Fifty years ago today Yuri Gagarin rocketed into a new frontier. This BBC piece muses on the what-if: the Soviets were the first to land on the moon.
Both space programs were really pushing in 1968. The Americans got Apollo 8 in orbit, mainly because the first lunar module wasn’t ready for a mission. Partly also that American intelligence was thinking the USSR was pulling out all stops for a flight around the moon.
Had the Soviets got to the Moon first it is unlikely that they would have abandoned it as swiftly as the Americans.
Not being a democracy may have enabled the USSR to spend money and marshal the talents of their population in a way that America could not.
Space historian Dr Christopher Riley believes that not only would the Soviet Union have continued with Moon missions, but they might also have built lunar bases.
And he believes that the Americans would have been compelled to do the same and even try to continue to outdo their communist rivals.
“The history that followed in the decades afterwards would have been completely different,” he says.
The Russians had sturdy hardware, and a tenacious approach to their space program. They were willing to push, sometimes beyond the capabilities of their personnel and/or equipment.