Lack of thrust & purpose keep US behind in space race (1959)

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LIFE Oct 19, 1959 space race

Lack of thrust, purpose keep US behind in space

For the second time in a month, the Russians shot a hole right through the US space program. First they hit the moon with an object weighing 858 pounds (LIFE, Sept. 28). Then last week, the world watched admiringly as a Russian satellite weighing 613 pounds glided past the moon, circled neatly behind it and then headed back again toward the earth. US scientists praised Lunik III as a brilliant example of rocketry and technical precision.

The heaviest object the US had ever shot as far as the moon weighed only 13 pounds (chart [below]). It missed the moon by 37,000 miles and went on, like an earlier and far heavier Russian satellite, to orbit around the sun.

The explanation for the Russian successes is simple. Russian rockets have more than twice the power — or thrust — of US rockets and can push far heavier loads into space. This is the result of a mistake in judgment the US made years ago. It decided not to build rockets in earnest until nuclear weapons could be made small enough to be feasible as warheads.

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This scientific breakthrough did not come until 1953, when the warheads turned out to be so compact that the US could concentrate on relatively small-thrust military missiles like Atlas. The Russians, however, began right after World War II to build rockets without worrying about size and got a huge head start on the US. Because the relatively feeble US space rockets can carry only a few pounds of payload, the rocket guidance systems are necessarily miniature and rudimentary. The Russians, able to carry big payloads, can load them with the big guidance mechanisms that can run circles around the moon — and US rockets.

The US is trying to catch up in thrust with the big engines shown on these pages. It must perfect these and even larger engines before it can launch space platforms or explore the moon. But the US is at least two years behind Russia. In the view of many US experts, it is still moving far too slowly. The Russians are still racing. And it is doubtful that they will stop, like Aesop’s hare, to wait for the US tortoise.

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Rocket chart: Discrepancy in thrust

DISCREPANCY IN THRUST between U.S. and Russia is shown in first two rockets on chart at right. Each rocket performed similar feat of putting satellite into orbit around sun, but Russian rocket was more powerful. U.S. Atlas-Able rocket blew up before first test. U.S. Saturn cluster is still under construction.

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LIFE Oct 19, 1959 space race

Top image: At army missile agency in Alabama, technician adjusts one of eight engines on Saturn cluster designed to produce 1.5 million pound thrust

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