Dead Cosmonauts, Space Cowboys

Heroes are in the skies. This was true for the Greeks, who named constellations for great hunters and queens; for First Nations astronomers, who told stories ...

This is the 19th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


Heroes are in the skies. This was true for the Greeks, who named constellations for great hunters and queens; for First Nations astronomers, who told stories about the great bear, seven birds, and Wesakaychak; and for the Chinese, whose star maps included the azure dragon of the east and the white tiger of the west. During the Space Race, brave explorers vied to see which glorious humans might join them.

First Cosmic Velocity, Zach Powers’s debut novel, offers a grubbier—and more accessible—vision of the heavens. Set in the Soviet space program in 1964 (or a persuasive facsimile), the novel presents a sly, nearly plausible scenario in which the Soviets have secretly trained sets of twins as cosmonauts. Since Powers’s Soviets have not yet perfected the technology for a safe return from space, this system means that when a twin is inevitably lost after launch or burned up on reentry, his or her doppelgänger can emerge on earth and receive praise for a successful voyage they did not make. From the vaporous fringe theories about “phantom cosmonauts” and the legendary flight of Vladimir Ilyushin, Powers has constructed a convincing, mordantly funny, and ultimately moving alternate world.

In First Cosmic Velocity, the heroes in the skies are doomed to die. However, the system-proclaimed “heroes” are stuck on earth, living off the glory of their dead twins overhead. Powers uses his fantastical premise to render a state-driven Soviet space program distinct from portrayals tied to Western notions of success in science.

Many of us became engineers because of space. This was partly because of the fantastic inspiration presented by voyaging into the unknown (and the way Hollywood gave us the adventures of heroic Skywalkers and Kirks). But it was also because the urgency of the Space Race led to an emphasis on STEM education and recruitment of scientists.

Still, many careers were driven by the notion of space beckoning. The pioneers of rocketry had been inspired by science fiction: Goddard and von Braun loved Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and lamented that the rockets they developed to realize such dreams were used for purposes other than space exploration. This is also true in Powers’s version of the Soviet space program: “Most of us in Star City are here because we read [Tsiolkovski’s ‘adventures in outer space’] in our youth.” Yet an administrator pronounces, “We fly to conquer. … First, we conquered the idea of a god, and now we lay claim to where we imagined his home to be.”

The Space Race propaganda from both the United States and the Soviet Union asserted each side’s moral superiority and might.1 And it did so with intensely powerful imagery: phallic rockets penetrating the skies.2 In Powers’s language: “a rocket launching into space, arcing back toward the center of the frame.”

Such propaganda and imagery further strengthened engineering’s commitment to overwhelmingly masculine values, in a field already proud of itself for subjugating nature and extracting its resources. In fact, even those adventurous science fiction tales that inspired so many were coded with imperialism and colonialist attitudes: white space explorers vanquishing unsettlingly different “natives” and “aliens.”

The propaganda wasn’t just good PR. Such story making was essential to persuade both an American public—many of whom wished that the resources expended on NASA might have been directed toward civil rights—and a starving Soviet one of the “need” to “conquer” space.

The complexity of the problem of space flight is part of what makes it such an inspiring example for would-be engineers. The rocket was a truly interdisciplinary innovation, requiring not only complementary advances in fields from materials science to combustion chemistry to mechanical design but also the new perspective of “systems engineering” in order to encompass all these elements.

That the rocket became a keystone of engineering identity has had both positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, the rocket necessitated engineers developing aptitude and ambition, and taking deliberate risks. On the negative side, the identity of the astronaut as something of a space cowboy is not an inclusive one and has contributed to the problematic homogenization of STEM practitioners, excluding “hidden figures” and others from the myth.3

For this young engineer, the dream of designing spacecraft meant deciding to ignore the problematic aspects of space travel’s history, or at least making a mental tradeoff. Becoming a mechanical engineer meant deliberately joining a field already defined by chauvinism and cowboy-up bravado.

We—both marginalized and centered, both engineers and non-engineers—need stories that reveal how very human the enterprise of space flight really was. We need to see how much error accompanied each trial, how human choices and emotions guided “progress.”

Space Race propaganda and imagery strengthened engineering’s commitment to overwhelmingly masculine values, in a field already proud of itself for subjugating nature and extracting its resources.

In meeting this need for a more nuanced understanding of space flight, First Cosmic Velocity ably succeeds. The novel opens with a ground control panel for rocket launch: a “patchwork of different metals, unmatched switches, knobs, and dials like a hundred varieties of flower.” This early description remakes the machinery of space exploration into softer, more organic, even more feminine forms. It also suggests something messier behind the slick propaganda images.

Powers portrays both the darkly absurd, haphazard nature of the space program’s bureaucracy and the very real hope and pride its illusions have given the citizenry. At one stop on the propaganda tour, Leonid and Nadya—two fake cosmonauts, whose twins have already been lost in space—encounter “farmers and their families … Each had donned one article or accessory that looked fancy and brand new, as if they had divided the household’s one nice outfit among the whole family.” This lovely image illustrates the prestige of the cosmonauts, the import of the chance to see them. That we know the families have placed their trust in a mirage makes the moment bittersweet.

“Nobody knows Nadya,” the chief propagandist of the Soviet space program admits. “They just know her face. Her accomplishments. A hero is … an ideal to worship. … In a nation without a god, we must provide an outlet for faith.” But the cosmonauts and their twins are not only symbols, they are—as shown by Powers—heartbreakingly human and fallible real people.

In First Cosmic Velocity, the twins who remain hidden until their siblings are launched to their deaths, who then become lauded themselves as successful cosmonauts, feel like they’re only along for the ride, with little control over their trajectories. “She was merely meant to be another mechanical component. … A switch to flip the other switches.”

This echoes the complaints of American astronauts, recorded in Tom Wolfe’s electric The Right Stuff, that they were merely passengers, not pilots, in the capsules being designed for them. (The Mercury Seven’s plea for a window is echoed by one of Powers’s cosmonauts, who wishes his were larger.)

Nadya and Leonid spend much of the novel on the PR circuit promoting the space program. They are the still, deadpan center about which the media circus whirls. They also represent Powers’s playful variation on the “twin paradox” of relativity: the notion that a twin who travels through space at high speeds will return to find that her sibling has grown older than herself. In First Cosmic Velocity, instead, one twin is celebrated for the bravery exhibited by the vaporized other. The Soviet program prepared the siblings for this by calling them by a single name throughout their training, blurring the two into one: the Nadyas, the Leonids.

Interludes set in 1950s Ukraine portray the hardships of Leonid and his brother’s childhood: “They were still hungry after breakfast, but they had gotten used to being hungry. Sometimes they would ask for another cup of water. Drink enough and it gave the illusion of being full.” Under Soviet rule, schools and trains disappear from Ukraine.

Given these conditions, it’s no wonder that the twins let themselves be recruited into a mysterious government program in the distant Star City complex. With religion outlawed, the brothers “had been taught that there was no such thing as god. Science had all the answers, and it was hard to argue” with logic that explained “the magic that had allowed the fleets of warplanes to fly overhead.” A lost plane was “not the failure of a miracle, or the triumph of an enemy’s miracle … it was simply the science of a plane that it could not fly with one wing shot off.”

However, the Soviets’ unnamed Chief Designer has lost faith, as one twin after another has been lost: “Any store of faith he once possessed had rotted right out of him. Years and years ago, when rocketry was at most a pastime and a hope and ultimately a fall.” Nor does the Chief Designer acknowledge a political imperative: “We compete only against gravity.”

The Designer’s tests of rocket engines and capsule shields are beautifully, engagingly described. (“One console in the corner let out a repetitive beep, like a heart monitor. A teacup tittered on a saucer. The cup had Nadya’s face printed on it.”) And he continues to hope that a heat shield may be developed that will permit a single cosmonaut to complete the mission: “It was so easy to make something burn, so much harder to make it burn how one wanted.”

In order to believe in humanity’s capability to achieve greatness, we should acknowledge that humanity is fallible, stubborn, haunted, ridiculous, lonely, and hopeful.

Inevitably, Leonid and Nadya reveal some cracks in the facade and get themselves into a jam. And the cruelties of Stalin’s purge and the lasting scars on Powers’s characters are evident, as Powers reveals with sardonic humor reminiscent of Joseph Heller or Mohammed Hanif.

When one twin is discovered to have survived in orbit, the response is not an improbable, American-style rescue mission, as in The Martian. Instead, the discovery is met with resignation, followed by a radio conversation that grows increasingly surreal and existential.

Such resignation may strike some as quintessentially Slavic, especially as a counterpoint to the American rescue impulse. And, indeed, throughout First Cosmic Velocity, Powers is subtly portraying the differences in space flight programs, especially through the influence of technological culture.

The Soviet Designers are respected, with absolute authority over scientific and technical projects. The Soviet system was more technocratic than America’s, then or now: the majority of senior apparatchiks and the politically influential nomenklatura were engineers. The powerful notion that any individual’s glory was also the state’s, and that the state’s glory was equally transferrable to others, is illustrated by the interchangeability of Powers’s cosmonauts.

Meanwhile, the American premium on individualism meant the public needed to get to know each of the Mercury Seven and their wives as people, so as to personalize each mission according to the astronaut involved. Our own propaganda thus kept the focus on the brave Seven’s triumph instead of the skillful thousands making it possible, and caricatured the astronauts to serve the story’s purposes—for example, making the respected Gus Grissom into a bumbler when his capsule hatch door opened prematurely, placing blame on goofy Gus “screwing the pooch,” not on a potential mechanical failure. And many Americans believed in a myth that our democracy celebrated freedom, at the same time systemic segregation and Jim Crow made sure the freedom would be unevenly distributed.

Today, with correctives like Hidden Figures, it is possible to feel relieved and inspired, seeing the curtain finally pulled back to reveal that America’s triumph was achieved by more than just white male test pilots. But it’s also possible to become demoralized, imagining the science and technology we’ve deprived ourselves of by refusing to value all contributions, by baking white male supremacy and techno-chauvinism into a field capable of transformative innovation.

We could wish for a more inclusive, more collective technological culture, perhaps like that of the Netherlands, which lives with its water in a more companionable, collectivist way than America’s low-lying cities have been able to do.4 And we should consider whether a capitalist, privatized Bezos/Branson/Musk vision of space exploration—and the primary patrons’ fixation on “colonization”—will represent any improvement on a nationalist one.


Building Utopia in Space

By Billy Fleming

Despite the optimism of the International Space Station and its spirit of cooperative enterprise, rivalries persist. In contemporary fiction, for example, Liu Cixin’s trilogy “The Three-Body Problem” pits China against America, and “whoever controls the technological frontier controls the future.”5 The enormous popularity of Liu Cixin’s science fiction in China includes a following of aerospace engineers and astronomers, who invite him to address their technical meetings and involve him in what-if brainstorms. Once upon a time in China, the Communists believed science fiction would inspire young minds to join Mao’s “Campaign of Marching Toward Science and Technology.” But it was banned during the Cultural Revolution, along with most other literature. Now science fiction is back. Liu Cixin’s work illustrates the Chinese technological culture: a hierarchical bureaucracy in which technocrats may decide, for example, to relocate a million people in order to construct a hydroelectric dam.

Powers, an American writer, paints a persuasive picture of the “other side” of the space race, which shows both the distinctions between technological cultures and their common aspirations and fears. Both a bleakly funny romp and a heartfelt consideration of human connection and faith, Zach Powers’s First Cosmic Velocity is a valuable contribution. It reminds us that in order to believe in humanity’s capability to achieve greatness, we should acknowledge that humanity is fallible, stubborn, haunted, ridiculous, lonely, and hopeful. icon

  1. For further consideration of the intentions and implications of the US propaganda, see Audra Wolfe’s Freedoms Laboratory (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
  2. See also the language of Robert Frost’s poem “Kitty Hawk,” 1954: “All the science zest / To materialize / By on-penetration / Into earth and skies.”
  3. See Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls (Little, Brown, 2016) and texts such as Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (William Morrow, 2016) and Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press, 2006). A note of caution: sometimes the “untold stories” of STEM triumphs reveal unsettling personalities and politics. A great number of aerospace technologies were first developed within the Nazi regime, and inspiring figures like Hannah Reitsch have complex legacies; see, for example, Claire Mulley, The Women Who Flew for Hitler (Macmillan, 2018).
  4. As ever, I recommend Jim Shepard’s story “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” McSweeney’s, no. 32 (2009).
  5. Jiayang Fan, “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds,” New Yorker, June 24, 2019.
Featured image: CCCP (Soviet) poster, 1963. Photograph courtesy of Jorge Láscar / Flickr