The Wrong Stuff

How the Soviet Space Program Crashed and Burned


By John Strausbaugh

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A witty, deeply researched history of the surprisingly ramshackle Soviet space program, and how its success was more spin than science.

In the wake of World War II, with America ascendant and the Soviet Union devastated by the conflict, the Space Race should have been over before it started. But the underdog Soviets scored a series of victories–starting with the 1957 launch of Sputnik and continuing in the years following–that seemed to achieve the impossible. It was proof, it seemed, that the USSR had manpower and collective will that went beyond America's material advantages. They had asserted themselves as a world power.

But in The Wrong Stuff, John Strausbaugh tells a different story. These achievements were amazing, yes, but they were also PR victories as much as scientific ones. The world saw a Potemkin spaceport; the internal facts were much sloppier, less impressive, more dysfunctional. The Soviet supply chain was a disaster, and many of its machines barely worked. The cosmonauts aboard its iconic launch of the Vostok 1 rocket had to go on a special diet, and take off their space suits, just to fit inside without causing a failure. Soviet scientists, under intense government pressure, had essentially made their rocket out of spit and band aids, and hurried to hide their work as soon as their worldwide demonstration was complete.

With a witty eye for detail and a gift for storytelling, John Strausbaugh takes us behind the Iron Curtain, and shows just how little there was to find there.
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  • “[A] brisk, rip-roaring account of the Soviet side of the space race… Mr. Strausbaugh’s style is appealingly sardonic, amusing and a touch gonzo. The author has a sharp eye for the bizarre, which lends itself nicely to a story of remarkable dysfunction and remarkable achievement, told against a background where the darkness is not only that of space.”
    Wall Street Journal
  • “I love this book. This is a harrowing and hilarious account of a history that I will admit as a space geek I knew absolutely nothing about.”
    Shane Harris, Lawfare's Chatter podcast
  • “Strausbaugh tells this extraordinary tale in a chatty, familiar voice that adds to the ironies of historical Soviet extraterrestrial adventuring.”
  • “Strausbaugh’s droll sense of humor fits well with this examination of the Soviet space program… [He] clearly enjoyed writing this entertaining book, an accessible, engaging story about an era that, for better or worse, is nearly forgotten.”
  • "Strausbaugh paints an amusing portrait of rockets and spacecrafts held together with little more than bubblegum and shoe strings — and tight-lipped publicity campaigns."
    New York Post
  • “Highly entertaining… The Wrong Stuff is the right choice for readers fascinated by space and the human absurdities that propel us there.”
    Shelf Awareness

On Sale
Jun 4, 2024
Page Count
272 pages

John Strausbaugh

About the Author

John Strausbaugh is a well known author of history books. His titles include Victory City, City of Sedition, and The Village. A former editor of New York Press, he has written about history and culture for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Evergreen Review , the Wilson Quarterly, and other publications.

Learn more about this author