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The Space Race

Onetime rivals are now partners. A new exhibition and an IMAX film, Mission to Mir, tell the story

Even over the babel of huge crowds in the National Air and Space Museum I hear an irritating little beep-beep-beep, the sound of Sputnik. That beep and the 1957 newspapers with their big black banners screaming that the Soviets had won the race into space introduce a fascinating new exhibition, "Space Race."

I remember, as an editor on a suburban California daily, watching the stream of wire copy pour out all that day, October 4, as a shocked America tried to understand that we no longer led the world in everything but had been beaten — beaten! — by Communists. I remember when San Francisco columnist Herb Caen soon afterward coined the word "beatnik." And I remember the terrible false rumor that swept the country, about a ham radio operator hearing voices from space, panicked voices speaking Russian, apparently a crew that had been shot out there and couldn't get back and were headed for deep space.

The other day I saw the latest Imax film, Mission to Mir, which is now premiering in 150 theaters around the world. It is a magnificent, stirring tribute to Russian-American cooperation at space station Mir (peace), with cosmonauts and astronauts working together and singing "Moscow Nights" together to guitar accompaniment and all of them cheering for Shannon Lucid after her record 188 days in space.

It is a happy ending to a harrowing story that began back there in '57. Cathleen Lewis, NASM curator of Soviet space history, is taking me through "Space Race," which starts with the German V-2 rockets, the kind used against London in World War II. The Cold War was just starting when, fearing capture by vengeful Russians, rocket specialist Wernher von Braun turned himself in to the Allies in '45, while the Soviets took over the rocket testing facilities at Peenemünde along with some other German scientists.

In the '50s America concentrated on long-range bombers like the B-52 of Dr. Strangelove fame while the Soviets focused their efforts on developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Soviets moved quickly ahead. Sputnik II, just a month after the first one, carried a dog named Laika.

This was a triple shock: not only were they beating us again, but they were going to let the dog die up there! Godless Communists. And, most important, it was becoming clear that they were capable of sending up heavier payloads — like a nuclear warhead.

Before we'd got over that, the Soviets in rapid succession: sent the first probe to the moon and got first-ever photographs of the far side, put the first man in space, and then the first woman, and took the first space walk. It was 1961 before we heard John F. Kennedy even talk about putting a man on the moon.

Through the '60s, the Soviets denied that they were trying to reach the moon, too, but we now know that they intended just that. They built a lunar module almost exactly like ours and a moon suit prototype like ours. Learning of these secret efforts, America redoubled its efforts. Again and again Soviet moon rockets fizzled on the pad at the same time our Apollos were routinely succeeding in their missions. The main reason, Lewis explains, is clear from the models of the rival rockets that stand side by side in the exhibition. The American missile has five gigantic engines; the Soviet one has 30 smaller ones. "They simply couldn't dedicate the resources needed for larger engines, the engineers and industrial infrastructure, the exotic alloys and such," Lewis tells me. Though their N-1 rocket had one-fourth more power than our Saturn 5, the 30 engines could not be synchronized precisely enough.

Among the wonderful historic artifacts in this exhibition are Von Braun's slide rule. And, Lewis gestures, "an almost identical one owned by Sergei Korolev, his opposite number, whose very existence was kept secret by the Soviets till after his death." Good lord, I haven't seen a slide rule in 20 years. The buggy whip of the electronic age. They got those things up into space with slide rules?

Other things I never expected to see on display in the United States:

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