As I write these lines, Vladimir Putin has just announced the approval by the Russian government of the first COVID-19 vaccine, which he has dubbed Sputnik-V.
The name is meant to emphasize Russian technological superiority. The “V” stands for virus. The name “Sputnik” hearkens back to one of the great moments in the history of the now-defunct Soviet Union.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite, the first artificial moon. All the thing did was beep a radio signal — beep, beep, beep. But American ham operators listened with awed and somewhat frightened attention.
And American amateur astronomers calculated the times of its passage over the American continent. Members of the Columbus Astronomical Society, under the direction of long-time president Jane Gann, observed the fast-moving point of light during its Moonwatch program. They developed a special wide-field “Moonwatch” telescope, one of which was on display at Perkins Observatory during my watch as director there.
Just one month later, the Soviets followed up by launching the first animal, a dog named Laika, into orbit. And on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin spent 90 minutes in space during a single orbit of the Earth. The Soviets had beaten us at every turn.
The Sputnik launch sent a collective chill through our country. If the Soviets could launch satellites into orbit, they also had the capability of launching Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles tipped with nuclear weapons toward America.
They had seemingly triumphed over us technologically, to be sure. But more significantly, they had hung a thermonuclear sword of Damocles over the American people.
On the technological level, the launch was certainly a lesson but, as it turns out, it was decidedly not the one the Soviets wanted us to learn about Russian technological superiority.
All the Soviets really had was a powerful rocket, a Big Dumb Booster, as such rockets were later dubbed. Sputnik did little more than beep. Subsequent American satellites produced mounds of valuable scientific data.
Laika was left to die horribly in space, because the Soviets in their haste to beat us, had not yet developed a way to return satellites from space. In their haste to beat the Americans to a human flight, the Soviets kludged together a spacecraft without a reliable reentry system. It was never designed to return safely to Earth. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere like a bullet. Gagarin was ejected at high speed from the craft at about 20,000 feet, which is not the safest way to return to Earth.
The race to the moon was on. In the early days, the Soviets built up first after first in space achievement.
Americans took a more measured approach that emphasized the safety of the astronauts on board. They tested rockets by first launching them without life on board and blew up a few in the process. They preceded John Glenn’s three orbits of Earth with straight-up-and-down suborbital flights, first with chimpanzees and then with humans.
The Soviet program was done in secrecy in large part to hide their failures. The American efforts were accomplished under the sharp glare of television cameras.
The Soviets had a good reason for secrecy. They lost as many as five cosmonauts in the race to the moon. Secrecy meant that they could bask in the successes and hide the deadly failures.
Part of America’s slowness at the start rested on technology. The Americans did not possess a powerful rocket. They had to develop miniature technology. While the Soviets were still using tubes in their spacecraft, the Americans were using transistors.
When Americans needed more powerful rockets, they developed new ones from scratch. The Russians simply strapped together more and more of the same rocket motors.
In the end, it was the lack of Russian technological superiority that spelled the failure of the Soviet moon program. Americans developed in careful stages the reliable Saturn V booster with a first stage consisting of five powerful rocket motors.
The Russians strapped together 30 rockets to produce their N1 moon rocket. A key element of the technological calculus is that one rocket has only a small change of failure. Strap 30 of them together, and that small chance is multiplied many times.
Also, America’s space program insisted on very exacting standards for its rocket parts. The Soviets were not so picky. Combine 30 rocket engines with the Soviet’s notoriously hurried and shoddy workmanship, and they had a recipe for failure.
In their haste to beat the Americans, the Soviets blew up four N1 rockets. The second explosion is still considered to be the largest non-nuclear detonation in human history.
The lesson is clear. When it comes to human life, haste — especially when it is politically rather than scientifically motivated — can be deadly.
Significantly, the Russian vaccine has not yet entered phase-3 testing. The Russians have over one billion orders for a vaccine that has not yet achieved the extremely stringent American criteria for safety and effectiveness.
The Russians have replaced careful science with political bluster. Putin announced that he was so sure of the vaccine’s safety that he allowed one of his daughters and his parents to be injected with it.
The Americans have taken and continue to take a more measured approach involving strict standards of efficacy and safety.
If you don’t agree that such stringent standards are necessary, I have a one-word reply — thalidomide.
The drug was first synthesized in 1954 by a German pharmaceutical company. At first, it seemed like a miracle drug. It had the same sedating effect as barbiturates, but overdoses caused a deep sleep and not death as in the case of barbiturates.
The drug was widely prescribed to expectant mothers worldwide as a palliative for morning sickness and prenatal anxiety. In some countries, it even became an over-the-counter drug.
However, the German firm never did the kind of careful three-step study that is now required by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States. As a result, they had no hard evidence for the efficacy and safety of the drug.
Soon, problems began to appear. Babies were born horribly deformed, many with stunted, twisted, or missing limbs. In the deadlier cases, vital internal organs were seriously malformed. About 7,000 babies with internal malformations were stillborn or died soon after birth.
For the 3,000 survivors, decades of coping with malformed limbs have meant greater wear and tear on remaining joints and muscles. They have to live with chronic pain caused by premature arthritis.
America was spared because of the vigilance of one person at the FDA.
Thalidomide did not enter the U.S. market because Frances Kelsey refused to authorize its use. She did so because the drug manufacturers could not provide evidence of the drug’s safety.
The birth defects caused by thalidomide led to the development of stronger drug monitoring in many countries, notably in the United States. Manufacturers were required to prove the effectiveness and safety of a proposed drug and to disclose the side effects they discovered during stringent tests.
Some Americans, including our current president, argue that such restrictive regulations inhibit economic growth. I will not quarrel with their point of view.
However, those regulations are there to prevent tragic results. In the short run, stringent testing of vaccines protects your health and safety. In the long run, environmental regulations protect your children by protecting the planet’s environment.
And that’s why an unrushed and systematic approach is always the best course in any endeavor that involves the health and safety of humans. We must ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease.
During the space race, the Russians rushed to be first and failure and tragedy were the ultimate costs. The more systemic approach of the Americans led to ultimate success.
During the current health crisis, the easy path is to believe our politicians when they tout “simple” cures. Without careful scientific study, such cures can for some of us lead to disastrous consequences. As in the case of hydroxychloroquine, early wishful thinking by politicians was contradicted by careful scientific study and analysis.
The easy path is to crash toward a cure in the hope that it will gain some politician political advantage. Putin’s vaccine, Sputnik V, has been given at most to only a few hundred people. Some sources say fewer than 100.
Before the world gets its hopes up, a phase III test must be undertaken. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of people must be given the vaccine before we can be sure that it is effective and, more importantly, safe.
The hard path is to wait for science to catch up to emotionally-based conjecture. The hard path is to avoid crowds, wear masks, practice physical distancing, and wash our hands at every opportunity.
In that regard, I can only speak for myself. Like all sane people, I am afraid of dying of this disease. But death only happens once. If I had even the smallest suspicion that my unwillingness to adhere to those simple guidelines led even to one person’s death, I would die a little from sorrow every day for the rest of my life. Therefore, I will choose the hard path.
I will be content to bide my time and trust in the systematically slow but effective scientific method. I will avoid the false hope that haste engenders lest the cure be worse than the disease. I will trust in science to get us to this generation’s moon shot.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.