The real soviet rocket men

How The Real Soviet Rocketmen Changed the World

In People, Rockets, Videos by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment


Its said that around 400,000 people worked on the Apollo project to land a man on the moon and apart from the astronauts themselves, how many people spring to mind when you think about the who designed and oversaw its construction and operation, With the exception of Werner Von Braun, I can’t think of any, that was all done within the corporate contractors.

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union there were many great engineers and scientists but at the core of the Soviet Space industry at the height of the space race, three men would come to dominate and set the pace, driving forward innovation and exploration and putting the Americans on the back foot for years but ultimately through their own infighting and favouritism, it would also lead to the failure of the Soviets to put a man on the moon.

Whilst the design and construction of hardware on the US side was done by major defence corporations for profit, Under Stalin’s Soviet leadership the free market was seen as unequal and wasteful, projects were assigned to a range of design bureaus by the government to a central plan to best use the resources available. But as George Orwell once said in Animal Farm “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.“ if the head of the design bureau was “in” with the current leadership then their project were often looked on more favourably, whether or not that it might be the best solution for the job.

Soviet Scientists conducted their research at independent departments, referred to by the code-name ‘OKB’, which translated means ‘Experimental Design Bureau’. If an aspiring engineer or scientist came up with an outstanding idea or showed a great aptitude for the work and had the right connections, they might be put in charge of their own design bureau.

The design bureaus where medium-sized organisations, tasked with coming up with ideas and prototypes that would then be passed on to a larger factory to be made. However, in the space industry volumes were very low so these design bureaus would build the entire projects like rockets in house but still subcontracting subsystems items like the engines, control systems etc from other design bureaus.

Each bureau had a code number, in an attempt to conceal the identity of factories from foreign intelligence. But internally, the bureau bore the name of its chief designer: men who were ultimately held responsible for the successes and failures under their command.

The largest rocket design bureau was ‘OKB-1’, led by the most famous figure in the history of Soviet rocketry: Sergei Korolev, the mastermind of Sputnik, Vostok, the Luna probes as well as the first animal in space, Laika the dog, the first man in space Yuri Gagarin and the massive N1 rocket, the Soviets version of the American Saturn 5. For someone so powerful, even at the height of his career, Korolev’s identity was a closely-guarded secret from everyone outside of the upper echelons of power because they feared foreign agents would attempt to assassinate him. To the world, and even to many cosmonauts, Korolev was known only by his intials, or as the ‘Chief Designer’.

As a youngster in the early Soviet Union Korolev was interested in aeronautical engineering, when he was 22 he started at the OPO-4 aircraft design bureau and by the time he was 30 he was the lead designer of the Tupolev TB-3 heavy bomber. When was 23, he and a friend Friedrich Zander created the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD), one of the first state sponsored rocket development centres. This was then merged with Gas Dynamics Lab to create Reaction-Engine Scientific Research Institute (RNII) and this is were he would met the second of our three, Valentin Glushko a talented rocket engine designer and life would take a turn for the worse for all concerned.

When Stalin’s great purges swept through the nation in 1937, the patron of RNII, Marshall Tukhachevsky, was sentenced to death as an ‘enemy of the people’. On June 13th, the inquisition found its way to Korolev’s bureau, as Glushko was accused of being an ‘anti-Soviet’ co-conspirator and sentenced to 8 years in a labour camp. Here under torture, Glushko denounced Korolev, in return for a shorter sentence. Korolev was Sentenced to 10 years of hard labour, he was transported to the Kolyma gold mine, a gulag in Siberia.

But soon both men’s expertise was needed again in the fight against the Nazis. Glushko, had an easier path and although he was still a prisoner he was given his own design bureau developing liquid rocket engines with other prisoner scientists and engineers.

In 1940 Korolev was brought back to work in a ‘sharashka’, or prison camp design bureau, in Omsk and then moved to another in Kazan and Korolev found himself working under the direction of none other than Valentin Glushko: the man who betrayed him.

After the war and despite the animosity between them, Korolev and Glushko worked on new rocket designs. By now Glushko was the head of his own OKB-456 bureau and the Soviets leading Rocket engine designer. Meanwhile, Korolev was tasked with dismantling and reverse-engineering the captured German ‘V-2’ rockets at his NII-88 bureau which soon became known as OKB-1.
In February 1953, Korolev was asked to scale up his tests, to build the largest rocket the world had ever seen: a launch vehicle capable of lifting a three-ton warhead to an intercontinental trajectory covering 8000 kilometres (5000 miles): far enough to hit targets in the US mainland.

Korolev envisioned a staged rocket with four boosters surrounding a central core. On each of these, a huge main engine would direct thrust through four nozzles: something that had never been done before. Korolev co-ordinated between 36 factories: including the bureau led by his old rival, Valentin Glushko.

Glushko agreed to build the engines for the new rocket but insisted that he retain complete control of the engine-building process. From 1954 the four-chambered main engines (RD-107) were rigorously proven on test stands: but the first firings failed spectacularly, literally burning through Glushko’s stock.

However, by 1957 the world’s first spaceport at Baikonur, Kazakhstan was nearing completion, and the R-7 rocket was delivered to the launchpad. In May, the first ‘Semayorka’ (meaning ‘seven’ in Russian) launched: and failed. But after a string of failures and improvements, on October 4th, Korolev’s rocket made history as it launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite into Low Earth Orbit.
Korolev’s hard-won victory brought even more urgent competition between the competing arms of the Soviet aerospace industry. Here the third figure appears as rival rocket designer Vladimir Chelomey and he was betting everything on his ‘Universal Rocket’ family, especially the ‘UR-500’ heavy-lift launcher, which would later become the ‘Proton’, a design still in use today.

Chelomey was the youngest of the three and probably the ambitious. He had developed the first Soviet pulse jet engine independently of the Germans and the first anti-ship cruise missile. His designs developed from his work for the military, which had grown his bureau (OKB-52) into a missile-building empire covering ICBM’s, military satellites, launch vehicles, cruise missiles, antiballistic missiles and made him, in his own words, “the most expensive man in the Soviet Union”.

Rather than using the liquid oxygen and kerosene mixture favoured by Korolev, the UR-500 was powered by a mix of nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH propellants. These hypergolic fuels spontaneously combusted on contact with each other, something which Korolev vehemently opposed for safety reasons. This design choice made it easy for Chelomey to work with Glushko, who had favoured hypergolic engines for some time, and he’d agreed to build the first-stage engines for the UR-500, the famous ‘RD-253’.

Chelomey also had the advantage of being well connected with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who sent his son Sergei to work at the OKB-52 bureau. Chelomey told Khrushchev that a version of his rocket could power a two-man mission around the Moon, much more economically than Korolev’s gargantuan ‘N1’ launcher. But in October 1964 Khrushchev was ousted from leadership, and replaced with Leonid Brezhnev, an old ally of Korolev’s. With Khruschev gone, all manned space plans were again consolidated under Korolev.

After the fall of Khruschev, Chelomey was still supported by the defense minster Andrey Grechko, however when he died in 1974, he had an uneasy relationship with the new minister of Defence and patron of the rocket industry Dmitri Ustinov and although he retained support from Brezhnev his position was never as strong as it was with Khruschev.

But meanwhile, the Soviet space program was beginning to visibly lag behind the Americans. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced America’s goal: to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Korolev decided to push on with the N1 rocket but Glushko refused to build the massive kerosene/LOX engines Korolev needed, instead he proposed massive hypergolic engines which Korolev said were too dangerous for manned flight and the two men had a massive falling out. Korolev was in a fix without the engines he required and turned instead to the Kuznetsov Design Bureau OKB-276. Although they had much less experience and they couldn’t make the large engines they did came up with a smaller but highly efficient new design, the NK-15 and subsequently the NK-33, which is still the one of the most efficient kerosene/LOX engines ever made.

To make up the thrust required, thirty NK-15’s would be used on the N1 rocket but the complex fuel plumbing and control system for all these engines would create many problems for the design.
It took three more years before the Soviet command made the same commitment to the moon missions, meanwhile Korolev had pushed on with the ‘N-1’, which he believed could carry cosmonauts to both Lunar missions and on to Mars.

But funding was short and Korolev was in constant battles with Chelomey over who would get the resources required. Couple this with long hours and intense pressure to deliver and the stress started to take its toll. Korolev had already suffered a heart attack in 1960, and doctors also discovered that he had a kidney disorder. On January 14th 1966, he went in for what was supposed to be routine surgery for a polyp in his large intestine. But with a weakened heart and immune system from years of imprisonment in the gulags, the ‘Master Designer’ died on the operating table. Two weeks after Korolev’s death, his Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to successfully make a ‘soft’ touch-down on the Moon’s surface.

With Korolev’s death, his deputy Vasily Mishin took over the OBK-1 bureau and the N1 project but Mishin didn’t have the contacts or the flare for dealing with the Soviet system like Korolev and after four launch failures of the N1, Mishin was sacked and replaced by Korolev’s bitter rival Glushko.

By now the US had landed on the moon and even Apollo was been cut short as enthusiasm for big space was waning. In 1974 Glushko scrapped the N1 project and ordered the parts to be destroyed. But the Kuznetsov didn’t get the orders and instead mothballed the remaining NK-33 engines, which some 20 years later would be sold to the US, modified and used to launch the Antares rocket.

Glushko went on to develop the Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle and its massive Energia heavy launch vehicle, which he hoped might one day to be used to create a lunar base. Ironically for the man who had refused to build a large kerosene/LOX engine for Korolev and inadvertently helped the downfall of the N1, he now realised that this was, in fact the best solution for the Energia to match the power of the Solid rocket boosters of the US Shuttle. Although he couldn’t overcome the combustion instability of a single chamber engine, he used a four chamber design for the single engine, creating the RD-170, the most powerful rocket engine in the world, just beating F1 engine of the Saturn 5.

***** Although Vladimir Chelomey fortunes were on the decline after Khruschev was replaced he was still instrumental in the development of the soviet space station with the Almaz military stations which flew as Salyut 2,3 & 5 and his TKS module design would be the basis of Salyut 7 and MIR which ultimately would become the ISS.

In December 1984 Vladimir Chelomey died from an arterial blockage after his Mercedes car, slipped its brakes and broke his leg whilst he was closing the gates of his country house.
Valentin Glushko died in January 1989 and his funeral was attended by Mikhail Gorbachev and like his rival Korolev before him it was only after his death that the Soviet public found out about his efforts and achievements.

The Soviet Space program produced some of the greatest leaps forward and most daring accomplishments in human history, backed by an economy far smaller than their great rival the United States. Drawing upon the genius of these chief designers and the thousands of scientists and engineers supporting them, Soviet Russia made itself “the sea-coast of the universe “, and the rockets that developed from the R-7 and UR-500 are still launching towards the stars.

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Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website

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