Why Russia’s ‘Silicon Valley’ Shouldn’t Scare You

Soyuz 1

Handwringing over the future health of American IT’s become an industry pastime, and though I certainly would like to see more kids graduate with degrees in math and computer science, I think we need to keep our fears in historical perspective.

Consider Russia. Last week, SiliconVally.com’s Mike Cassidy wrote about how President Dmitry Medvedev’s vision of a Russian Silicon Valley might just work. On the other end of the pipeline — the retail end — Apple sees enough promise to open a store in Moscow.

Business competition isn’t the Cold War — there’s not going to be one winner — but I’m having trouble imagining scads of American tech jobs going over to the Moscow burbs anytime soon. My thinking isn’t so much about economics as about faith in American tech professionals. After all, they whupped Russia/The Soviet Union in the biggest tech challenge of the mid-20th century: the space race.

We didn’t get to the moon first because the Soviets weren’t imaginative or committed. They were. But the American program kept its eye on the long- term ball, while the Soviets seemed focused on just getting through the next step.

Sometimes you find perspective in the strangest places. In this case it’s Cracked, in an aptly titled feature, 5 Soviet Space Programs That Prove Russia Was Insane.

Let’s not get into what they did to the dogs they flew in their first spacecraft. We treat our Martian rovers better. Instead, let’s look at their — how shall I say it — QA.

  • Yuri Gagarin, Russia’s John Glenn, was supposedly the first man in space. Apparently there’s notable evidence that he was the first surviving man in space.
  • Years later, inspecting the Soyuz 1, Gagarin found 203 structural problems. His recommendation to scrub an upcoming practice flight was turned aside. See, it was vital that the mission happen on the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution.
  • On launch day, Gagarin showed up on the pad demanding to replace its pilot and his friend, Vladimir Komarov. It’s not that he was a glory hog. He was just sure whomever rode that particular spacecraft was going to die. Komarov felt that same way and refused to let Gagrarin take over. Turned out both were pretty good engineers. They were right. Komarov’s flight was aborted after 13 orbits, and on re-entry his parachutes failed. He was alive and cursing at mission control all the way down.

Of course, we lost astronauts, too: The crew of Apollo 1, who died in a launch pad fire, and later the crews of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. But we also halted our flights each time in order to conduct investigations and modify the spacecraft to be safer.

I don’t doubt the Russians will do well in their tech efforts and will become able competitors. Think about the smarts of their hackers, for instance. But the imaginative way we approach technology tends to turn out pretty well in the long run.