The Yugoslav Space Programme

One of the great things about tutoring students is that you learn things. I am lucky enough to teach across the range of undergraduate and very bright sixth-form, with almost no restrictions bar the proper requirement, enforced by the market, that some of my learning is reciprocated by their examination success. I've had epiphanies when doing so--moments of extreme pleasure that just arise because someone has learned something, or because a group from some country far along one of the compass points is about to grasp a point. I love the challenge of it all.

So, there was I last week, after a neat tutorial on American governance, and a bright young man of Serbian extraction fell into chatting about collective presidencies with me--we'd been discussing the capacity of the US Senate to run the country, as by some accounts it had orginally been intended to do. Then he produced the following video on the monitor for me;

It speaks to my narcissism that the first thing I noticed was Tito was a redhead. However, my suspicion monitors then hit the roof. I can believe contradictory things. I can look for tolerance from modern liberals, or believe that cutting taxes spurs growth, that there are good Tories and that the left are not all mad. A Brandy Alexander might, just, function as a cocktail. Nikolai Tesla was a genius.

But a ballistic and operational Yugo-Space programme, transferred to the USA after Gagarin?

So, off I went to Andrew Smith's 'Moondust' and Annie Jacobsen's (serious) history of Area 51, both of which I have on my shelves. I even briefly considered George Pendle's biography of John Whiteside Parsons, the 'Strange Angel' of American ballistic rocketry, just in case any of the nutcases on the NASA programme ( which divided between nutters, Nazis, and serious American patriots, unlike the nuclear programmes which were much more Marvel Comics) had any Balkan connection. The founder of aeronautics, after all, was an Austro-Hungarian Slovene.

Nada. No history indexed any link between the USA and Tito in space technology, which is of course what one would expect. Then again, a 'supersecret' link wouldn't show, and the US certainly had 'secret' technology which was quite advanced in the early sixties; John Newman, backed by James Bamford, the historian of the National Security Agency, has noted a computer capacity to scan up to 1000 radio communications between the USA and Cuba as early as 1962, for instance, and the U-2 and A-12 Oxcarts were kept secret for a time too.

I departed for the internet, which, as in increasingly the case, is more productive in suggesting answers to issues. The film above notes the existence of a large underground chamber in a mountain. A little snarfling around yielded a treasure trove of pictures from someone who had actual knowledge of the 'base', which he denied had anything to do with a space programme and which, in reality, offered protection for the air force in the event of nuclear war. I've blogged before about underground bases, large and small. In this country, they range from two-bunk monitor stations near Victorian follies, through essex bunkers hidden below bungalows, to full bases in the south west which are now shut but which I'd love a chance to go down. The extensive tunnels of the Maginot line and its predecessors are all still extant too. None of them imply 'space bases', and for that matter few of them were very secret from the local population. All soldiers like a pint.

I found myself wondering how much money a state needed for a space programme, as opposed to a single space 'shot' or the rental of existing space technology. Yugoslavia is a state fondly remembered, but the Dinar was never even a Deutschmark, and it wasn't as productive as East Germany was within the socialist world. It also hadn't got any captured German scientists, unlike the Soviet Union or the USA. It doesn't seem to me that it could have afforded a space shot, even were it capable of one. Lagari Celebi may be a hero of this blog, but getting into space is not the same thing as sitting on any old explosive pointing upwards. The chemicals, metals, and propulsion systems involved alone are worth millions of man hours.

There is no record of Yugloslavia suddenly becoming richer between 1948 and 1963; no massive increase of funds swelled the budget, and most of their spending seems to be accounted for. It seems extraordinarily heavy--60% of federal Yugo funds went on defence, and in the late eighties they were still spending $2.5 billion--but the money went on men and tanks, and besides, a couple of billion does not a space programme make.

A different tack when seeking to confirm or deny things like the proposition put to me--that a small Balkan country had a space programme--would be to look at whether there were any obvious breaks in technological development. In fact, in the US context, there weren't, at least after the Nazis arrived at White Sands. There is a fairly solid evolution of the US rockets from Titan, Redstone, and Atlas rockets, which in turn were engineered upwards by thousands of US engineers, as Smith and many others demonstrate. The other things which struck me was that Britain, the US, and the USSR all had programmes which could provide near-equatorial or remote launches, making things far easier for an escaping rocket which might, of course, come down quickly in pieces. Yugoslavia had no such place. Nor was any 'technological footprint' obvious in subsequent Yugo life.

One tack remained. The US had reached out, the 'documentary' above stated, under JFK. JFK did have an 'outreach' as such, but to an anti-USSR socialist state, much as Britain reached out to Romania's execrable regime. It formed a part of a very long, and hard-bargained relationship that had begun in the 1940s and which paled beside the relationship of Yugoslavia and Italy. None of the surviving Kennedy tapes which have been released to the public, mention a space programme; in fact, the following is representative.

So, no Yugo space programme. It's important to take people at their word, and if you want to dismiss someone, to dismiss them with evidence, or with a reasoned argument, I've always thought. On the matter of Yugoslavia in Space, I'm afraid I'm unconvinced--though if a ruined set of seven moonbases, connecting tunnels severed and hopes destroyed emerge, with euro flags now on top of them and fantastic iterations of Balkan nostalgia playing out into the moonlight, I'll change my mind....


Edward Spalton said…
One thing is very remarkable about Yugoslavia's defence forces - how few of their armoured vehicles were destroyed by the "surgical strikes" of NATO air forces in 1999. The force which eventually withdrew from Kosovo was largely intact.

Of course, the "international community" bombed from high altitude to avoid anti aircraft missiles, using some guided bombs (like the one which took out the Chinese embassy so precisely).

Near the time one heard that heat seeking bombs and missiles had been diverted by decoys made from microwave cookers. It was also said that when the Yugoslavs downed a "stealth" bomber, they signalled "We're sorry. We didn't know it was invisible".

I never did any research into these claimed incidents but it would be rather nice if they were true.
Martin Meenagh said…
Yes, I remember that Chinese embassy 'accident' quite well. The bits and pieces of the stealth fighter--designed to bomb high-tech opponents, of course--ended up being bought from various Serbian farmers by Chinese businessmen and reassembled as part of the derivative programmes of the People's Republic. I quite like watching the videos, but I'm not convinced anything can beat US planes now that the USSR has gone. Do you follow the industry? I was always quite taken with the ekranoplans and forward-wing SU-47s berkuts.

The Serbs also seem to have made great use of radios and old-fashioned means of communication, a bit like Terry Waite talking Latin in Beirut, so it didn't matter who listened in.

I have found in blogland that to have opinions on the Yugoslav wars is to wade into a morass. I have a few prejudices, though; I think that the Croatians got away with a good deal, I think that the Serbs should never have let themselves be dragged in by the Bosnians, I think that the KLA were very shady people, I can see that there were all sorts of jobbing mujaheddin down there, and I wish that we had leaders with the sense, knowing Serbs as I do, to have put some missiles into the ground before everything kicked off. We should also have put the likes of Arkan away, and if we wanted to personalise the fight with the leadership, hit them and not janitors and people serving their country. Instead, we listened disastrously to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and Dick Morris' obscene polls, and sundry behind the scenes interests, abandoned Srebrenica, bombed too late and then started glorying in slaughter--after the mass killings. It was all awful, and a mess.

As you have probably read before, the counterfactual part of me wishes not only that enosis had happened but that the Greeks had joined Yugoslavia in 1947. Their imprisonment under the colonels, grotesque credit-fuelled spoilsmen and now the IMF/EU was hardly much better than Tito.

Popular Posts