“Cold War Space Sleuths: The Untold Secrets of the Soviet Space Program,” edited by Dominic Phelan, Springer, 319 pages, $39.95.
In the early years of the Space Race, the Soviet Space Program was shrouded in secrecy.
Their equivalent of Wernher von Braun was simply known as the chief designer. Soviet launches went unannounced until after success. The names of the unflown Cosmonauts were secret, and those who washed out of the program before a first flight became unpersons.
A network of amateur sleuths, scattered throughout the world, attempted to penetrate the veil of secrecy and eventually succeeded.
“Cold War Space Sleuths: The Untold Secrets of the Soviet Space Program,” edited by Dominic Phelan, tells their stories.
Phelan offers an introductory chapter that provides the background for the story then lets the various sleuths tell their individual stories in the subsequent chapters.
The result is a tale that is international in scope and as comprehensive as possible. Phelan has managed contribution from most of the major figures in the efforts to uncover Soviet Space secrets. The collection includes Galveston County’s own Soviet space expert James Oberg, who contributes a chapter on cosmonaut mysteries.
The book covers the golden age of space sleuthing between 1960 and 1985. Glasnost began in the mid-1980s, reducing the official Soviet wall of secrecy. Then after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government threw open their space archives.
The next 20 years saw a lot of revelations about Soviet space activities. Most space sleuthing was in the nature of assessing the quality of analysis done before the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, this book captures a period which has now passed; an era when amateur investigation offered the best way to learn what was going on.
The sleuthing community was fairly small, with most participants knowing or knowing of each other.
“Cold War Space Sleuths” often reads like a class reunion. The individual stories related in each chapter often interlock, with one researcher getting a clue from another, or getting inspiration for an original field of investigation from one another.
As a result, each chapter offers an independent view on the same puzzle. It is like reading a mystery novel written from the viewpoint of the different characters, with the differing perceptions offered by each.
For those interested in space history and the space race, “Cold War Space Sleuths” will offer a fresh and innovative perspective. It recaptures the excitement of the era through the eyes of enthusiastic researchers.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.