Category Archives: Science

Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

Heidi Krieger: Blue pills and gold medals.

“I still say today that they killed Heidi”. Andreas Krieger, 2013.

Sport is disparaged by some people for its futility, the idea of adults playing children’s games, wasting their time in pursuit of achievements that make little or no difference to ordinary lives. As a friend of mine once said when asked to watch a soccer match: ‘Oh, I don’t think so. The thought of 22 millionaires chasing a pig’s bladder around a pitch is not really my idea of entertainment’. There is, no doubt, some very real justification for this view, with genuine amazement and anger at some of the wages that are paid to top sports stars – and the astronomical figures that are paid for their transfers between clubs. And  when the hype starts over events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, it is natural that some people will really wonder what all the fuss is about. But as some other posts have suggest, some of us do believe that sport matters and is, at times, rather more than just a game. At its best, people love sport because it is unscripted drama and, without being too grand, it says something about societies and cultures as well as the human condition. The skills, fitness, training, conditioning and teamwork required do offer something to admire; the control of emotions and the handling of pressure can offer insights that are valued by many other professionals; and the intensity of competition, the passion, the spectacle and the final result can inspire individuals, give nations pride and create memories that last a lifetime. From Borg v McEnroe to Ali v Foreman, from the Gladiators to the modern Olympics, from WG Grace to Babe Ruth, from Sumo wrestling to cross country skiing, from Brazil in 1970 to England’s win in the Ashes in 2005, sport matters on so many levels.

But sometimes it’s not quite like that and here are two famous examples of why sport is sometimes less uplifting.

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Italian marathon runner, Dorando Pietri, crosses the line at the end of the marathon in London in 1908.

(Author: unknown; source: here)

Lance Armstrong heading for victory in the Tour de France, 2003.

(Author: Gawain78 Source: here)

The looks and the style seen in these two photos are quite different but they are rather similar as both lost their titles: Pietri was disqualified after being helped by judges when he fell a  number of times in sight of the line while Armstrong lost all seven of his Tour titles, as well as many other awards, a lot of money and his reputation, after being found guilty of the use of banned drugs. One was an amateur, guilty of getting unexpected help as he pushed himself to the limit in pursuit of a medal; one was found guilty of the planned and systematic use of drugs so as to push his limits beyond any that were possible under his own ability. Something has changed in sport, and in society, in the century that separates Pietri from Armstrong – and that something is not good as it has left question marks over many achievements in many sports, not the least of them being cycling and athletics, which this post will look at a little more.

Once upon a time, in what might be seen as some naive and glorious days, athletics was all about individual people pushing themselves to the limit, developing their skills, working hard and having a good clean competition. They did this while holding down a full-time job and got little or no reward for their labours. But things slowly changed and events like the Olympics, which were re-established in 1896, took on huge overtones of national pride – or at least they did from the 1930s onwards. In the increasingly nationalistic years between the world wars, victory in sport came to signify something special not just for the athlete concerned but for the nation and the system that they represented. Fascist leaders, for example, came to see their top athletes as products of their system, glorifying their stars as symbolic heroes whose powerful bodies and keen minds somehow reflected the supremacy of their ideology. While the record breaking miner, Aleksei Stakhanov (1906-77), might be a hero for Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was the likes of the boxer Max Schmeling (1905-2004) who Hitler wanted to present as a symbol of Nazi supremacy after his defeat of Joe Louis in 1936. Athletes became representatives, role models and examples of the best that a country could offer, symbols of  the ideology, the diet, the coaching, the lifestyle and so on. Sport was seen as a powerful tool for propaganda and a great turning point was reached with the Berlin Olympics of 1936 which Hitler believed had the potential to cast a revitalised Germany with the world  experiencing a spectacular event with Aryan athletes to the fore. As is well known, one Jesse Owens from the USA, put a number of files into the ointment at Berlin but that did not change the idea that sport could be used to enhance political power by the shaping of opinions. Sport had truly taken on a nationalistic dimension and this was only to be increased after World War II.

In the years following 1945, the Cold war developed between the Western powers which favoured capitalism and democracy, under the leadership of the USA, and the Eastern forces which chose state control and Communism, under the guidance of the USSR. Under Joseph Stalin, there was little time for, or interest in, the power of sport but under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this was to change. A most significant year in this was 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s famous ‘Secret Speech’ (see the post on Khrushchev) which was part of a change of policy from the time of Stalin. The new idea of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ meant that the USSR was going to compete with the west and defeat it by showing the supremacy of its system in terms of art, culture, industry and, of course, sport. The goal would be that these victories would show the workers of the West that they would be better off under Communism and so lead to a revolution – and the collapse of capitalist democracies. Obviously this did not happen but the rise of Communist countries as sporting powers (at least in simpler sports which did not require too much by way of complex skills or technological expertise, such as motor racing, golf, tennis or horse racing) is obvious from the medals table in the Olympic Games from 1956 onwards (see the post on the Olympic Games). The drive for supremacy started in the USSR but was very soon adopted by the satellite states of Eastern Europe with a special emphasis being placed on women’s sport where things were less developed than in man’s sport and where changes based on greater strength and technique could be quickly turned into progress.

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Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), leader of the USSR whose commitment to ‘Peaceful Coexistence’ after 1956 changed the Cold war and was a major influence in the development of drug use in sport. (Author: Heinz Junge; Source: here)

As mentioned, Communist countries such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany soon developed major sporting programmes. High levels of participation were encouraged, elite athletes were identified, and special coaching facilities were established. The elite athletes became full-time in an age when few could do this in the West. Special diets were developed, new techniques explored and a propaganda system was built up to ensure high levels of support for the programmes. Leading athletes were ‘employed’ by the police or armed forces but then trained full-time at their respective sports. The benefits were clear as the USSR soon overtook the USA as the leading country at the Olympics. This was a huge shock to the USA and the West which had grown used to winning medals and dominating the Olympics, amongst other events. In an age in which television and media coverage of sport was developing rapidly, the sight of Communist athletes racing past the best the West could offer raised many questions – and doubts. These concerns in the West were matched by elation in the East but in the drive to maintain and strengthen the advantage, there was a move towards the first systematic use of drugs to enhance sporting performance, most notably in events which required strength and endurance. From the 1960s through into the 1980s, the use of drugs such as testosterone and anabolic steroids, was widespread, and it was all very easy as there was drugs testing at the time, which seems extraordinary to us but was a sign of the way the system tends to lag behind the cheats. One sign of the widespread power of drug use in these decades can be seen in the many records that were set then which marked extraordinary advances – and have not been matched since, especially in the women’s power events like the shot and discus.

But there was a price to be paid for this, and it fell on the athletes themselves. Young gymnasts, for example, were taken from their homes at an early age and forced to work incredibly long hours, often in great pain. For many of the girls chosen for the programmes, the plan was to keep them underweight so that puberty would be delayed which allowed greater flexibility to be maintained. Some went on to successful careers but many others ended up almost crippled through injuries and arthritis, the results of their work-load, training schedule and diet. However, drug use was most common in the endurance and power events, where anabolic steroids were seen to be hugely beneficial to performance. The discovery of the effects of, for example, testosterone on the female body were known and from the 1960s it was injected into many athletes in Communist countries, nowhere more so than in East Germany. Despite having a population of less than 20 million, only a third of the size of the more affluent West Germany, East Germany rose to be the third most powerful athletics nation in the world behind the USSR and the USA during the 1970s and 1980s. The claim made by the authorities was always that success was down to the power of the Communist system the quality of education, the superiority of coaching and the passion shown by the athletes but there was a simpler element to the reason. The use of drugs, of steroids and testosterone, was never mentioned but its effects were clear to all. The authorities were not keen to investigate because it would undermine the sport and run a risk of causing a massive political incident at a time when the Cold war was at its height but many people had serious questions about the progress made by so many people from a limited number of countries and in such specific events.

One particular story can sum up the experience of as many as ten thousand East German athletes, and the thousands of others from around the world, both under Communism and in the West, who ended up using drugs in sport. This is the story of Heidi Krieger, a shot putter born in East Berlin in 1966.


Oral-Turinabol tablets as on display at the DDR Museum in Berlin. (Author: User:FA2010; Source: here)

Heidi Krieger was one of those athletes chosen for an athletics programme in this period who, as part of her training, was required to take a small blue pill. It was an anabolic steroid called ‘Oral-Turinabol’, which contained testosterone. It boosted her muscle growth and endurance as well as helping her to recover from injury more quickly. The distances she could throw the shot went up dramatically – but it had side-effects: increased risk of infertility, increased hair growth like stubble and chest hair, increased risk of breast cancer, greater heart problems and the risk of cancer. Heidi Krieger was just one of nearly a thousand athletes who suffered serious consequences from taking ‘Oral-Turinabol’. She was a successful athlete, winning gold in the shot put with a distance of 21.10 metres at the 1986 European Championships at which East German women won four of the six field events. There were 18 medals available in all for these six events and competitors from Communist countries won 15 of them. And it’s interesting to note that the distances achieved in winning the gold medals in the shot, discus and javelin at the European Championships in 1986 were all greater than those that won gold in Beijing Olympics of 2008 or at London in 2012.

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Heidi Krieger (1966-97) (Author: Wolfgang Thieme; Source: here)

But Heidi Krieger was never comfortable in herself after she started being given the bright blue pills when she was 14 or so. She was given the drug regularly over many years, eventually suffering significant side-effects, growing stubble and other bodily hair associated with men and starting to develop male genitalia. She and her friends watched as their noses grew wider, their hands got larger, their muscles expanded and they became more aggressive. Other complications such as depression, severe acne, liver malfunctions, much deeper voices and reduced libidos were all consequences of the ‘bright blue pills’. She eventually reached the point where she saw that the only way out was to have a sex-change operation and so it was that in 1997 she became ‘Andreas Krieger’. As Andreas, he married Ute Krause, a former East German swimmer, who had herself been forced to take ‘Oral-Turinabol’ pills many years before and had been driven to attempt suicide by the effects. The ‘Heidi Krieger Medal’ is now awarded annually in Germany, honouring an athlete who has combated doping in sport; the gold medal from 1986 forms part of the trophy.

The simple facts of the story of Heidi/Andreas Krieger hide the battle for supremacy in the Cold War. Ideology and image was so important that the system was all and individuals ceased to count. Powerful people at the top of the system, especially in Communism, were willing to use and abuse their own citizens in pursuit of victory, seeing each medal and each record as a nail in the coffin of the other side. Sport was as much a part of the Cold War as were speeches, spies and missiles. People were dehumanised in the pursuit of power and many suffered great emotional and psychological pain as well as physical suffering. It is another reminder that sport is important as a reflection of what human beings are capable of doing – both for good and ill.

And what happened through the use of drugs in sport cannot have been what Karl Marx had in mind when he imagined ‘Communism’ as a system which would create a world of opportunity, equality and justice for all. But this is not only a problem of the Eastern Bloc countries in the Cold War for the abuse of drugs in sport was going on in the West before the Berlin wall came down – and it has continued since, and few major countries or sports have escaped their influence: Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong and dozens of others in cycling; Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and many others in athletics; Mark McGwire and so many others in baseball; the lists go on and on.

But for all that,  sport still has the ability to inspire like few other things; maybe its just a tragic reality that drugs will now always be a part of the script and that they have done so much damage to people like Andreas Krieger.


Find out more

Books: ‘More Than A Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch Books); ‘Rogues, Rotters, Rascals and Cheats’ by John Perry (John Blake Publishing Ltd., 2007); ‘Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat: The Science Behind Drugs in Sport’ by Chris Clarke (OUP Oxford, 2013); ‘The Dirtiest Race in History: ‘Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 100m Final’ by Richard Moore (Wisden Publishing, 2013);  ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’ by David Walsh (Simon & Schuster, 2013); ‘The Secret Race: Inside the hidden world of the Tour de France: doping, cover-ups and winning at all costs’ by Tyler Hamilton and David Coyle (Corgi, 2013); ‘The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography’ by Matt Rendell (Phoenix, 2007).

Film: ‘The Armstrong Lie’ (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2014)



The Space Race: to go boldly where no one has gone boldly before.


Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin. (Author: NASA; Source: here)

‘When the eagle landed on the moon, I was speechless overwhelmed, like most of the world. Couldn’t say a word. I think all I said was, “Wow! Jeez!” Not exactly immortal. Well, I was nothing if not human.’ Walter Cronkite, CBS anchor during the Moon landing in 1969

The Space Race: to go boldly where no one has gone boldly before.

In May, 1961, just after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba which had seen the humiliation of the USA’s attempts to oust Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy, President of the USA, made a rather important announcement. He declared that, ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth’. In doing this, Kennedy was taking a huge gamble because the USA was languishing far behind the USSR in the Space Race at the time, as it had done since 1957 and would do throughout nearly all of the 1960s. It is fair to say that the only part of the race which the USA did win was that last and most prestigious event of 20th July, 1969, when the news that, ‘The Eagle has landed’, was heard all over the earth. In his speech which was requesting funds for the project at the start of the decade, JFK firmly placed the ‘Space Race’ in the broader context of the Cold War. His speech was made just as Alan Shepherd had become the first US astronaut to go into space but this was a relatively short mission which fell well short of matching the feat of the Soviet Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who had orbited the earth in April of that same year. To quote Kennedy at some length, he said:

“If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will be our last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepherd, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

It is a most important decision that we must make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.”

JFK later said, “…we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The significance of the Cold War is clear in the language used here: the USA’s role as leader of the ‘free world’, the significance of the lead obtained by the USSR and the potential glamour from landing on the moon are some of the points to note. The Space Race of the sixties was played out against the backdrop of many important events and struggles including the Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, Khrushchev’s replacement by Leonid Brezhnev, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The Space Race was at the cutting edge of the ideological battle of the age and it was highly symbolic in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’,  as well as the battle for victory in terms of technological ability and individual courage. In this it was an essential part of ‘peaceful coexistence’, the new phase of the Cold War which had been initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956.

In a meaningful sense, the Space Race became a ‘live’ issue on 4th October, 1957. A rocket was launched from Kazakhstan in the USSR and sometime later a simple, ‘……beep……..beep………beep……’ was heard on radios across the world. ‘Sputnik’ (meaning ‘Travelling Companion’ or ‘Fellow Traveller’), had been launched, the first satellite, and it was orbiting the earth. The Soviet Union had taken the first step into space, developing rockets with power never considered possible before. Sputnik had a huge impact on the West, and the USA in particular, as Moscow and Communism seemed to be moving ahead of the West in leaps and bounds. A country which just thirty years earlier had effectively been a backward, peasant economy had gone into space ahead of the developed countries of the capitalist world and people were frightened of what the future might hold. If they had achieved such progress in three decades, and after suffering so badly in WWII, what might they achieve by the end of the century?  Amongst the leaders of Communism in Moscow and the other capitals of Eastern Europe, the experience of putting a satellite into space  gave a massive boost to confidence and self-belief. The belief that the USSR was moving ahead of the USA in technology and performance during the 1950s was picked up in the claim of a ‘missile gap’ in favour of the Communists, a key area of concern to both sides in considering the balance of power. As Khrushchev rejoiced in the success of Sputnik, dark clouds gathered around Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican President of the USA and serious questions began to be asked about his policies and his style.


Sputnik – 1. If you see one today, it will be a copy as the original burnt up on 4th January, 1958, after travelling 60 million km in three months. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Following on from Sputnik, both sides tried to push forward with their rocket development and other aspects of the Space Race. At each point, the headlines went in favour of the Soviet Union. One particularly significant moment came with the USA’s attempt to respond to Sputnik by launching a tiny satellite on a Vanguard rocket in December, 1957. The cameras were present to record what was supposed to be the start of the USA’s fightback – but instead they filmed a humiliation. Shown live on TV, the rocket exploded on the launch pad, leading to one of the great headlines of the decade: ‘Oh, What a Flopnik’. Things looked bad and things were actually getting worse for the West thanks to a Russian dog – but better thanks to a former Nazi scientist.


The explosion of the Vanguard TV3 in  December, 1957, was a source of great embarrassment in Washington. (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

In Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, was delighted by the success of Sputnik but he wanted something even more dramatic to mark the 40th anniversary of the ‘Russian Revolution’. The result of this was that the decision was taken to send a dog into space and so it was that ‘Laika’, a stray mongrel from the streets of Moscow, became famous around the globe. She was launched on Sputnik 2 on 3rd November, 1957. The power of the propaganda was more than enough to justify the decision, as it was an extraordinary sign of how far the USSR had come in four decades of Communist rule. Laika almost certainly died from overheating on the day of the launch, as there had been no food or drink in her capsule for several days. It was known that she would die anyway as the technology for re-entry had not been developed at that point. The purpose of the flight (and the subsequent tests on other animals) was to see if people could survive a launch and weightlessness as well as the impact on the body. In doing this, Laika was a ‘heroine’ who paved the way for many future developments. Maybe she would have been delighted to have found her face on a stamp and a statue made in her honour although she certainly suffered for those honours.


Laika – the first dog in space. Rarely has such a cute looking mongrel dominated the news headlines around the world. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

In 1958, President Eisenhower took a momentous decision in an attempt to show the USA’s commitment to joining in the Space Race. He set up NASA, the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration’, which was charged with developing the research, technology, science and training needed to match the achievements of the Soviet programme. NASA would eventually succeed but in the early years, the USSR generally remained ahead of the Americans, as they put several more dogs into space. But the Americans did launch more powerful and reliable rockets, taking various monkeys into space in 1958 and 1959, the most famous of which was called Baker, who survived the flight, returned to earth and lived until 1984. If only he could have talked…

NASA actually had something to work with thanks largely to a man called Wernher von Braun (Full name Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun (1912-77), a man with the rare distinction of having the great satirist Tom Lehrer write a song about him.) Von Braun was born in a place called Wirsitz just before the Great war, a place which was then part of the German Empire but is today in Poland. Without going to a full explanation of what he did, von Braun became a rocket scientist who worked for the Nazis with his most famous work being the development of  the V-2 rockets, the world’s first ballistic missiles. Over 1400 were launched at Britain from Autumn 1944, and 500 hit London. The rockets weighed 13 tonnes and hit the ground at about 3000 mph, causing over 9000 deaths in the capital.  The worst strike came on 25th November when a V-2 hit a Woolworth’s store in New Cross, killing 168 people. The threat of the rockets was eventually neutralised as the Allies over-ran France, the Low Countries and evenetually Germany itself to secure victory in the west in early May, 1945. Wehner von Braun surrendered to American forces on 3rd May, 1945, and was soon in the USA continuing his work. The truth is that the Nazis loved rockets and were far ahead of any other country in their technological achievements and their developments they made would be central to the Space Race in the Cold War. After the war ended there was basically a carve up of the Nazi scientific community, some going to the USSR, others to the USA and some few to Britain. Luckily for NASA, Wernher von Braun made his way to the USA and was the man charged with sorting out the mess after the failed launch in December, 1957. The rise of the American space programme can really be traced back to the developments made by von Braun who went on to develop the Saturn rockets which would power the Apollo programme. The Space Race really was almost  a case of ‘our Nazi scientists against your Nazi scientists’ as they were central to the early developments in the USSR as well.


Wernher von Braun in his NASA office in 1964. He is standing in front of a number of models of the Saturn rockets which powered the Apollo missions. (Author: NASA; Source: here)

The Soviet Union had deported some 6000-7000 people from Germany at the end of the war as a part of  ‘Operation Osoaviakhim’ which was designed to set up a rocket programme for Joseph Stalin. Recent records indicate that 177 of these were specifically engineers and scientists who had been part of the Nazi rockets programme. Men such as Helmut Gröttrup, an expert on the V-2s flight control system, were instrumental in setting up a Soviet rocket programme in the years after the war. Although Gröttrup and most of the other scientists returned to Germany by the early 1950s, they had a central role in establishing what became the Soviet rocket system.   They left the Soviet trained colleagues to continue the work. The USSR really led the space race during the 1950s and their achievements came simply by building rockets which were more reliable and more powerful than those developed by the USA. In 1959 they had even decided to aim for the moon, quite literally as it turned out. They built a rocket and launched it at the moon, to check that they could both launch something that powerful and to do it with the required accuracy to later travel to the moon. This happened on 12th-14th September 1959 – and the rocket landed just 84 seconds late according to calculations – all of which were made without computers in those days – not bad. This is a section from a report carried in the ‘New York Times’ about the event. It shows the fear and anxiety such events created.

U.S. Failures Recalled

“Some statements also compared the Soviet achievement to last year’s moon-shot failures in the United States. Still other commentators contended that the Soviet feat was made possible by rocket fuels and equipment superior to those of the United States.

But most of all, Soviet propaganda seized upon the event as being of special significance to the forthcoming Eisenhower-Khrushchev talks. The Soviet leader will arrive in Washington tomorrow at the dramatic height of world attention to the Soviet moon strike.

The Premier is certain to offer the event as proof of Soviet might, skill and determination to surpass the United States in all other fields of production and technology.”

Despite the improvement in NASA’s work, the next giant step was again taken by the USSR when, on 12th April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) became the first man to travel into space. He was an officer in the USSR air force and he became a national and an international hero, another sign of Soviet power – and, being considered a rather handsome man, a pin up for many people. His flight lasted 108 minutes during which time he orbited the earth once. Gagarin’s achievement stunned the world and Khrushchev was keen to exploit the propaganda opportunities so he travelled the world promoting the Soviet system and receiving great acclaim. Sadly, he died in an air crash in 1968. Two years later, the USSR achieved another first when Valentina Tereshkova (b. 1937) became the first woman in space, a distinction she achieved on 16 June, 1963.


Yuri Gagarin (Author: Unknown; Source: here)


Valentina Tereshkova with one of the great sixties hairstyles (Author: Alexander Mokletsov; Source: here)

As with the situation in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik, Washington was desperate to respond to the extraordinary achievement that saw Gagarin orbit the earth in April 1961.  There was a response but in some ways, the journey made by Alan Shepherd (1923-98) on 5th May, 1961, only highlighted the gap that seemed to exist. Shepherd was brave but he could only travel using the rocket power available and he was not able to complete a full orbit of the earth, travelling little more than 100 miles on a 15 minute flight, but he was still lauded and treated as a hero on his return. The USA was making progress but was still seemed to be falling further behind the Soviet space programme. In 1971, Alan Shepherd did go one step further than Gagarin, though, by becoming the fifth man to walk on the moon. He also became the first man to hit a golf ball on the moon – and if anyone asks, he hit a 6 iron which went a very long way, apparently.


Astronaut Alan Shepherd the first American in space (Author: NASA; Source: here)

It is important to remember what else was going on around the time of these events in the Space Race. The U2 spy plane incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK and a shift in sporting power at the Olympics were just some of the things that were happening as the struggle for supremacy in space was unfolding. These were high profile events that were causing major changes in the way the two sides viewed each other and the way they were perceived by other countries, especially the ‘new’ countries emerging in what was called the Third World . For the the USA, there was a belief in the need for containment of Communism, the continuation of the policy begun under Harry Truman. As Moscow kept grabbing the headlines and seemed to have the technological advantage, there was a very real fear in the West that these countries would choose to go with communism, seeing that as the way to better protection and a share in the ultimate victory. The developments of the Space Race were not some trivial sideshow; for the politicians, they had a huge impact on politics, technology, the arms race, war, negotiations and the media.

In the end, though, NASA and the USA was able to claim the greatest prize of the Space Race through the Moon landing on 20th July, 1969. The primary reasons for this are rooted in two things: the economy and technology. After Eisenhower’s decision to create NASA, the full weight of the economic machine was put behind the effort to develop the technology needed to catch up with the USSR. At the same time, the Arms Race was also in full flow and capitalism proved far more adept at meeting these twin demands than did Communism. For the USSR, Gagarin was really the high-point of its achievements, and from that point on they were not able to make the same progress. From 1963 onwards, there was a momentum shift towards the USA really because of its industrial might. In the USSR by contrast, the final years of Khrushchev’s time in power were marked by the realisation that the country was failing to develop industrially, and indeed, the whole system was in danger of collapse. The USSR faced many urgent needs and it had no chance of meeting them all: supporting the Red Army and developing nuclear weapons in the Arms Race, supporting its satellites in Eastern Europe through COMECON and doing something to raise the living standards of its own people were just some of the challenges to be met by an industrial system that was creaking at the seams. Industrially the country needed to invest and develop but the pressures were such that this was not possible because the re-structuring needed would mean that they ran the risk of falling further behind the USA, with a potentially catastrophic short-fall in military hardware being the result.  Instead of the re-structuring, some things got cut-back and it was the Space Race that suffered. While NASA was developing the Apollo programme as a response to the inspiration of Kennedy’s vision, the USSR was stagnating in its work which was not really surprising in a country which had food queues and shortages of even the most basic products for its people. Gagarin and Tereshkova might have gone into space but most ordinary Russians had no chance of getting a fridge or a car during the same decade.

The cost of the whole space programme was, indeed, extraordinary, and something that the USA was quite simply better able to handle than the less economically advanced Soviet Union. In the early days of computer technology, almost nothing was available to the USSR and the advantage increasingly lay with the USA as each new stage demanded more and more technological skill and development of resources. The overall cost of putting a man on the moon has been estimated at $150 billion in current values, a level of funding which the USSR could never match. In the long run, attempting to match the NASA programme, developing nuclear weapons, maintaining its huge army and supporting its Communist allies were all factors which contributed to the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s. However, the journey from Sputnik and Laika to Armstrong and Aldrin was far from smooth, even for the wealthiest country in history. There were many disasters and setbacks on the way, none more so than the explosions which cost many lives. The most famous and tragic disaster involved Apollo 1 which exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1967 with the deaths of the three astronauts on board. When put alongside the loss of two Space Shuttles later on, it is a reminder of just how high the costs can be in undertaking space travel.

Overall, the balance of successes in the Space Race lay with Moscow until Apollo 11 pulled it out of the fire for the USA. On 20th July, 1969, Neil Armstrong (b. 1930), Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (b. 1930) and Michael Collins (b. 1930 – who was also the first Italian in space as he’d been born in Rome) achieved this feat together. Collins remained in the capsule while Armstrong and Aldrin landed and then, of course, walked on the moon. Don’t get distracted by all the conspiracy theories, shadows, wind, photos and everything else – if you want that, you’ll have to go somewhere else. It’s just worth noting the huge propaganda victory that it was, the way it saved NASA and seemed to restore American confidence in both the Space Race and the Cold War. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the chaos of the Vietnam War, violence linked with the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power salutes of the Mexico Olympics and the shock of events like Woodstock, all tearing at ‘middle America, ‘The Eagle has landed’ was a boost that was desperately needed in Washington.


One of those controversial photos from the moon landing: Buzz Aldrin and the US flag. If you want conspiracy theories about footprints, fluttering flags, shadows and where was the camera, then there is a load of stuff on the internet. 

And how interesting to note that ‘Man on the Moon’ was Jack Kennedy’s ‘dream’ but it was Richard Nixon who was there to shake hands with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. Funny how things happen sometimes.


Find out more

Books: ‘A Man on the Moon’ by Andrew Chaikin; ‘Space Race: The Battle to Rule the Heavens’ by Deborah Cadbury (Harper Perennial, 2007); ‘Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race’ by  Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman (National Geographic Society, 2007); ‘NASA: the Complete Illustrated History’, by Michael Gorn and Buzz Aldrin; ‘First Man: The life of Neil A. Armstrong’ by James Hansen (Pocket Books, 2006); ‘Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys’ by Michael Collins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Ltd, 2009).

Film: ‘Apollo 13’ (Universal Pictures, 1995), ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (HBO, 1998) and ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ (Channel 4 DVD, 2007)

TV/DVD: ‘The Cold War’ by Jeremy Isaacs (CNN), especially Episode 8 ‘Sputnik’ but the whole series gives a context for the importance of the Space Race; ‘Discovery Channel: NASA’s Greatest Missions’ is a four box set which is a celebration of fifty years of NASA.




Spanish Flu: H1N1 has an older brother


The reconstructed flu virus of 1918. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

‘This is the event we’re all scared might happen at any time, … We’d be faced with an event worse than the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.’ Neil Ferguson

Spanish Flu: H1N1 has an older brother.

‘World War I’ or ‘The Great War’ of 1914-18 was, understandably if a little mistakenly, called, ‘The war to end all wars’. An unprecedented number of people, both soldiers and civilian, died in the fighting during those fifty months from late July 1914, the usual estimate being about sixteen million. On average, that meant just over 10 000 deaths for each day of the conflict, or one every eight seconds. Such numbers may be almost meaningless as they distract us from the significance of the horror itself but they do in some ways offer some idea of the scale of that conflict which was so central to the development of the century itself. Everyone knows something of the war, its causes, its impact on those who fought and its significance but far fewer people are aware of the way that further tragedy reached out from the trenches as the conflict ended. Just as many were celebrating the return of victorious troops and others were seeking revenge and retribution in the light of defeat, an event was beginning to unfold which would take the pain and suffering from the Western front straight into villages and homes around the world. From New York to New Zealand, from Stockholm to Samoa, the suffering would continue and millions more would indirectly become victims of the war which had begun following those assassinations in Sarajevo in June 1914. The cause of all the trouble was ‘influenza’ and the outbreak goes by the name ‘Spanish flu’ – and it was bad.


One of the many posters announcing the danger of ‘Spanish flu’ after the Great War. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 Today, there are a few specialists who are studying ‘Spanish flu’ and the tragic events of the post-war period. Their research has taken on some urgency in recent years as the world prepares itself for what most scientists predict is both inevitable and overdue, namely, the next world wide outbreak of flu, the full-blown successor of one of the worst epidemics in recorded history. No one really knows the true numbers involved but it is estimated that ‘Spanish flu’ killed at least 50 million people around the world between March, 1918, and June, 1920; some estimates put the deaths at 100 million. It should be remembered that this happened at a time when the total population of the world was about 1.8 billion, so the lower figure of 50 million casualties would give an equivalent number today of 190 million, about the same as the population of Brazil. That lower figure would mean that over 3% of the world population died, not on the scale of ‘Black Death’ in 1347-50, when between a third and a half of all Europeans died, but still a pretty astonishing number. There were at least three times as many deaths as in the Great War and they happened in about half the time, giving a death rate six times greater than that in the war; in other words, at least one person died every second because of the epidemic.

Unlike ‘Black Death’ which for most people is not a relevant threat today, despite a few deaths in places like Vietnam, Madagascar and Russia, flu most certainly is a concern. It doesn’t excite people, and especially students, in quite the way that the gory horrors of bubonic plague do, but flu has the potential to unleash nature’s full force upon humanity. It is for this reason that scientists and medical experts are on almost constant stand-by as they monitor developments in outbreaks of flu, most of all for those that start in animals and birds, looking for how they can be transmitted to humans. They give the outbreaks that have raised concerns such dull, technical names as H1N1 or H5N1, but they are reported as ‘Bird flu’ or ‘Swine flu’, cousins of ‘Spanish flu’. The world usually experiences such an outbreak of flu, a pandemic, once every 50-80 years or so; there has been no such outbreak since 1920, so many people predict such an event has to be on the horizon. Many people get concerned about the super-volcano at Yellowstone National Park but, to be honest, they should probably be less concerned about that going up than the flu virus mutating. Sorry.

But, anyway, what happened in the last flu pandemic – and why was it called ‘Spanish flu’? The name of flu epidemics is normally based on the place where the first significant outbreaks were recorded, and in 1918, this meant Spain. The outbreak had actually killed people in France before it got to Spain but it received more attention in the newspapers when the deaths there were reported. That is more than a bit harsh on Spain, though, as research has shown that the outbreak should certainly not be called ‘Spanish flu’ nor, in fact, ‘French flu’ because it really takes us back to the war itself; it should really have been called something like ‘Western Front flu’ or ‘Trench flu’.


Victims of ‘Spanish flu’ were often treated in improvised hospitals and in over-crowded conditions like this in Kansas, USA. (Author: Unknown US Army Photographer; Source: here)

The research done over the years provides the evidence which shows that there was an initial outbreak of this flu in the trenches of the Great War in 1916 or so, after which things went quiet for some time. This was a classic example of how the flu virus exists or operates, if you like, with a relatively small outbreak followed by a quiet period when the virus seems to have disappeared but is actually still around but mutating. Some months later, the virus re-emerges and in the case of ‘Spanish flu’, this happened right at the end of the war; the timing could hardly have been worse. As the fighting came to an end in November, 1918, soldiers were keen to get home and politicians were keen to send them there, and so off they went, moving from Europe to countries around the world: Australia and New Zealand, India and China, the USA and Canada, many parts of Africa and most of Europe.

The end of ‘The war to end all wars’ was perfect for the flu virus and it was unleashed on every continent, carried home by the troops as they celebrated victory or survival, spreading easily amongst them as they were living so close to each other on ships and trains. Many of them lived in crowded housing at home, passing the virus on to their families and so the disease spread with devastating speed and frightening consequences. Without realising it, they were taking a far greater danger home than the one they had survived. As many as 60% of people in some countries caught the disease and, as mentioned, over 3% of the world’s population died. The death rates were huge: in Britain, 250 00 died, in France it was 400 000, in the USA at least 500 000. In India, unconfirmed statistics suggest as many as 17 million people died, as many as the total deaths in the Great War. In some communities which had no immunity to flu, the death rates were far higher, reaching over 20% in islands like Samoa in the Pacific Ocean, some 10 000 miles away from the trenches.


Burials of flu victims on Labrador, Canada, in 1918. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Thanks to some astonishing scientific work, we actually know just what the flu virus of 1918-20 was like as it has been found in the remains of people buried in the icy wastelands of Alaska and other places inside the Arctic Circle. On Spitsbergen, for example, which is to the north of Norway, seven coal-miners died of ‘Spanish flu’ and like many others, they were buried in shallow graves on the island. Their bodies were perfectly preserved in the frozen ground, allowing them to be removed so that scientists could study the virus and learn from the way it mutated. The story of what happened in the outbreak is understood very well – and it carries serious warnings from history. Hopefully medical science will be able to offer better protection than that available after the Great War but despite the extraordinary developments seen in medicine and technology since 1920, the next flu pandemic will come and there will be casualties; keep your fingers crossed.


Find out more

Books: ‘The Great Influenza’ by John M. Barry (Penguin, 2009); ‘Living with Enza’ by Mark Honigsbaum (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008); ‘Flu – A Social History of Influenza’ by Tom Quinn (New Holland Publishers Ltd, 2008)