voskhod, The first Soviet manned Spaceflights". For me, this
book reads as a story of my boyhood and adolescence. That is how closely
I followed these events. I lived and breathed the space missions. Reading
about the real story behind Vostok & Voskhod is therefore an intensely
personal experience. "The Rocket Men" is not the only book about this period,
just let me mention Asif Siddiqi's "Challenge to Apollo", but it is the
most complete about these particular flights. So, for us that grew up with
these heroic spaceflights the book reads as a love story.
The book pleasantly combines
information from many sources (including myself) without getting tedious.
The book contains many photographs, both well known and "new". In addition,
Dave Wood's fantastic line drawings give life to the story (see
for example the drawing of the ejection seat leaving Vostok on p.
I can really recommend this book. However, a review is not complete
without mentioning errors, shortcomings and interesting questions raised
by the book. Let me start with errors and shortcomings.
The use of English units is
really irritating. I am surprised that a scientific book published by Springer-Praxis
does not use the SI system and instead reverts to the illogical, antiquated
and impractical English system of units. In this case, the original data
in terms of mass, size and distances were given in metric units and the
conversion to English units destroys the possibility of converting back
to the original data. Of course, one suspects that the book is aimed at
the U.S. book market and the use of English units is a meek surrender by
the publishers to the ridiculous notion that well-educated Americans cannot
understand metric units. I think the authors are innocent in this respect
and this irritating aspect of the book is only that, irritating, and does
not turn the metric reader off.
I think that the book would
have benefited from a note system with source references. It is published
by a science publisher, isn't it?
In the account of the Voskhod-2
dramatic recovery (p.249), the book says that a 46 seconds
delay of retrofire led to a 2000 km overshoot. Pure orbital motion during
46 seconds leads to a 360 km overshoot, not 2000 km.
The picture on p. 124
does not show a biological canister from a high-altitude rocket flight
as the caption says, but rather the ejection seat of Vostok with a dog-cabin
installed. If the picture was taken at the end of an actual flight, the
summer-like weather would point to the recovery of Strelka and Belka on
Early sputniks and Vostok test flights
Sputnik-2 probably was
not intended to separate from the launch vehicle because Sputnik-2 used
the "Tral" telemetry system of the R-7 carrier rocket. (p. 66)
I have always wondered why the
early Vostok test flights had such high orbits. What was the point in flying
KS-2 (Sputnik-5) in same high orbit as KS-1 (Sputnik-4)?
KS-3 (Sputnik-6) had
new system for physiological TM (p.128). Could that have
been the shortwave beacon
system for transmitting heart rate used on the Vostoks? Unfortunately
I do not have access to any recording of the shortwave beacon from Sputnik-6.
Did really the Nedelin disaster
affect the schedule for the manned program? It seems so from various accounts.
Was there any technical reasons behind this, or was it a purely political
consideration - the leadership of the missile/space program felt vulnerable
after a string of failures in the fall of 1960? On p. 137
the book says that the Brezhnev inquiry commission convened after the Nedelin
disaster recommended delaying the manned launch due to the changes necessary
after the 24 October 1960 Nedelin disaster. What changes? The Nedelin disaster
had to do with an entirely different system.
I am not entirely up to speed
on the location of all controlrooms for all early space missions, but I
understand that there was some kind of control center in Moscow for
Gagarin's flight, but was it really called "TsUP" (p. 149)?
Also, I understand that the main mission control was at Tyuaratam, wasn't
Gagarin never said that he was
over "the continental U.S.A." (p.153) He said that he was "flying
over America", which was almost correct. He was approaching the southern
tip of South America.
The book mentions that Vostok-3
HF transmissions were relayed by Soviet fishing trawlers off the US
Eastern seabord (p. 184). Really? I doubt that one
would have entrusted semi-civilian vessels with such an important task.
I can agree is the sentence reads "Soviet converted fishing trawlers".
The Soviet ground system was primitive but not as primitive as the text
seems to convey.
Did the Vostok-4 flight
really end early because of a misunderstanding in using code words (p.
191) (Popovich said he was observing (real) "thunderstorms" and
this happened to be the code word for a desire to be recovered promptly)?
If this was the case it really shows the dangers in using code word so
close to actual flight events. To me the story seems fantastic - but you
never know - reality can sometimes be more fantastic than fantasy!
It is interesting that the launch
date for Tereshkova's flight was detrmined only after Vostok-5 had
entered orbit. (p. 206). I have always been under the impression
that Vostok-6 should have been launched the days after Vostok-5. Any evidence
of that? Also, why were the orbits of the two ships not co-planar as in
the case of Vostok-3/4? Was there a delay during the countdown of Vostok-6
that led to a delay of exactly one orbital period (to make the spacecraft
stay close, but not co-planar)?
I still do not get a clear understanding
as to how badly Tereshkova performed in orbit....! What did she do that
was so offensive? (p.207-209)
There is an interesting account
about how the decision to build a three-seater Voskhod was taken.
Who actually pushed whom to perform this daredevil act? Korolev pushed
Khruschev or Brezhnev pushed Korolev?(p. 222)
Was the retro-fire duration
of Voskhod 1 really only 2 secs long (p. 226)? Wasn't that
the burn time of the back-up engine?
Foton's "Nauka" module
(p.274) is actually an auxiliary battery back if we can believe
the Russian documents published in connection with ESA's use of this space
to Space History Notes