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The Cold War reached a new plateau at a military outpost far in the north of Russia on February 9, 1959: the R-7 Semyorka, the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), became operational on the launchpad of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Just two years after creating a secret program named “Angara,” the Soviet Union kicked the arms race with the United States into high gear.
In the wake of World War II, tensions between the two remaining superpowers -- the USSR and US -- remained at a constant simmer. With both sides eager to ensure supremacy of their political ideals, conflict erupted on the Korean Peninsula at the beginning of the 1950s. In Europe, Communist governments and democratic systems divided the continent into East and West. The separation became all the more pronounced as NATO and Eastern bloc alliances developed military bases with first-strike or rapid-response capability. Desperate to guarantee victory, both sides sought advantages in technology -- with the Soviets taking the lead by all indications.
To this end, engineers in the Soviet Union were put to work conceiving of a two-stage missile with a range of 5,000 miles in 1953. The final design, with a cluster of engines supplied by individual fuel tanks, was approved for manufacture in May 1954. Three years later, flight testing started at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in modern Kazakhstan just months after the highly-classified launch site at Plesetsk was secretly authorized. Despite early failures, the R-7 program progressed rapidly. After a favorable long-range test on August 21, 1957, the Soviet space administration altered the design slightly for use as the launch vehicle for the Sputnik satellites later that fall.
In the vast open spaces of the central Arkhangelsk Oblast, Lieutenant General Galaktion Alpaidze oversaw the construction of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The top secret project would result in an operational intercontinental ballistic missile battery on February 9, 1959 after 20 months of work. Capable of carrying a 3,000-pound warhead, the R-7 put New York City and Washington, DC within range of a Soviet nuclear strike.
Staffed completely by military officers, Soviet officials denied the location existed for decades -- even after a British schoolteacher and his students traced the launch trajectory of the Cosmos 112 satellite to the area in 1966. The expansive sites made it difficult for the Soviets to hide the unit, particularly with American U-2 spy planes known to be flying constant reconnaissance missions. In the event conflict did break out, it is highly likely the R-7s would have been among the first targets on the list for a NATO attack.
Though a revolution in military technology, the weapons system was too unwieldy to be truly effective. The volatility of the liquid oxygen, for instance, meant fuel would be stored in fortified tanks away from personnel. Launching the rockets, then, required a 20-hour process to transfer fuel into the tanks and calibrate instruments. In addition, estimated maintenance costs approached 5 percent of the total Soviet military spending per site. As the years passed, the philosophy for handling the possibility of atomic warfare shifted, rendering the R-7s obsolete as anything but an opening salvo in an assault planned months in advance.
The US and Soviet Union eventually settled on the theory of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) as a deterrent to the use of nuclear weapons. Much like a pair of men pointing loaded pistols at each other to prevent the opposition from firing, the concept was built upon the likelihood of complete annihilation of both nations to force protracted negotiations instead of aggressive action. As such, the quantity of atomic bombs and the speed with which they might be deployed received more emphasis. Submarine-launched missiles and bomber-carried warheads took precedent over large, land-based rockets.
Less than a decade after becoming a viable weapons platform, the R-7 was no longer in the Soviet military inventory. From 1968 on, it shifted to another role -- as the payload carrier for satellites -- one newer generations of the design carry on today in the Soyuz rocket family.
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