Heroes of the People in Space

Even if you can't remember the space race or the Space Shuttle, books and programs like From the Earth to the Moon capture the excitement of the American triumph. Much less is written (at least in English) about the Soviet space program and the cosmonauts. They were just as brave and just as smart, but they were undercut in many cases by their government as well as technical difficulties. Since much of the history of the Soviet space program remains under wraps, this has given novelists room to roam. Here are five books, some novels, some nonfiction, about the Russian race for the stars.

The recently released First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers is a meditative piece of alternative history in which only the highest-ranking scientists in the Soviet space program know that they are unable to safely return a cosmonaut to earth.This sad fiction is tenable until Khruschev, in a fit of enthusiasm, volunteers his unique-looking dog for orbital duty. Much is said of sacrifice, comraderie, and submitting oneself to the political goals of others.

Viktor Pelevin's Omon Ra takes a decidedly satirical tone with its title character, a cosmonaut who is also to be sent on a one-way trip into space. The Soviet space project is portrayed as a vast propaganda exercise where no sacrifice is too great- for the cosmonauts, that is. Pelevin skewers Russian society and politics, past and present, and the bizarre ending feels oddly appropriate.

In the spare prose of Ascent, Jed Mercurio describes the ultimately tragic life of a fictional cosmonaut. Yefgenii is orphaned in WWII, but escapes the brutal life of a Soviet orphanage by being athletic and good at math, and is inducted into the air force. He flies against the Americans in the Korean War and is recruited for space duty. This is a sad, almost grim book about the human costs of the Cold War.

Kurt Caswell writes not only of space exploration but the bond between man and animal in the nonfiction Laika's Window. Did Soviet engineers make sure Laika, a stray dog and the first earthling in outer space, could see out the window they installed? This is the central question, but the intensity of the space race and the legacy of Laika's training and flight (that is to say, all of manned spaceflight) are also illuminated.  Caswell leaves his readers to draw their own conclusions about the human condition and what we owe our fellow earth-born companions.

Deborah Cadbury centers her book on the Space Race on two extraordinary men: supposedly reformed Nazi Wernher Von Braun and gulag survivor Sergei Korolev. Spanning from Sputnik to the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, these men headed and in some cases personified their respective teams as they captured the imaginations of their countries and their allies. As Cadbury makes clear, the Soviets very nearly won the competition, hampered in part by political repression and lack of funds. Cadbury manages both exhaustive research and enchanting storytelling in this welcome addition to the popular literature on the race for the moon.

Have more stories of Soviet heroes in space? Tell us in the comments.

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