Why were the Russians always able to land their cosmonauts on land while we had to land our astronauts on water? --Jim Blewer, Alameda, California
What's so great about coming down on land? It's just that hard landings were better suited to a country with lots of territory, not much money or hospitable ocean access, and a craving for secrecy. Unlike the U.S., which had a long coastline, a large, well-equipped navy, and the characteristically American impulse to put on a good show for the rest of the world.
The Russian space center is located in central Asia in the midst of a huge unpopulated grassland. Landing nearby seemed like the obvious thing and was only slightly more challenging technically than landing in water. Both U.S. and Russian spacecraft slow themselves with retro-rockets to start their descent, then open parachutes once they reach the atmosphere. The difference is that the Russian craft fires another smaller set of retro-rockets just before touchdown to soften the impact. I'm told it's still a bumpy landing, although all the cosmonauts seemed to have lived through it. (One cosmonaut was killed when his spacecraft's parachute became tangled during reentry, and three more died when their cabin lost pressure just before descent, but the accidents would have been fatal even if they'd occurred during a water landing.)
The best part about a land recovery operation is that it's dirt cheap. According to space engineer and author James Oberg, an authority on the Russian space program, a Russian recovery team typically consisted of maybe 20 or 30 guys with helicopters and half-tracks, compared to the vast fleet that we money-is-no-object Americanskis used in the days before the space shuttle. The drawback is that if you miss your intended landing point, you could be in for a long wait. Astronauts who overshot in the early days sometimes had to wait a couple hours to get picked up; cosmonauts have been known to wait a couple days. One hopes they brought a copy of War and Peace to while away the time.
If Cuba has been an enemy of the USA for all these years, how is it that we have a military base on their soil? --Bill Reichle, Berkeley, California
What's your complaint? From the standpoint of logistics, you can't get much more cost-effective than stationing your troops in the enemy's country. Obvious advantage number one: If you declare war, forget that Desert Storm airlift stuff. Just tell the guys to start heaving hand grenades over the barbed wire. Obvious advantage number two: You know your people aren't going to sleep on sentry duty. In fact, the only reason this advanced strategic concept isn't more widely employed is that under ordinary circumstances it's difficult to get the bad guys to cooperate. We foresightedly finessed that one by establishing the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (the military base you're talking about, commonly known as Gitmo) on Cuba's southeast coast in 1903, when Cuba and the U.S. were still on friendly terms. It's been there ever since and probably always will be. The weather is great, and the place is convenient to just about any spot in the Caribbean. What's more, the lease has no termination date, the rent is ridiculously low ($4,000 a year, utilities not included--the Cubans cut off the water and electricity in 1964, and the base now provides its own), and best of all, to show his disgust with the Yanquis, Fidel won't cash the checks! The landward side of the base is completely surrounded with the whole Berlin Wall scene of land mines, high fences, and watchtowers, erected in stages after Castro's takeover because (a) the Americans got tired of having the Cubans throw rocks at them and (b) the Cubans got tired of having their countrymen jump the fence and ask for political asylum. In recent years Gitmo has been used to put up Haitian refugees, and the question arose whether children born to them while on the premises were U.S. citizens. No way, federal authorities replied. Sure, our landlord hates us and we stay here mainly by force of arms. But the fact remains that we don't own Guantanamo (which arguably would confer citizenship), we just rent.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illusrtration/Slug Signorino.