The U-2 spy plane was supposed to disintegrate in a crash. It was supposed to leave no debris that could be traced back to the United States, and the pilot was expected to the be killed. Nothing was meant to survive a fall from 70,000 feet with secrets intact. It was, in effect, a security measure U-2 program managers were banking on. But then one did. Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 survived being downed over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. The famous May Day Incident had effects on the Cold War beyond what anyone could have imagined.

This is part 3 in a series about the U-2, which is part of a larger look at Cold War aerial espionage. Part 1 about its genesis is here.

Chuck Yeager, best known as the first man to fly faster than sound, passed away this week. The aviation community felt the loss of this giant, though, at 97, no one could say he didn’t live life to the fullest. In researching my latest book, Fighting for Space, I teased out the new-to-me friendship between Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager, and in the process, uncovered a lot of less familiar pictures of both aviation legends. So in honour of Chuck’s life, I thought it’d be fun to share this facet of his life. (A number of these pictures I took with my phone so they aren’t clean scans. …

This is part two in my five-part series on Cold War aerial espionage. Part 1 is here.

By the time the U-2 aerial reconnaissance plane was ready to fly in the spring of 1956, President Eisenhower was still unconvinced that okaying the mission was the right move. He worried that if a plane was somehow downed over Soviet territory — even though everyone involved said it couldn’t happen — the Soviets would have a field day claiming unfairness, aggression, and ruthlessness on the part of both himself and the United States. He worried an incident would start another world war. For all the technical challenges the U-2 presented, the political decisions were among the biggest. …

This is the first in a five-part series I’m doing about Cold War aerial espionage.

During the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States were united against fascism, but that cooperation deteriorated once the common enemy was defeated. With the war over, the nations’ ideological differences surfaced — the United States’ democracy marked by capitalism and the Soviet Union’s communist system — and a new conflict was born. The Cold War became a standoff with both nations positioning themselves as technological leaders, and both needed ways to check and see if the other was telling the truth. This became harder once the Iron Curtain cut off communication between the Soviet Bloc and the western world. Classical forms of espionage with embedded spies became impossible, and rumours swirled that the Soviets were building an arsenal of high-performance interceptor planes, bombers, submarines, missiles, and potentially even nuclear weapons under its shroud of secrecy. …

The Russian Soyuz program is the longest-running spaceflight program — variations of the spacecraft have been in use since 1966. It’s been so successful it’s become the Soviets’ workhorse in space and remains Russia’s human spaceflight system today. But the program got off to a very rocky start. The first-ever Soyuz mission, Soyuz 1, launched a known flawed spacecraft and ended with the death of the cosmonaut on board, Vladimir Komarov, marking the first time in history someone has died on a spaceflight.

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Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov. Roscosmos via NPR

From Air to Space

In the 1950s, experimental test flying was one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Pilots were testing new and unproven aircraft, and their laboratory was, in effect, the sky. With the dawn of the space age towards the end of the decade, their laboratory expanded off the planet. This was true in both the United States and the Soviet Union. The earliest days of space exploration were marked with uncertainty and best guesses for how to keep a crew alive while also learning about this new business of human spaceflight. In America, that first experimental program was Mercury. …

Splashdowns are iconic of the Apollo era. From the first suborbital Mercury flight, the image of a capsule hitting the water became synonymous with the triumphant end of a mission. But even though splashdowns became part of America’s identity of its space agency, they weren’t NASA’s favoured way to end a mission. When you consider the astronauts were among the most skilled test pilots in the country, it seems odd that they were passively pulled from the ocean like wet rats. Splashdowns came from the initial decision to pursue capsule-style spacecraft, but they turned out to be complicated, expensive, and dangerous. Between 1961 and 1965, NASA spent 165 million dollars — more than 2.1 …

The Apollo program is often considered to be the pinnacle of human ingenuity and engineering. With the fast pace of NASA’s development from Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to Neil Armstrong walking on the surface in 1969, we also look at it as a brilliant example of organization and planning. But it wasn’t as smooth as it seemed. Indecision on basic mission elements led to late changes that not only risked upsetting schedules, it also created duplication in one of the most visible parts of the program. North American Aviation, the contractor behind the Apollo command-service module, built two versions in tandem. …

Most people with a driving passion have a moment they can point to as the moment when that passion took hold. For me and space, it was my second grade project on Venus.

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Me at seven, casually presenting my research on Venus to my classmates.

It boggled my seven-year-old mind that Venus, so bright and close that I could see it without binoculars, was so unlike Earth. Yes, its roughly the same size as our planet, but I thought of it then akin to the Earth inside out and backwards — hot like an oven and rotating the opposite way. And seeing pictures of the surface deepened the mystery. How could a planet so unlike ours also look like a rocky beach? It was the first time I had a sense of not only the variety of worlds in our cosmic backyard but also of the mysteries surrounding all those planets. …

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President Kennedy with Wernher von Braun during a tour of NASA’s launch facilities at Cape Canaveral. NASA.

We explore space because we want to push the limits of what we know in the universe. We explore to expand humanity’s reach, to gain a foothold to eventually become a multi planetary species while learning why our planet alone has life, because it’s really all about understanding if we’re alone… right?

In an idealized world, maybe, but in reality, no. Space is all about politics.

Below is a rough transcript of this video that includes sources, with an additional list at the bottom of the page. …

1968 was not a good year for America. The decade had seen legislation to end racial injustice signed into law and protests against the slow pace of change. On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking a new wave of protests. Americans were also growing increasingly opposed to the ongoing war in Vietnam, which led to more protests. 1968 was also an election year, and as the presidential race began to build momentum, Democratic hopeful Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was ultimately Richard Nixon, running on a campaign promise of restoring law and order to the United States, who won the election by a wide margin in November. …


Amy Shira Teitel

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]

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