Making a graphic novel 12: Cosmodrome & Cold War

Kosmicheskiy Reis – 1932 film by Vasily ShuravlovIt is difficult on a book page to express the monstrous size of the R-7 launch facility. A few years ago, the Russians helped to build an identical launch pad, to the original drawings, in Ghana. There are construction photographs on the net, and it is fascinating to see modern images of a brand new pad and flame-pit under construction.Khazakstani cosmodrome_Kruschev_Kennedy_coldwarBefore the advent of real heavy-lift rockets, science fiction film makers had to make guesses at what a launch facility would look like. Soviet film maker Vasily Shuravlov consulted with the ‘Father of Spaceflight’ himself, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, for his 1932 film Kosmicheskiy Reis. In some of the most stunning model sequences ever shot, two massive starships lift off with aid of a colossal ‘ski-jump’ style launch ramp that strides across the countryside on a mighty viaduct of steel girders.

Fritz Lang's movie Frau Im MondShuravlov had started development on his film as early as 1925. In 1929 Germany’s Fritz Lang released Frau Im Mond, about a pioneer moon mission that includes a female astronaut. This film shows a much more accurate guess at the likely launch facility. This was perhaps not just luck, because Lang’s technical consultant was none other than Herman Oberth, the German rocket scientist who was to be a leading light in the Nazi V2 missile program, and who was mentor to Werner von Braun, the man who would later become the brains behind the American space program. Astronaut Freide and her fellow crew members lift off vertically, the rocket exhaust being directed into a water-filled ‘flame-pool’ – exactly the arrangement used at the famous American launch-pads such as Cape Canaveral.

The Khazakstani desert does not have as much water as Florida, so the design for Korolev’s launch pads poises the rocket over an artificial cliff-edge of concrete, sculpted to direct the exhaust down and then sideways, away from the pad.

It is difficult to recreate today, the sense of dread that I and millions like me on both sides, felt during the Cold War era. What frightened the Americans so much about the little Sputnik satellite was not just the surveillance possibilities. It meant that the Russians had built a rocket capable of delivering a warhead to America. Koroev’s R-7 was not just a starship, it was also the world’s first ICBM or Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

This was the colossal gamble that both von Braun in the US and Korolev in Russia were taking: developing the rockets that could end civilisation, in the hope of realising Tsiolkovsky’s dream, and taking civilisation into space. Korolev’s was by far the greater gamble. If von Braun failed to deliver, the worst he could expect would be an embarrassing leaving party and a comfortable retirement. Korolev had already tasted what failure could mean in the Soviet Union. Both men knew, that if things got out of hand, there would be no retirement for anybody . . . ever.

The Mig15 model came in handy again for this spread, just as a reminder that Yuri too, is playing his own small role in this colossal gamble, and that his own moment for trying his luck is getting nearer.

This entry was posted in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Making a Graphic Novel, Mig15, Sergei Korolev, Sputnik, The Cold War, The Space Race, von Braun, Yuri Gagarin. Bookmark the permalink.

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