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The Time an Engineer Accidentally Started the Space Race and Changed the Course of History

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We tend to look back on the white-hot 12 years between Sputnik I and Neil Armstrong and say, "Well of course the United States won the Space Race," but the fog of history obscures the uncertainties of how it would all end. For much of the Space Race, not only was the Soviet Union ahead, but ahead by giant leaps. This is because of a brilliant, mysterious Soviet engineer whose public identity was simply "the Chief Designer." Revealed only after his death to be a rocket scientist named Sergei Korolev, not only did he fly circles—literally—around the American space program, but he has the distinction of having tricked the Soviet leadership into kicking off what would eventually become the space race. Here is how he did it, as described by Matthew Brzezinski in his magnificent book Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

A CHEAPER WAY OF WAR

The Soviet Union was, in short, broke, which made difficult its bitter Cold War with the United States. The Soviets simply lacked the funds to maintain the kind of massive standing army necessary to go to war with the Americans at a moment's notice. Their detonation of the atomic bomb leveled the playing field a bit, but the Americans had overwhelming air superiority that included massive B-47 bombers flying every minute. The sheer brazenness of American bomber deployment and the scope of their exercises made Soviet leadership fear that the Americans might actually be serious about war.

After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the world's powers pillaged German scientific and engineering files, prying open "high-quality steel laboratory doors" and literally stepping over the bodies of dead Germans to seize schematics, mockups, and prototypes of the most advanced rocketry program in the world. The Soviets took what they found (far less than the Americans had managed to secure) and made rapid strides, first matching the stolen German rockets and slowly surpassing them. The Chief Designer's first real breakthrough—the R-5 rocket—was one ton lighter than those of the Germans and capable of holding 60 percent more fuel while producing 60 percent more thrust. The rocket had a range of 800 miles and could hold a warhead six times that of the Hiroshima bomb. As one might imagine, this greatly interested the leadership of the Soviet Union.

When Korolev personally unveiled his rocket to members of the Soviet Presidium, he had two goals, one secret and one obvious. He very overtly wanted them to believe in rockets as a method of waging war, and the presidium was onboard almost without reservation. Marveling at the R-5, it seemed incomprehensible to them that "such a strange, fragile object could wield such power; that with one push of a button it could vaporize an entire city in an instant." Missile warfare meant that "you didn't need planes, tanks, or troops, or an invasion fleet"; all of Europe (but for Spain and Portugal) was within its range, and five missiles could "destroy all of England."

The Chief Designer's missile immediately countered the American tactical advantage in the air—and did so for bargain bin prices. And that wasn't even the best of it. The Chief Designer had a new rocket in development called the R-7: the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of achieving 450 tons of thrust. (The German rockets taken after the war had a mere 27.) The Soviet officials—Premier Nikita Khrushchev among them—were awestruck.

This is when the Chief Designer made his move to set his secret plan into motion. He brought the men into an adjacent room and unveiled a strange model on a table—something called a "satellite." He launched into an impassioned speech about humanity's quest to escape the bonds of Earth, and that with a few modifications, the R-7 could actually help achieve this dream. The Soviet leadership was unimpressed. Who cared? They wanted to bring thermonuclear devastation to Washington.

Faced with this brick wall, the Chief Designer lied. The Americans, he said, were on the verge of launching one of their very own, and how great would it be to demonstrate superior Soviet scientific strength than by beating the Americans to the punch? All it would take was launching an R-7 missile with the satellite on board instead of a warhead, he explained. Again, the bait was not taken. So he again lied—or at least, exaggerated greatly—adding that the satellite would in no way interfere with the development of the missile.

Korolev, the Chief Designer, had long dreamed of launching an "artificial moon," but had been struck down every step of the way. The problem was the Soviet bureaucracy. At every level, someone could say no to what amounted to a silly, purposeless hurling of metal into space—and at every level, they did. But now, with Khrushchev in the room, he could neutralize and bypass the entire bureaucracy.

"If the main task doesn't suffer, do it," said the Soviet premier.

THE MAIN TASK, SUFFERING

The Chief Designer now had to deliver. Khrushchev believed all of Korolev's promises, and began slashing the expensive Soviet military, which would no longer be needed in this age of missile warfare. What the Chief Designer had failed to mention was that the R-7 was nowhere near ready to launch. It had serious stabilization problems, thermal problems, friction problems, fuel problems—even launch pad problems (specifically: no launch pad existed that could handle such a massive missile). Worse yet, its nose cone was incapable of surviving reentry, which rendered it worthless as a weapon. (The warhead would be destroyed on reentry.)

The first R-7 missile finally launched in 1957. It flew for less than two minutes and crashed. Though pressure was building, the Chief Designer was optimistic. First launches always failed, he knew. But the following month, the second launch failed, too. This time, it didn't launch at all, simply coughing a lot of smoke and falling silent. The launch one month later did take flight—for 33 seconds—before disintegrating.

Only three things saved Korolev from a terrible fate. First, the American rocket program was mired in the sort of bureaucratic infighting that the Chief Designer had managed to avoid. Specifically, the U.S. Army and Air Force had competing missile programs, and undercut each other at every turn, with Congress and the Defense Department each doing their parts to make things more difficult for missile designers. American officials, meanwhile, dismissed rumors of a Soviet manmade moon, and felt no pressure to launch one of their own. As Brzezinski notes in his book, "Russia couldn't possibly smuggle a suitcase bomb into the United States, went one popular punchline, because the Soviets hadn't yet perfected the suitcase." Spaceships were simply laughably beyond Soviet reach. Second, the catastrophic Budapest Uprising distracted the Soviet leadership from paying much attention to the early R-7 failures. Third was an attempted coup d'état against Khrushchev. Settling scores in the aftermath preoccupied his time, leaving the latest R-7 disaster almost unnoticed.

SEEN AND HEARD

The fourth launch of the R-7 was a success, with a caveat: The thermal protection on its nose cone failed, destroying the dummy warhead on reentry. Still, that could be corrected, and anyway, it had no effect on the Chief Designer's real purpose: the satellite, which wouldn't have to survive reentry, as it would be fired into orbit. At last in possession of a rocket that worked, Korolev was ready to launch his satellite—only to be rejected by the state commission overseeing the R-7 program.

Their reasons were myriad. Unlike Khrushchev, the commissioners knew specifically that the satellite would delay the "main task" of getting a thermonuclear bomb over Washington, D.C. Worse, rockets weren't cheap, and there weren't enough supplies to waste an R-7 on the distracting toy of a petulant engineer. Moreover, until the R-7 nose cone was perfected, the nuclear armaments chief couldn't test a live warhead, which meant his own progress was being held up. The ground control officers didn't want to reorient their monitoring stations; their hardware was designed for weapons of war and very specific trajectories—not "satellites" and orbits.

Trajectories especially mattered because Korolev wanted his satellite seen, and this would require careful calculations using the Soviet Union's most powerful computer. He wanted it visible in the night sky over the United States. It's why he chose the construction material ("highly reflective aluminum ... polished to a mirrorlike sheen") and its shape (spherical, so that it would catch the light better). He wanted no doubt that he had done it—that he had placed an object in space and that it was actually orbiting the Earth. It had to be seen. And when it wasn't seen, he wanted it heard. This, too, annoyed Soviet officials—this time in academia. The satellite's payload would not be scientific, but rather, redundant radio transmitters that sent out little pulses. "Hearing," writes Brzezinski, "was also believing."

Korolev had no way of mollifying the Soviet bureaucracy. The nose cone problem could take months if not years to solve, leaving Korolev dead in the water, yet so close to his true goal.

MUSIC NO ONE HAS EVER HEARD BEFORE

Just when hope seemed lost, a second consecutive and largely perfect R-7 test went off, and Korolev again had the attention of Khrushchev. Though the nose cone melted as usual, that the rocket could be said to launch reliably was vindication for Khrushchev, who had bet his nation's security on rocketry and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Chief Designer was more Khrushchev's man than ever, and whatever the Chief Designer wanted, the Chief Designer would get. Immediately, opposition to the satellite launch scurried in opposite directions, with officials worried suddenly that: 1. The United States might launch a satellite first, and 2. Khrushchev would then demand to know who interfered with the Chief Designer's efforts to get there first.

"Simple Satellite 1"—or Sputnik, as it was called—launched on October 4, 1957. When its tracking signal was received at the mission's control room, cheers erupted, though there was hesitation: it still had to orbit the planet. It would take an hour and a half before the signal resumed, the Earth having now been circled. They had done it. "This is music no one has ever heard before," Korolev said at the time.

Few at the time understood the significance of Sputnik. It's possible Eisenhower wasn't even briefed on it the night it made its first orbit. The official White House response thereafter incorrectly credited German rocket engines for the achievement, and dismissed the very utility of a satellite, noting that its "value … to mankind will for a long time be highly problematical." The secretary of defense called it "a silly bauble." A commander of the American rocket program called it a "hunk of iron that almost anyone could launch." (In fact, it would take almost five months and multiple public failures by the American space program before they could repeat Sputnik's success.)

Whatever American officials said publicly, Sputnik's signal simply could not be downplayed or ignored. The beeps were broadcast on NBC, the evening anchor saying, "Listen now for the sound that will forever more separate the old from the new." Ham radio enthusiasts monitored it. Amateur astronomers every evening attempted to find and follow glints of light on the first artificial moon to cross the night sky. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union intended to enter a space race—it all started because one man was obsessed with getting there first. Nobody predicted that the event would eventually transform political priorities in the United States, and as Red Moon Rising details, would dominate global affairs for the next 20 years.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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12 Fantastic Facts About A Wrinkle in Time
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Madeleine L’Engle’s acclaimed science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has been delighting readers since its 1962 release. Whether you’ve never had the chance to read this timeless tale or haven’t picked it up in a while, here are some facts that are sure to get you in the mood for a literary journey through the universe—not to mention its upcoming big-screen adaptation.

1. THE AUTHOR’S PERSISTENCE PAID OFF.

She’s a revered writer today, but Madeleine L’Engle’s early literary career was rocky. She nearly gave up on writing on her 40th birthday. L’Engle stuck with it, though, and on a 10-week cross-country camping trip she found herself inspired to begin writing A Wrinkle in Time.

2. EINSTEIN SPARKED L'ENGLE'S INTEREST IN QUANTUM PHYSICS AND TESSERACTS.

L’Engle was never a strong math student, but as an adult she found herself drawn to concepts of cosmology and non-linear time after picking up a book about Albert Einstein. L’Engle adamantly believed that any theory of writing is also a theory of cosmology because “one cannot discuss structure in writing without discussing structure in all life." The idea that religion, science, and magic are different aspects of a single reality and should not be thought of as conflicting is a recurring theme in her work.

3. L’ENGLE BASED THE PROTAGONIST ON HERSELF.

L’Engle often compared her young heroine, Meg Murry, to her childhood self—gangly, awkward, and a poor student. Like many young girls, both Meg and L’Engle were dissatisfied with their looks and felt their appearances were homely, unkempt, and in a constant state of disarray.

4. IT WAS REJECTED BY MORE THAN TWO DOZEN PUBLISHERS.

L’Engle weathered 26 rejections before Farrar, Straus & Giroux finally took a chance on A Wrinkle in Time. Many publishers were nervous about acquiring the novel because it was too difficult to categorize. Was it written for children or adults? Was the genre science fiction or fantasy?

5. L’ENGLE DIDN'T KNOW HOW TO CATEGORIZE THE BOOK, EITHER.

To compound publishers’ worries, L’Engle famously rejected these arbitrary categories and insisted that her writing was for anyone, regardless of age. She believed that children could often understand concepts that would baffle adults, due to their childlike ability to use their imaginations with the unknown.

6. MEG MURRY WAS ONE OF SCIENCE FICTION'S FIRST GREAT FEMALE PROTAGONISTS ...

… and that scared publishers even more. L’Engle believed that the relatively uncommon choice of a young heroine contributed to her struggles getting the book in stores since men and boys dominated science fiction.

Nevertheless, the author stood by her heroine and consistently promoted acceptance of one’s unique traits and personality. When A Wrinkle in Time won the 1963 Newbury Award, L’Engle used her acceptance speech to decry forces working for the standardization of mankind, or, as she so eloquently put it, “making muffins of us, muffins like every other muffin in the muffin tin.” L’Engle’s commitment to individualism contributed to the very future of science fiction. Without her we may never have met The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen or Divergent’s Tris Prior.

7. THE MURKY GENRE HELPED MAKE THE BOOK A SUCCESS.

Once A Wrinkle in Time hit bookstores, its slippery categorization stopped being a drawback. The book was smart enough for adults without losing sight of the storytelling elements kids love. A glowing 1963 review in The Milwaukee Sentinel captured this sentiment: “A sort of space age Alice in Wonderland, Miss L’Engle’s book combines a warm story of family life with science fiction and a most convincing case for nonconformity. Adults who still enjoy Alice will find it delightful reading along with their youngsters.”

8. THE BOOK IS ACTUALLY THE FIRST OF A SERIES.

Although the other four novels are not as well known as A Wrinkle in Time, the “Time Quintet” is a favorite of science fiction fans. The series, written over a period of nearly 30 years, follows the Murry family’s continuing battle over evil forces.

9. IT IS ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY BANNED BOOKS OF ALL TIME.

Oddly enough, A Wrinkle in Time has been accused of being both too religious and anti-Christian. L’Engle’s particular brand of liberal Christianity was deeply rooted in universal salvation, a view that some critics have claimed “denigrates organized Christianity and promotes an occultic world view.” There have also been objections to the use of Jesus Christ’s name alongside figures like Buddha, Shakespeare, and Gandhi. Detractors feel that grouping these names together trivializes Christ’s divine nature.

10. L’ENGLE LEARNED TO SEE THE UPSIDE OF THIS CONTROVERSY.

The author revealed how she felt about all this sniping in a 2001 interview with The New York Times. She brushed it aside, saying, “It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it. Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, 'Ah, the hell with it.' It's great publicity, really.''

11. THE SCIENCE FICTION HAS INSPIRED SCIENCE FACTS.

American astronaut Janice Voss once told L’Engle that A Wrinkle in Time inspired her career path. When Voss asked if she could bring a copy of the novel into space, L’Engle jokingly asked why she couldn’t go, too.

Inspiring astronauts wasn’t L’Engle’s only out-of-this-world achievement. In 2013 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) honored the writer’s memory by naming a crater on Mercury’s south pole “L’Engle.”

12. A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE ADAPTATION WILL HIT THEATERS IN 2018.

Although L’Engle was famously skeptical of film adaptations of the novel, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay (13th; Selma) is bringing a star-filled version of the book to the big screen next year. Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, and Zach Galifianakis are among the film's stars. It's due in theaters on March 9, 2018.

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