Soviets in Space

I wrote an essay about the Soviet Space Program and its use in propaganda for my Russian History paper. It got an A. Now I’m sharing it. It’s kinda long.


Discuss the Soviet space program in terms of its propaganda value for the Soviet regime

From its inception, the Soviet space program was used by the Soviet regime to show their importance to the world, and their right to be a space faring nation. The Soviet Union was continually fuelled by an insistent drive to one-up the United States of America, home of capitalism and communism’s biggest threat. Throughout the heyday of the space program, the Soviet Union was rewarded with many firsts. They were continually successful, at least according to the Soviet public and the West. Scientific and technological breakthroughs, along with firsts in social equality, in class, gender and race, were all exploited to their full potential. Any failures were quietly hidden away and covered up, and those missions which were successful were portrayed in the most positive light, even if it meant having to be slightly liberal with the truth. All so they could continue to have the support and compliance of the Soviet people, and to gain respect from the West.

 во имя мира = in the name of peace

во имя мира = in the name of peace

The launch of Sputnik in October 1957 came supposedly out of nowhere. Media outlets around the world were full of praise. The New York Times declared Sputnik to be “the greatest deed of Soviet science” and could have only been “achieved by a country with first-rate conditions in a vast area of science and engineering.”[1] Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1953-1964), could not have been more pleased. Through this beachball-sized satellite, the industrialisation of the Soviet Union was now legitmized. Together with the development of the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the superiority of America in both the military and scientific fields was being pulled up for serious questioning.[2] The Soviet Union could now claim that “communism was beating capitalism across the board,”[3] a sentiment that media around the world seemed to echo.[4]

Khrushchev had to keep the praise going. Shortly after, he approached Sergi Korolev, the lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer, wanting to know if there could be another such event in honor of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution (November 7), in order to affirm his position as a world leader of standing. Korolev, somewhat tentatively, suggested they attempt to send a live creature into orbit, in this case, a dog named Laika. He was unsure whether this would work, as animals had previously only been sent as far out as the upper atmosphere, never having encountered prolonged weightlessness. But to be able to do so would surely be a boon in propaganda material, exactly what Khrushchev required.[5] Korolev set about making modifications to the nose cone of the R-7, and Laika was launched out into orbit on November 3. For all intents and purposes the mission was a success, Laika had survived the launch and was having no adverse effects due to the weightlessness. Unfortunately, the cooling system within the cone was unable to moderate the temperature, and Laika died due to overheating several hours into the flight, a fact that was kept in secret for years afterwards.[6] The mission gave Khrushchev everything he needed, in only a matter of weeks, the Soviets had beaten the Americans not just once, but twice. Space research for its own sake was of no interest of Khrushchev. Korolev wanted to use it for its true purpose, scientific exploration of the solar system. Instead, he was forced to fit his missions within Khrushchev’s political agenda.[7] That is why during 1958 to 1961, compared to America’s 56 satellite launches, there were only 12 satellites launched under the Soviet space program, even though repeated missions were needed at each stage of development to confirm and further develop their knowledge.[8] Over the course of the program, however, the Soviet do catch up and then some. By 1989, 3,196 satellites and space vehicles had been launched. Of these, 2,147 were Soviet, 773 American, and 38 Japanese.[9]

Further missions followed Laika, with varying levels of success. A R-7 named Luna 1 was launched on January 2, 1959, becoming the first manmade object to leave the gravitational pull of the Earth completely, though it failed to its objective to crashland onto the Moon.[10] Luna 3 was launched on October 4, 1959, and successfully photographed 70% of the Moon’s surface, including the as then unseen farside of the Moon. The transmission of these images was received by October 18. They showed the most detailed that had ever been acquired of a celestial body.[11] A fault causing the booster engine to explode into flames on July 28, 1960 resulted in two dogs, Chaika and Lisichka, failing to complete their mission. A couple of weeks later on August 19, Belka and Strelka become the first live creatures to successfully return from orbit alive.[12] Shortly after at the meeting of United Nations in October 1960, Khrushchev was heard to boast: “We are turning out rockets like sausages and will soon have a man in space!”[13] And he was right. On April 12, 1961, Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly into space and orbit the earth.[14]

Gagarin was not the last to be in the Soviet Union’s list of first to be used to expand the Soviet propaganda machine. Valentina Tereshkova became the first female cosmonaut to reach space on June 16, 1963.[15] This was 20 years before the Americans, with Sally Ride reaching space as the first American woman on June 18, 1983.[16] The first person of colour and the first person from a country in the Western hemisphere other than America to reach space was Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez in September 1980 as part of the Soviet Intercosmos project, formed to show the desire of the Soviet Union to work together with all “peace loving” states.[17] The first person of colour in America was African-American Guion S Bluford on August 30, 1983.[18] All these ‘firsts’ were purely for propaganda purposes, which was all the regime wanted.[19] It is often interpreted that because the Soviet Union had the first woman in space, that they viewed and treated all genders equally, “The glorious Soviet Union, the land where socialism gave women the same opportunity as men.”[20] However, in reality this was not the case, that is why there was not another woman to reach space through the Soviet program until Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. When Tereshkova approached the program for a second journey, she was “[forbidden] from flying, despite all [of her] protests and arguments.”[21] This dismissive attitude towards women can be seen in her protrayal in public following her mission. Whereas Gagarin was always shown as a hero, Tereshkova had to appear with appropriately styled hair, perfect makeup, and only wearing fashionable suits or dresses. After marrying fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev in a highly publicised ceremony, her climb to fame abruptly halted and she became only a wife and a mother.[22] In order to help the Soviet populace identify with this hero of the Union, great emphasis was placed on Tereshkova’s modest roots. She was raised with her two siblings by their widowed mother, their peasant father having been killed in the war. By showing her as having been nothing more than a worker in a textile factory, it helped her become someone they could identify with. She had been where they were, and look what she had become. The background of Gagarin was shown in much the same way. A son of a Russian peasant who worked a collectivised farm, Gagarin had suffered through German Nazi occupation during World War Two. After completing high school, he became a factory worker before going on to complete tertiary education and becoming a military pilot.[23] Even Laika the dog was shown to be a stray.[24] A modest background was essential for these heroes, to show that Gagarin and Tereshkova were the embodiments of the “epoch of victorious socialism.”[25] For a common, everyday person living in the Soviet Union, it provided an example of how through hard work and commitment to the Union that they too could be plucked from obscurity and achieve greatness.

To ensure the continuing prestige of the Soviet space program, any failures had to be carefully hidden away from both international and domestic media.[26] For the American, all of NASA’s successes and failures were right out in the public eye, on live on television and in print. Anyone who had access to a newspaper or trade journal was able to see detailed information on each of their rockets and spacecraft. Everyone knew that Wernher von Braun was the lead engineer-scientist of the American space program.[27] The Soviet regime, however, was able to maintain their program’s immense propaganda value by revealing very little. The size and configuration of Sputnik remained a mystery for months after the launch, and even then the technical details remained secret.[28] The regime knew it had to continually maintain the focus of the West. As well as using their ‘firsts,’ the Soviet space planners did their absolute best to continually steal the spotlight from NASA. Twice, they lauched two Vostok spacecraft only a day apart. While vehicles could not maneuver in orbit, they did make a show by flying in tandem only five to six kilometers apart.[29] By one-upping the Americans, the most attention was then assured to be on their successes, even if it did leave them open to rumour and spectulation. This is how Gagarin’s flight into outer space took the world completely by surprise.[30] By revealing so little meant they were able garner the most positive propaganda material. They could change their initial objective for a mission, change the actual outcome of the mission, or omit that there was any mission in the first place. An example of changing the initial objective was Luna 1. This was the first spacecraft to successfully leave the gravitational pull of the earth entirely. The objective was for the craft to crash into the moon, “leaving its Soviet signature.”[31] Instead, the control system failed and the target was missed by 3,700 miles, taking up orbit around the sun. This, of course, was declared to have been the plan from the beginning, and a Soviet “planet” was now looking down on America.[32] Laika’s story was changed so the world was unaware for years that she had died painfully only hours into her flight, instead believing that she had died peacefully a week later, after consuming poisoned dog food as intended.[33] The mission of Chaika and Lisichka and its failure was known but never released by TASS (Soviet Press Agency).[34]

One of the biggest secrets was the conflagration disaster at the Baikonur cosmodrome in 1960. The actions taken by authorities on this fateful launch attempt are a fine example of the almost contemptuous attitude taken towards those working on the Soviet space program and the Soviet system in general. The maiden launch of the R-16 rocket was due to take place on October 23, 1960. Problems arose with the new propellant, and after a leak was discovered, the launch was delayed overnight for repairs. With no allowances made for the crew’s safety, they were told to “patch and tighten screws” while the rocket remained fully fueled and highly dangerous.[35] There are conflicting reports as to what happened next. Some say a faulty signal was sent to the rocket, mistakenly igniting the second stage, causing the fuel in the first stage to explode into a giant fireball, engulfing all nearby, including Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin (the military supervisor), who had ordered a stool for him to be placed only 60 feet from the rocket.[36] Others say the booster failed to ignite immediately, only doing so once the crew of engineers were back on the launch pad, along with Nedelin and his delegates.[37] There is a consensus that the fireball was 3,000 degrees Celsius at the centre, so hot that it melted the freshly laid tarseal, trapping like quicksand those who were trying to get away. Nedelin was only able to be identified by his gold star of his Hero of the Soviet Union medal.[38] The official story for Nedelin’s death was reported to be a plane crash. The truth remained secret until 1990, and secret official documents put the death toll at 92. Eyewitness reports put the number to be at least 150 to 165.[39] While it was essential that the Soviet space program had a history, that history had to be only of successes in order to be acceptable. The narratives of this history were determined by both the secrecy and the ideology of the Soviet regime.

For Khrushchev, Sputnik had become a perfect propaganda tool, completely unexpectedly. And for him, that is all the space program was, propaganda. The launch of Sputnik was used as a reboot of the ideology of the Communist Party. Full of promise, it became a symbol of “modernity through technology,”[40] and for many around the world it became the primary symbol of world leadership.[41] The resulting propaganda ensured that broad sections of the Soviet public were aware of the necessity that the space program be realised. The public had to understand that through the program their lives woud improve, not just for the community as a whole, but for each individual as well. It was vital to maintain the world-wide authority of the “first socialist state.”[42] To continue to have the compliance of their Soviet citizens, the regime realised it needed to appear more modern to appeal to the newest generation of socialists. These young people were able to identify with an urban lifestyle closer to that of one they would have in a Western nation. They had not suffered the stuggles Revolution, the Civil war, or the Terrors of the 1930s.[43] This meant that they soon became unhappy with the status quo, always wanting bigger and better. The modernity that flowed from the space program promised a reduction in intrusive state repression and more availability of consumer goods, providing they cooperated and accepted some of the continuing restrictions with regards to availability of information and international travel.[44] The heroic stories of the modest Gagarin and Tereshkova encouraged the people to work as hard as they could for the Union, so that one day, they too could gain glory. The Soviet Union was being shown to be at the very cutting edge of technology, leaders that others could only follow. Their progress in space could be directly translated to human progress.[45] Images of the positive outcomes from having this attitude, including those of Gagarin, Tereshkova, and Laika, were used to help promote the success of the visually intensive propaganda for the Seven-Year-Plan from 1959.[46] After all, photographs are always proof that something actually existed somewhere.

The Soviet space program allowed the regime to acquire the prestige needed to maintain their reputation of strength and their authority throughout the globe, while promoting the Soviet Union and communism’s superiority over capitalism. Their ability to strictly control the flow of information regarding various projects within the program, enabled the Party to win the “battle of images and perceptions,”[47] all the while giving the Soviet people the impression that restrictions placed on them were being loosened. Though the success of Sputnik was indeed a surprise, Khrushchev soon realised he needed to milk it for all it was worth. This was the chance the Soviet Union had been waiting for. Now they had proof that they were worthy of the status of a global superpower. All the work the Party had done since the Revolution was now coming to fruition. Communism was legitimised. Through their use of propaganda, whether enhancing their successes, hiding their failures, or changing the truth to suit their purpose, the Soviet regime was able to engage the Soviet people to push their ambitions even further.

[1] Deborah Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story of Two Rivals and Their Struggle for the Moon(London: Fourth Estate), p. 169.
[2] Eva Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies(Ebook: Palgrave MacMillan), p. 3; David Reynolds, One World Divisible: A Global History since 1945(London: Penguin), p. 171, 251.
[3] Reynolds, One World Divisible, p. 171.
[4] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, p. 168; Michael J Sheehan, The International Politics of Space(New York: Routledge), pp. 21-22, 24.
[5] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, p. 169.
[6] Ibid., pp. 169-70.
[7] Sheehan, Politics of Space, p. 29.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Reynolds, One World Divisible, p. 499.
[10] Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 194.
[11] Ibid., pp. 203-05; Sheehan, Politics of Space, p. 29.
[12] Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 214.
[13] Ibid., p. 215; Reynolds, One World Divisible, p. 174.
[14] Tom D Crouch, Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age(Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press), p. 161/2; Reynolds, One World Divisible, p. 174.
[15] Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 2, 81.
[16] Yvette Smith, “Nasa Offers Condolences to the Passing of Pioneering Astronaut Sally Ride.” NASA. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from:
[17] Andrei Kislyakov, “Russia, Cuba to Implement Joint Space Programs.” Space Daily. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from:; Sheehan, Politics of Space, p. 23.
[18] Jim Wilson, “First African-American in Space Marks 20th Anniversary of Flight.” NASA. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from:
[19] Sheehan, Politics of Space, p. 29.
[20] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, p. 276. Quote; Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 81.
[21] Viktoria Loginova, “No Room for Women in Space, Claim Russians.” ABC Science. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from:
[22] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, p. 276; Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 82.
[23] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, p. 207; Crouch, Aiming for the Stars, p. 168; Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 219.
[24] Soviet Space Culture, p. 219.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Crouch, Aiming for the Stars, p. 166.
[27] Ibid., p. 162.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., p. 182.
[30] Ibid., p. 162; Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 275.
[31] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, p. 194.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., pp. 169-70; Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 2.
[34] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, p. 214.
[35] Ibid., pp. 216-17.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Crouch, Aiming for the Stars, p. 165.
[38] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, pp. 216-17; Crouch, Aiming for the Stars, p. 165.
[39] Cadbury, Space Race: The Untold Story, pp. 216-17; Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 276.
[40] Soviet Space Culture, p. 6.
[41] Ibid.; Sheehan, Politics of Space, p. 21.
[42] Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 140.
[43] Ibid., p. 6.
[44] Ibid., p. 213.
[45] Sheehan, Politics of Space, p. 20.
[46] Maurer et al., Soviet Space Culture, p. 215.
[47] Sheehan, Politics of Space, p. 22.


Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race: The Untold Story of Two Rivals and Their Struggle for the Moon. London: Fourth Estate, 2005.
Crouch, Tom D. Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age. Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1999.
Kislyakov, Andrei. “Russia, Cuba to Implement Joint Space Programs.” Space Daily. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from: (2008, September 23).
Loginova, Viktoria. “No Room for Women in Space, Claim Russians.” ABC Science. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from: (2003, June 18).
Maurer, Eva, Julia Richers, Monica Rüthers, and Carmen Scheide. Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies. Ebook: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.
Reynolds, David. One World Divisible: A Global History since 1945. London: Penguin, 2000.
Sheehan, Michael J. The International Politics of Space. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Smith, Yvette. “Nasa Offers Condolences to the Passing of Pioneering Astronaut Sally Ride.” NASA. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from: (2012, July 23).
Wilson, Jim. “First African-American in Space Marks 20th Anniversary of Flight.” NASA. Retrieved May 29, 2013, from: (2003, August 29).


If you’re reading this anywhere but That Girl, Fae or a feed reader without attribution, it has been STOLEN! Who knew that my stuff was that good? ~ Fae

Creative Commons License
That Girl, Fae by R Simpson-Large aka Fae Teardrop is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 New Zealand License.

2 thoughts on “Soviets in Space

  1. I read this curled up in bed this morning, and it was really interesting (not to mention bloody well written). You definitely deserved that A!

    I learned stuff – so thank you 🙂

    xx Dee

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s