SLEUTHING SOVIET SPACE SECRETS
Foreword to "Almanac of Soviet Manned Space Flight", pp. viii-x
Dennis Newkirk, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, Texas, 1990
Sleuthing the secrets of the Soviet space program has required a strange and rare collection of skills. Whereas NASA overwhelms researchers with a torrent of data, interviews, photographs, and multifaceted minutiae, the Soviets traditionally have attempted to strictly control the space information available to the outside world, so as to establish images that often have little relation to reality. An investigator must conduct a wide-ranging survey, must be able to recognize the significant details that slip past the secrecy, must balance them against sound engineering judgment, and must then assess their significance in the "big picture."
Metaphorically, one is working with scattered pieces to several jigsaw puzzles. Many of the pieces are damaged, and some are counterfeit. Some might belong in different puzzles. Some are faded, folded, stretched by time into new shapes.
Under these circumstances, what hope is there for a reasonably accurate image? Dennis Newkirk is working in the grand tradition of earlier sleuths who have succeeded in laying out the broad outlines of the known, of pinpointing detailed chronologies and technical specifications, and of sketching the boundary of the unknown. Much Soviet data are eventually published, even if in obscure places, sometimes by mistake. Independent Western observers, particularly radio listeners and naked-eye skywatchers, regularly add crucial information. And most important, the technical feasibility of spaceflight engineering (as practiced in other spacefaring nations) gives a touchstone against which competing hypotheses can be evaluated.
The result here is a reliable reconstruction of what seems to have been happening in the Soviet space program, as if the Soviets had never attempted to cover up their embarrassments and politically awkward realities. These days, under the glasnost tide, new official Soviet revelations repeatedly confirm the estimates made by the tenacious sleuths whom Newkirk has joined. This validates old techniques and supports new probes into hitherto impenetrable darknesses.
Why should such an effort even be required? The "game" often appears tedious, trivial, and dead-ended. Years of efforts by dozens of dedicated Western sleuths often condense to a few extra details of one Soviet mission's backup crew, or one unsuccessful precursor test with an ad hoc cover story, or a blueprint of one canceled space prototype. Who benefits from such labors?
Ask any sleuth, ask Dennis Newkirk or myself or our colleagues around the world, and the first answer is personal satisfaction. We climb the mountain of Soviet space secrecy "because it is there." They are trying to hide things; our human reaction is to want to expose these things. And our successes have been considerable, as this book clearly details.
Moreover, eventual Soviet admissions have been prodded by Western revelations, and merely waiting patiently would be in vain without the pressure of publication. By making many things secret, the Soviets have made them even more "juicy" for the Western news media, and this has guaranteed widespread publication of the very thing the Soviets would like to withhold. Recent developments show considerable maturity in Moscow, and current (if only temporary?) trends are to be more candid about current activities, about a portion of planned missions, and about selected chapters of the past. But the underlying cause of much of today's glasnost is the bitter lesson that such secrets will sooner or later be dug out by Western space sleuths anyway. Today's Soviet honesty is a tribute to the failure of their past policies of dishonesty, and that failure was brought about by conscious actions of the Western sleuths.
Another reason is that history requires a contemporary analysis of events. Future generations will have neither the knowledge of the environment, nor the access to all printed and verbal material, nor the accumulated wisdom of today's sleuths. Centuries from now, when the names of sports heroes, actors, preachers, even presidents, and yes; of countries, too, are all forgotten, the human activity for which this century will be known will be the breakout into space. For those scholars in unknown, unborn languages, our finest bequest -- besides the very fact of spaceflight -- will be our documentation of how it was done.
There are benefits to our own generation as well. An appreciation of how the Soviets conduct their manned space program has value to the American manned space program, both to learn techniques of advantage and to identify blind avenues to be avoided. The Soviets are putting the best of their aerospace industry into spaceflight, so any assessment of their space activities is automatically a measure of their highest capabilities in aerospace technology. Such assessments of capabilities allow speculative inquiries into actual intent, and give, via views of space hardware with well-defined applications, unprecedented views into the minds of Kremlin policymakers.
Both nations will be pursuing parallel manned space programs into the next century, into the unforeseeable future. These activities will be both in competition and in cooperation. Rational and successful planning for American space activities absolutely requires sound technical appraisals of the Soviet past, present, and future in space, and readers will find what they need in Newkirk's impressive catalog. Beyond the hardware, they will detect the thrill of the successful sleuth, and they can be confident -- as the Soviets remain anxious -- that such dogged, skillful investigators continue to assault the boundaries of what the Soviets would like to allow us to know about their space efforts, to the complete picture of what we must know in order to chart our course into the next millennium. This book is one such map.