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Walter Sierra

Avoiding Armageddon


Avoiding Armageddon provides a detailed and fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Cold War conflict between the American and Soviet superpowers. It lucidly describes the effects of nuclear weapons and how they work. The Soviets achieved a startling number of space firsts (first satellite, first man and woman to orbit the Earth, first probes to reach Mars and Venus, first Space Station, more powerful ICBMs. The USSR assumed a commanding lead in the Space Race between both countries; however, the book describes how and why despite appearances it was actually the United States that was ahead. Avoiding Armageddon disentangles and clearly explains the labyrinthine Soviet organizational and design bureau structure. Although the U.S. won the Moon Race, the Soviets came very close with their own Moon rocket, the N1.

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Picking up where the first book leaves off, Avoiding Armageddon provides a detailed (and fascinating!) behind the scenes look at the Cold War conflict where it really counted: the military space race. The book describes the different kinds of rockets and the corresponding rocket families–on both sides of the Iron Curtain––including the Atlas, Delta, Titan, Soyuz, and Proton. It also explains the intricate workings of nuclear weapons. After his success as a WWII Army General, President Dwight Eisenhower is credited with keeping the Cold War from becoming a Hot War in the 1950s. The US and Soviet Union superpowers possessed nuclear triads consisting of fleets of ICBMs, sea-based SLBMs, and aircraft. Ike led the US in gaining supremacy over the Soviets in nuclear firepower, accuracy, and surveillance systems on the ground, in the air, and in space. He created NASA in 1958 and established the Interstate Highway System that bears his name today.

Atomic bomb blast over Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. It killed 35,000-40,000 people outright, and injured a like number. Japan initiated surrender negotiation the next day.

Technicians securing Mark 21 reentry vehicles (RVs), each containing a 300 kT yield, upgradeable to 475 kT nuclear warhead on a MX Peacekeeper ICBM in 1983—over 20 times as powerful as the Nagasaki bomb.

Despite the public’s perceptions at the time, the United States held a technological lead in the military sphere in several respects: more accurate delivery systems, more nuclear warheads (at least until 1978), unmatched overhead surveillance and photographic technology on spy planes and satellites, a better bombing fleet, quieter and better equipped submarines (not to mention more of them). It is a dichotomy that U.S. intelligence authorities in America’s more open, democratic society knew more about their secretive rival’s true capabilities than military leaders on both sides would like to admit.

Test launch of the LGM–118 Peacekeeper ICBM at Vandenberg AFB, California in 2002. It could carry up to 12 Multiple Independently targetable RVs (MIRV) of 300 kT yield each.

Dwight David Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, May 29, 1959

Reentry photo of 8 MIRVs at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll testing range in the Pacific.

Despite many handicaps Soviet rocket engineers and scientists were somehow able to perform miraculous feats of rocket science and engineering with only a fraction of the resources available to their American counterparts. A long list of hardworking leaders came to the forefront in this era. Their excellent work maintained the Soviet Union’s status as a ‘peer competitor’ to the United States throughout the decades of the Cold War, and in fact prevented it from becoming a Hot War through mutual strategic deterrence.

This book colorfully illustrates and explains Soviet rocket and missile systems in detail, as well as the disasters that befell the Soviets in 1960 and 1980.

Avoiding Armageddon disentangles and clearly explains the labyrinthine Soviet organizational and design bureau structure. To make things even more complicated, sometimes they would purposely obfuscate names and organizations in an attempt to deceive prying eyes from Western intelligence agencies. In fact, it’s a wonder the Soviets themselves could understand their system! Soviet media would also routinely hide their space failures behind a veil of secrecy, use different names, or misrepresent a space mission’s true intent until its success was assured.

Soviet Design Bureau Chiefs

Sergei Korolyov
Vladimir Chelomei
Mikhail Yangel
Vladimir Utkin
Viktor Makeyev
Viktor Makeyev

Soviet Propulsion Bureau Chiefs

Launch Complexes and Ground Operations

Valentin Glushko
Semyon Kosberg
Aleksandr Konopatov
Nikolai Kuznetsov
Vladimir Barmin

Movie cameras record the grizzly aftermath of the R-16 ICBM explosion at Tyuratam on October 24, 1960 as in desperation men tried to run away from the growing conflagration that melted everything around the rocket as the temperature raged to around 1650°C (3000°F). 126 personnel died that day and at least 53 were injured.

Cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human to orbit the Earth, was launched on Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961.

Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova became the world’s first woman in space aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963.

Unbeknownst to the general public, the Soviets surprisingly built their own Moon rocket in a race to beat the Americans. Chelomei, Korolyov, and Yangel designed competitive rockets to land cosmonauts on the Moon. Korolyov’s N1 won out and was developed as a counterpart to the American Saturn V. It was secretly launched four times between 1969 and 1972, failing each time in disastrous explosions hid from the public. Nevertheless, stalwart design bureau leaders made but were unable to implement ambitious plans to build Moon bases and land cosmonauts on Mars to outpace the United States had the Space Race continued. The Soviets also conducted unmanned interplanetary exploration programs to the Moon, Venus, and Mars with some success.

In the civilian sphere, America woke up after Korolyov’s well–publicized Sputnik success in 1957, and relentlessly pursued space supremacy. The richer nation, buoyed up by a more efficient capitalist economy, soon caught up with and arguably surpassed the Soviet Union, sometime in the mid–1960s, never to relinquish the lead again. While pursuing military applications of rockets in a serious way, both nations scrambled to be the first to put humans on the moon––the United States openly, the Soviets secretly. Although the U.S. ostensibly won the Moon Race with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969, the U.S.S.R. was not that far behind.

Side by side comparison of the N1 and Saturn V. The exhaust deflectors (aka “flame buckets”) are underneath the vehicles and not shown.

Sequence of photos showing the Soviet N1–5L moon rocket’s destruction 23 seconds after liftoff on July 3, 1969. The Emergency Rescue System (top) operated to shoot the reentry capsule (which would have been occupied by cosmonauts on a manned mission) to a safe distance two kilometers from the pad, saving it from destruction. Miraculously, there were no fatalities or injuries because of the stringent safety precautions.

Composite image of the Venusian surface taken by Soviet-era Venera probes. Man-made objects don’t last very long on Venus—the atmospheric pressure is 92 times that on the Earth’s surface, while the temperature is a scorching 860°F (460° C).

Automated Lunokhod lunar rover. The Soviets returned only 0.72 lb (0.33 kg) of lunar soil to Earth in three missions, while the U.S. managed to return 835 lb (379 kg) over six missions, almost 1200 times as much.

Photo credits (in order): Wikipedia, Dept. of Defense, U.S. Air Force (2), the White House, S.P. Korolyov Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (5), Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, Yuzhnoye Design Office (2), NPO Energomash, V.P. Makeyev State Rocket Center, Kbhimmash, Chemical Automatics Design Bureau (2), Kuznetsov Joint Stock Company, Spetsmash, TV Roskosmos, Boris Chertok (2), NASA, Petar Milošević, Don P. Mitchell.