Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Vladimir Putin is obviously not a guy I'd like to have a beer with, and lately he displays a frightening tendency to follow in the footsteps of your average communist dictator. Personally, I have always suspected he was behind the bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 so that he could blame it on Chechen rebels and have an excuse for invading Chechnya a second time. And that was just the beginning.

But last week Putin did something right.

He paid homage to Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov, Russia's Wernher von Braun. An outstanding rocket scientist, he was the man behind the Soviet space exploration programme. It was he who launched Sputnik and brought the first man into orbit, whether it be Yuri Gagarin or the son of aeronautical designer Ilyushin. On January 12, 2007, Putin praised Korolyov as being "not only a brilliant scientist. He was a true pioneer, author of the first great victory of space conquest". Flowers were laid at the space pioneer's grave (in a Kremlin wall), a concert was held at the Korolyov Ground Control Centre (just outside Moscow) and there was even a tribute via videolink from the International Space Station's current crew.

Korolyov, right, with Yuri Gagarin, fis man in space (?)

Who was this Korolyov? He was born in 1907 in Zhitomir, a provincial centre in the Ukraine, as the son of a literature teacher. The young student proved to be a natural talent in mathematics, and studied at the Odessa Building Trades School, the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, and the Moscow N.E. Bauman Higher Technical School. He also displayed an ardent passion for aviation, designing his first glider, the K-5, at age seventeen. Influenced by the writings of Russia's first space exploration theoretician, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Korolyov became interested int he possibilities of rocket-propelled aeronautical design, and in September 1931, together with a certain F. A. Tsander, founded the Moscow rocketry organisation GIRD (Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion), which was funded by the Soviet military. The sponsors did not have to wait long: in 1933 Korolyov and Tsander launched the USSR's first liquid-propellant missile, the GIRD-9. By then the regime had developed a keen interest in the military potential of rocket aircraft and missiles, and expanded GIRD into RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute). They brought in Korolyov's lifelong rival, Valentin Glushko, another brilliant aeronautical designer, who was put in charge of rocket engine design, while Korolyov concentrated on airframes. The two would become lifelong rivals. Their work culminated in Soviet Russia's first rocket propelled manned aircraft: Korolyov's RP-318, which was powered by Glushko's ORM-65 rocket engine.

Valentin Glushko, rocket propulsion specialistThen came, from 1937 on, the Stalinist purges and one year later both Glushko and Korolyov, who was denounced by the former, found themselves in prison, accused of "economic sabotage". Korolyov was sent to a Gulag Camp in Kolyma, Siberia, where he was to dig for gold. The inhumane treatment there cost him his health, which would ultimately lead to his untimely death. It was Korolyov's - and the world's - great fortune that after a couple of months yet another famous Russian aeronautical engineer, Andrei Tupolev, himself a prisoner(!), was able to persuade the Gulag administration to have the rocket scientist work for him in Sharashka TsKB-29, or "prisoner design bureau 29", in Omsk. The sharashkas were special camps set up by the regime in order to not completely waste their human capital. In TsKB-29 Korolyov worked for some time on the Tu-2 bomber, after which he was transferred to another sharashka in Kazan, where he became deputy of... Valentin Glushko. In 1944 both Korolyov and Glushko were released on parole (having sat out the greater part of their sentence of eight years anyway) and the year after both were dispatched to Germany to evaluate captured A-4 ballistic missiles (he A-4 is better known as the V-2, Hitlers Vergeltungswaffe-2). Yet one year later, in 1946, Korolyov was appointed a Department Chief of RNII-8 in Podlipki, northeast of Moscow, and it was from this moment on that his career took a huge flight. RNII-8's task was the development and industrial production of missile technolgy based on German hardware, and in the following years Korolyov first designed the R-2 (a Russian variant of the A-4/V-2) and R-3 ballistic missiles, until, after partly leaning on German concepts (Groettrup's) coming up with the famous R-7, the worlds first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

Soyuz launcher, contemporary scion of R-7 Launcher

Ironically, the original R-7, intended to be launched with a thermonuclear warhead against the United States, was already obsolete before it ever took off. But its derivative, the R-7 Launcher, nicknamed semyorka, was to prove itself an indispensable tool for the Russian space program for the next half century. Indeed, the R-7 derived space boosters are used till this very day to carry Russian manned spacecraft and payloads into orbit and are even right now used for delivering personnel and supplies for the International Space Station. In popular literature, not the denomination R-7 is used but a name, like Sputnik, Vostok (swallow), Voskhod, Molniya or the most ubiquitous term, Soyuz (unity). Actually, the Soviet denomination system caused some confusion in the West because subsequent R-7 generations were often named after newly designed payloads: the R-7 carrying the world's first radio satellite, the Sputnik, was called Sputnik itself, the R-7 bringing into orbit the first manned spacecraft, the Vostok, was of the Vostok type, the R-7 with the first Soyuz (a more sophisticated, three-man crew spacecraft) was of the Soyuz type and so on.

Rear view of first stage of Soyuz (R-7) launcher: core element with main engine, four strapped-on boostersBut the overall look of the R-7 family throughout five decades has remained very much the same: a two-stage booster of which the first stage consists of a core element with a main engine (originally the four-chamber RD-107) and the characteristic four strapped-on boosters, and then a second stage with another main engine (originally the four-chamber RD-108), on top of which the payload is mounted. I'm sure those who sometimes watch Russian spacecraft take off recognize the craft - at first sight looking very much like Sergei Korolyov's maiden R-7 which first took off almost fifty years ago on May 15, 1957 , or the one which, on October 4 of that same year, orbited the first man-made satellite, the PS-1 or Sputnik-1. Of course, the propulsion system was Glushko's work, and the control systems Pilyugin's, but Korolyov was Chief Designer. Without him, the Soviets might not have succeeded in putting first a radio satellite and then a couple of dogs around the earth already in the fifties. Or, on April 12, 1961, the world's first astronaut, fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin, who was the first man to orbit the planet.

Sergei KorolyovThere's another reason, especially for Americans, to like this man. Korolyov, although basically working for the Soviet military, was fascinated by the conquest of space. As we have seen, his R-7 was a failure as an ICBM platform. It needed huge launching pads, was complex to assemble and had lenghty launching procedures. It used cryogenic liquid oxygen for fuel and was radio controlled. Being overweight, it only had a range of 6,800 kilometres, meaning that with a thermonuclear warhead on top it could basically only wipe out the northeastern tip of the United States. Even though MFBB would dread such a scenario, because ripping the state of Maine off the face off the earth would mean I'd have to pay myself for keeping DowneastBlog online, it's clear that the Soviet top brass was not pleased with the military potential of Korolyov's designs. He fell totally out with the Marshals and Generals when he was able to convince the Politburo to drop the development of the Zenit military reconnaissance satellite, begun in 1956, in favor of manned spaceflight, and when the R-7 (ICBM)'s successor, the R-9 (ICBM), proved to be an impractical weapon too, the rift was complete. Note that Korolyov stood virtually alone in this conflict, since not only the other ICBM designers (Chelomei, Yangel) were much more eager to please the military, but also because in addition, Korolyov was standing increasingly alone with his preference for cryogenic liquid oxygen fuel over solid or hypergolic (self-igniting) fuels. Use of the latter, albeit more dangerous, kept the missiles ready to fly at any moment, while Korolyov's cryogenic liquids could only be loaded onto the rockets right before launch, since they boiled off at normal tempareatures. Nothing illustrates the Soviet military's preference - or their dislike for Korolyov - better than how they deployed their early ICBM's: only 54 of Korolyov's R-9 missiles, against 380 of Yangel's R-16's, and 800 of Chelomei's UR-100's (the latter was considered the Russian answer to the US's Minuteman ICBM).

Still, Korolyov's standing was high: his Vostok and Voskhod manned spaceflight programs meant good propaganda for the regime. These years of frantic activity, when Korolyov led the development of several generations of (admitted, unsuccessful) ballistic missiles, launch vehicles, interplanetary probes (Luna, Venera), science, military and communications satellites, and manned spacecraft, marked the high point of his career. His finest realization with regards to the last category is without doubt the Soyuz spacecraft, which in 2006 achieve the milestone of a 40-year operational career. This well-known, most successful spacecraft ever consists of three parts with from front to back, an onion-shaped orbital module, a small aerodynamic reentry module, and a cylindrical service module with characteristic solar panels. A Soyuz offers three cosmonauts nine cubic metres of living space and provides life support for up to 3.2 days. A total of about 230 have been built, in a number of variants, for instance the unm

Things looked suddenly more bright for Korolyov in 1964, when first in August he obtained approval for a Soviet manned lunar lading program. Then, two months later, Kruschev was overthrown, and one of the side-effects was that Chelomei, a favorite of Kruschev and always more concerned about the military aspects in space exploration, was suddenly out of favor. In this crucial fall, Korolyov was able to gather under his control all elements of the Soviet manned space program, and work was begun on the giant, five-stage N-1 rocket, the Soviet Saturn-V.

Then, in 1965 Korolyov was diagnosed with colon cancer. In January of the year after he checked into a Moscow hospital, where he was operated by the Minister of Health himself. Colon surgery was not his area of expertise, and an operation which should have gone off smoothly lasted five hours and went horriby wrong. On January 14, 1966, the father of Soviet Space Conquest died on the operating table, 59 years old, and with him the Russian Moon Landing Program. It is true that the design of the N-1 was from the start marred by technical problems, and that Korolyov's insistence on an automated Moon approach unnecessarily complicated the undertaking. It is true that his stubbornness alienated him from other very talented chief designers, most notably Glushko. On the other hand, his genius, grandiose vision, enthusiasm and ability to inspire and motivate his co-workers and subordinates were legendary. A little more than two weeks after his death, on February 3, 1966, one of his brainchilds, the Luna 9 probe, soft-landed on the moon and sent back the first photographic data of earths closest celestial companion. It was a victory from the grave as well as a fitting epitaph. Although talented, Korolyov's successor, Mishin, was not able to lead the N-1 project the way his mentor might have done. Had Korolyov been allowed to live a couple of years longer, there might - there just have might - have been first a Hammer and Sicle on the Moon instead of a Stars and Stripes:




Some twenty years ago, when I was a student in Ghent, I bought this particular volume in some bookshop:

Three Paces Beyond the Horizon

Its title is, as you can see, "Three paces beyond the horizon", and it contains a large number of anecdotal information (not too technical) on the lives and works of a host of Russian/Soviet rocket scientists and/or space pioneers.

It is a rather thin volume, perhaps half an inch thick, and the photo shows it about real size (okay, maybe it's slightly larger - but not much). Printing quality is atrocious (characters not aligned e.g.), the overall tone is too bookish, and there are obvious lapsuses here and there, starting with the cover itself: one gets no clue who exactly the gentlemen are on the assembled photo. I knew the man to the upper left is Konstantin Tsiolkovski, a famous theoretician who a.o. established that rockets would have to enter space burning up stages in the process. I just found out the fella below him must be Keldysh And the guy below Keldysh is Mikhail Yangel. In the upper right corner we find, of course, Sergei Korolyov. But about the other I'm not sure, though I suspect strongly the guy to the right of Yangel is Chelomei and the one below Korolyov Isaev.

But despite its flaws, I consider this book one of my prized possessions, indispensable in my library. And not only because through it, I got a fascinating glimpse of what went in Soviet space exploration during the Cold War. The fact that it was printed very shortly before the demise of the USSR means something to me too: it's a Time Document of an era which has come to a close.