April 12, 2011, marks the fiftieth anniver- sary of the first time a man left planet earth and entered space, thereby inaugurating a completely new era of human exploration and potential future development.
As a practical engineering concept – as distinct from myth, fantasy and latterly science fiction – it all started with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935). Of course, rockets have existed since at least the thirteenth century, but it was Tsiolkovsky, who worked as a schoolteacher in Kaluga, some 150 km south-west of Moscow, who developed the fundamental principles for the development and use of rockets for spaceflight. Although he never built a rocket himself, he basically thought out nearly every aspect of how to do it and make it work and fly in space.
The first Russian liquid-fuelled rocket, the GIRD 09, flew in 1933, two years before Tsiolkovsky’s death – GIRD being an acronym for the Group Studying Rocket Propulsion (but the first successful liquid-fuelled rocket was flown by US pioneer Robert Goddard, in 1926). The GIRD was an unofficial group, but the success of the GIRD 09 led to the authorities setting up the Reaction Propulsion Institute (RNII) which employed members of the group.
The Soviet Union became a world leader in rocket research and development, but, in 1937, the staff and associates of the RNII became engulfed in the murderous purges that had been unleashed by then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Key researchers were shot and almost all the rest were tortured and sent to labour camps. Serious Russian work on rocketry only restarted after the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941, with the surviving rocket experts recalled from the labour camps and prisons.
As a result, the Germans (who were well aware of Tsiolkovsky’s work) took the lead in the 1930s and 1940s, leaving everyone else far behind. It should be noted, however, that the German rocket engineers and technicians taken to Russia during and after 1945 were never integrated into the USSR’s main rocket development projects. Rather, they were used for collateral research and to cross-check each other and to check Russian developments.
The Chief Designer
In 1946, the Kremlin ordered the establishment of the Scientific Research Institute 88 (NII-88) to develop ballistic missiles and rockets. In 1950, Section 3 of the NII-88 was redesignated Experimental Design Bureau 1 (OKB-1) and in 1956, the OKB-1 was separated from the NII-88 to become an independent organis-ation. It was the OKB-1 that was responsible for the design of Soviet space rockets and spacecraft (as well as some military missile and space systems).
From its foundation, until 1966, the OKB-1 was headed by engineer Sergei Korolev, who was the driving force behind the Russian space programme and all its early triumphs. Born in 1907, his death in January 1966 at the age of 59 inflicted a blow to the country’s space programme that took nearly a decade to overcome (and helps explain the USSR’s failure to send a manned mission to the moon). Korolev had been a member of the GIRD and worked for the RNII and had endured great suffering during the purges.
His first achievement at the OKB-1 was the development of the R-7 rocket. Because of their lack of experience with multistage rockets, Korolev and his team opted for a design involving a single stage with four large strap-on boosters. The Russians refer to stages and boosters as blocks and designate these by letters in the cyrillic alphabet, so the R-7 first stage was (and is) Block A and the four boosters were (and are) Blocks B, V, G and D.
Originally intended to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7 was a failure in that role, being too big and taking too long to fuel and launch. But Korolev adapted it to launch spacecraft. And, in that role, it proved a brilliant success, becoming Russia’s dependable workhorse launch vehicle.
Over the following decades, the R-7 was to be developed, refined, fitted with extra stages, and, in the form of its most recent version, the Soyuz rocket, remains in service today. Between 1956 and 2006, the R-7/Soyuz family racked up more than 1 700 launches, much more than any other space launcher.
Naturally, there were problems in developing the original R-7. The first three launches were failures. Nevertheless, on October 4, 1957, an 8K71PS version of the R-7 launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, stunning the world.
But Korolev was unable to personally receive the plaudits of the world. Then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared Korolev’s identity a State secret and he was referred to in public as the Chief Designer. Only after Korolev’s death was his name revealed.
The powerplant for the R-7 was the RD-107 rocket, developed by the OKB-456 during 1954 and 1955, under the direction of its chief designer, engineer Valentin Glushko (1908–1989). Glushko had also been a member of the GIRD and had also been purged and imprisoned under Stalin, but not as badly treated as Korolev.
Fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene, each RD-107 had four cylindrical combustion chambers, and the oxygen and kerosene were simultaneously pumped to all four of these chambers by a single turbopump. At sea level, each RD-107 had a thrust of nearly 81 t.
Like the R-7, the RD-107 has been developed and refined ever since. More than 8 500 rocket motors of the RD-107 family have been built and the latest versions are still in production. Each block of the R-7 was fitted with one RD-107, but the first stage (Block A) carried (and still carries) more fuel than the boosters, so, after the boosters have used up all their propellant and are jettisoned, the first stage motor continues to burn, driving the rocket higher and faster.
Of course, rockets, missiles and spacecraft are useless without guidance and control systems, and the engineer responsible for these systems in Korolev’s team was Boris Chertok (born 1912), who was deputy chief designer from 1956 to 1992. An electronics specialist, Chertok escaped the purge.
After Sputnik I, the Russians rapidly moved from just sending satellites into orbit to sending probes to other worlds, with the moon as the first target. This required the first major development of the basic R-7 design, the adding of a second stage, designated Block Ye, and powered by an RD-108 engine, which is basically an RD-107 adapted for use on the second stage. This version of the rocket was designated the R-7A 8K74, and it could also put much heavier craft into earth orbit – spacecraft of up to 5 t, big enough to carry a human being (Sputnik 1 had a mass of about 84 kg).
Korolev was the driving force behind the development of a manned space programme in the USSR. With the help of a prominent Soviet scientist, academician Mstislav Keldysh (1911–1978) and the then chairperson of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR for Defence Technology, Minister Konstantin Rudnev (1911–1980), Korolev persuaded the authorities to authorise a manned space programme, alongside the development of a spy satellite, in the top secret State Decree of May 22, 1959.
As, in those days, high-resolution cameras were pretty much as big and as heavy as a human being, and as the only way to get high-resolution photographs back to earth was to physically drop them in re-entry modules, this opened the way to using the same basic design for both manned flight and unmanned reconnaissance missions. The spy satellite was to be designated Zenit (which translates as zenith), and the crewed craft, Vostok (east, or orient).
The key figures in the development of Vostok were Mikhail Tikhonravov (1900–1974) and Konstantin Feoktistov (1926–2009), who started with preliminary studies in August 1958, with work starting on control, life support and other systems later that year – and, note, months before the OKB-1 received official authorisation to do so. Tikhonravov had been a member of the GIRD and the RNII, but escaped being purged, and had met Tsiolkovsly in 1934. Feoktistov had been too young to be involved with Russian pre-War rocketry and had fought during the Second World War, and had been wounded. According to Chertok, Feoktistov was the chief conceptual designer of the Vostok.
April 1959 (the month before the programme was officially authorised) saw the compilation of a secret draft plan for Vostok and, late the next month, the initial calculations of re-entry flight paths were produced. After much discussion, Korolev endorsed Tikhonravov and Feoktistov’s design concept for the Vostok. The spacecraft was composed of two modules, one containing the instrumentation and manoeuvre systems, and the other, known as the descent module, the pilot. The descent module was spherical in shape, as this was the simplest form for the designers and aerodynamicists.
For the return to earth, Vostok would fire a braking rocket, and the descent module would separate from the support module and drop back into the atmosphere in a ballistic trajectory. Once in the lower atmosphere (at around 8 000 m), the descent module would deploy parachutes and soft-land on the ground. The liquid fuel braking engine was developed by the OKB-2, headed by Aleksei Isayev (1908–1971).
The first version of the new spacecraft was the Vostok 1K, intended for development trials work and not for human flight. All Vostok 1Ks were launched by R-7A 8K72 rockets, fitted with third stages (or Block Es in Russian parlance).
The first Vostok 1K was actually designated the Vostok 1KP because it was not fitted with a life support system nor with thermal protection for re-entry, and flew on May 15, 1960, in a largely successful mission – except that the re-entry control system failed, firing the braking rocket when the space craft was not in the proper orientation. The result would have been fatal for any crew on board, as they would have been marooned in space until after their air had been exhausted. The subsequent Vostok 1Ks were equipped with life support and thermal re-entry protection systems.
The second Vostok test flight carried two dogs, Lisichka and Chaika, and lifted off on July 28, 1960. Sadly, it broke up only 38 seconds into the flight, killing both animals. Korolev had been particularly fond of Lisichka. The cause was determined to be the disintegration of the combustion chamber of the RD-107 engine in Block D (one of the boosters), itself the result of high frequency vibrations that were probably the result of substandard manufacturing processes.
The death of the dogs drove home the need for an escape system for the Vostok and one was rapidly developed. On the next flight, the dogs assigned to the mission – named Belka and Strelka – were accommodated inside an ejectable pressurised container, with its own parachute, in case of an emergency. The craft also carried a number of rats and mice, as well as instruments to monitor their health and behaviour.
It was launched on August 19, 1960, and successfully orbited a number of times; how- ever, the primary re-entry control system failed. The backup system worked and the craft returned to earth, the dogs successfully being ejected and rescued, no worse for wear.
The next flight, also with two dogs (Pchelka and Mushka) and other smaller animals, took off on December 1, 1960, and spent a day in space. But the braking engine did not fire properly and although the descent module successfully re-entered the atmosphere, the spacecraft was headed for touchdown in China. The automated control system activated a self-destruct system, blowing the module to pieces and killing its passengers, but preventing the Chinese getting access to the latest Soviet technology. (Self-destruct systems were not fitted to manned spacecraft.)
The last of the Vostok 1Ks was launched on December 22, 1960, again with two dogs (Kometa and Shutka). The third-stage motor failed 425 seconds into the flight, with the result that the Vostok failed to reach orbit. However, the automated emergency systems worked, separating the descent module and allowing it to parachute to the ground – except that the ejector system for the dogs failed. Nevertheless, they survived unhurt and were rescued.
Meanwhile, work had started on building the version of the spacecraft intended to carry a man into space – the Vostok 3KA. A special and very strict quality control policy, unprecedented in Soviet industry, was inaugurated in early 1960, known as the 3KA Policy.
Under this policy, all assemblies and parts for the Vostok 3KA had to be labelled and documented with the inscription ‘Suitable for 3KA’. The chief designers and heads of the manufacturing facilities were personally responsible for the quality of these parts.
The Vostok 3KA differed from the proto- type Vostok 1K in that it had a manual control system, allowing the cosmonaut to control the spacecraft, as well as the automatic system, which had built-in redundancy. The 3KA could carry only one person, who sat in an ejector seat.
This was not only for emergency purposes. At first, the designers were scared that the impact of the Vostok on the ground would be sufficiency severe to injure or even kill the cosmonaut. So it was decided that the spacecraft and cosmonaut would land separately.
After re-entry, at about 7 000 m, the Vostok escape hatch would be blown off and the cosmonaut ejected. He would freefall in his seat to about 4 000 m, at which point his parachute would deploy and his seat fall away.
On March 9, 1961, the first Vostok 3KA to fly was launched, carrying a human dummy and a dog (Chernushka), and successfully completed its one orbit mission. All Vostok 3KA launches were on R-7A 8K72K rockets, on which the third stage was powered by an RD-0109 motor fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene and developed by the OKB-154, under chief designer Semyon Kosberg. (The RD-0109 should not be confused with the RD-109 project of the OKB-456.)
March 25, 1961, saw the second Vostok 3KA flight, again with a dog (Zvezdochka) and a dummy. Although both flights saw the safe return of their passengers, both experienced the same problem – when the descent module separated from the support module, a cable that connected the two did not blow off, and only parted when burning up during re-entry. This caused the second 3KA to overshoot its landing point by 660 km. Incredibly, this problem was not given serious attention – Chertok cannot recall why this major lapse happened.
The man chosen to make the first human flight into space was, of course, air force fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin. For this mission, his Vostok 3KA was referred to as Vostok 1 and he was assigned the radio call sign Cedar. At launch, Gagarin exclaimed: “Let’s go!” Reaching orbit, he reported “visibility is excellent! Out the window I see earth, clouds . . . I see rivers . . . It’s beautiful.”
Gagarin could take time to look because he was not flying the Vostok. It was on automatic control throughout, with the manual controls locked, as a precaution against the cosmonaut being incapacitated during the launch or flight. But Gagarin had been given the numerical code to unlock the manual controls, in case of emergency (reportedly, it was 125). The mission went perfectly, and re-entered, as planned, after one orbit. Gagarin ejected and he and the Vostok capsule landed separately. A new era had dawned.
None of the engineers involved received any public credit at the time, for reasons of State security.
MIKHAIL TIKHONRAVOV AND SERGEI KOROLEV Photographed in 1947 standing in front of a bust of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
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KONSTANTIN FEOKTISTOV Chief conceptual designer of the Vostok, which comprised two modules
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LET’S GO! The R-7A 8K72K rocket carrying Vostok 3KA, ‘Vostok 1’, with Yuri Gargarin on board, lifts off from Baikonur, April 12, 1961
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POWER SOURCE An RD-107 engine
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MOSCOW SHOWPIECE: A mock-up of the Vostok 3KA on display in the Russian capital in 1965
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PRECIOUS EXHIBIT Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok descent module on display in the museum of RKK Energia