A Tale of Two Disasters: Russia's R-16, America's Apollo 204, and the Race to the Moon

Event Date: March 26, 2009
Speaker: Professor Michael Smith
Speaker Affiliation: Department of History
Sponsor: ECE Graduate Seminar Series
Time: 3:00 PM
Location: EE 170

The “Moon Race” between 1960 and 1969 pitted two great space rockets against each other: the American Saturn V and the Russian Nositel’ 1(“Carrier”).  The 100% success rate for the Saturn, and the 100% failure rate for the Nositel’, help explain why America won, why Russia lost that celebrated “Race,” one of the centerpieces in America’s victory culture through the Cold War.  But success and failure are not the whole story.  There is another tale to tell – of two space “disasters” at the origins of the Moon Race: Russia’s "top-secret" R-16 explosion (1960); and America’s very public tragedy, Apollo 204 (1967).  Both disasters highlight the intense political tempos behind Russian and American competition, as well as some of the perils of Electrical Engineering in rocketry -- essentially, the true human failures behind the mechanical ones. 


Michael Smith has taught Russian History, History of Aviation, and History of the Space Age at Purdue since 1996.  He is currently finishing a book manuscript on American and Russian approaches to rocketry and spaceflight theories before World War II.