Societies change. Though humans have difficulty perceiving this fact during their lifetimes, the tide of change inexorably rolls forward, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
The story of the first space stations and the men and women who built and flew them is in most ways a story of the evolution of the Russian people. When they began their journey to the stars in 1957, they were an isolated, xenophobic, authoritarian culture ruled by an oppressive elite who believed that they had the right to dictate how everyone else should live their lives.
Forty years later, that same nation has become one of the world’s newest democracies. Its borders are open, its people free, and its economy booming.
In the years between, driven by an inescapable, generations-old insecurity, Russia went out into space to prove itself to the world, and ended up taking the first real, long-term steps toward the colonization of the solar system. Cosmonauts, using equipment built
by people only one generation removed from illiteracy, hung by their fingernails on the edge of space and learned how to make the first real interplanetary journeys. Sometimes men died. Sometimes they rose above their roots and did glorious and brave things. In the
process, and most ironically, the space program that the communists supported and funded in their futile effort to reshape human nature helped wean Russia away from communism and dictatorship and toward freedom and capitalism.
Leaving Earth is my attempt to tell that story.
Nor is this book solely about how Russia changed in the late twentieth century. For Americans, this story carries its own lessons, lessons that some might find hard to take. For at the same time the Russians were pulling themselves out of tyranny as they lifted their eyes to the stars, the United States evolved from an innovative, free society to a culture that today seems bogged down with bureaucracy, centralization, and too much self-centeredness. In the early 1970s, the United States had the tools, the abilities, the vision, the freedom, and the will to go to the stars. We had already explored the moon. Our rockets were the most powerful ever built. And we had launched the first successful space station, with capabilities so sophisticated that the Soviets took almost three decades of effort to finally match it. With only a little extra labor, that station could have been turned into a space vessel able to carry humans anywhere in the Solar System. The road was open before us, ours for the taking.
And then the will faded. For the next 30 years, the trail-blazing was taken up by others, as Americans chose to do less risky and possibly less noble tasks. More importantly, just as the bold Soviet space program helped teach the Russians to live openly and free, the top-heavy and timid American space program of the late twentieth century helped teach Americans to depend, not on freedom and decentralization, but on a centralized Soviet-style bureaucracy— to the detriment of American culture and its desire to conquer
That these facts might reflect badly on my own country saddens me beyond words. I was born into a nation of free-spirited individuals, where all Americans believed they were pioneers, able to forge new paths and build new communities wherever they went. Or, as stated in 1978 by one much-maligned but principled politician, born of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, We are the “can-do” people. We crossed the oceans; we climbed the mountains, forded the rivers, traveled the prairies to build on this continent a monument to human freedom. We came from many lands with different tongues united in our belief in God and our thirst for freedom. We said governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We said the people are sovereign.Whether this describes the American nation today I do not know. If one were to use as a guide our accomplishments in space since Barry Goldwater said these words, one would not feel encouraged.