The Man Behind the Curtain
Space czar Sergei Korolev won fame for the launch of Sputnik, but a more modest genius deserves the credit.
- By Asif Siddiqi
- Air & Space magazine, November 2007
(Page 2 of 4)
More than airplanes and other flying things, Tikhonravov’s greatest passion was space exploration. He was an early convert to the cause, molded by the space and science fiction craze that raged in Russia in the 1920s (see “Russia’s Long Love Affair With Space,” June/July 2007). Tikhonravov believed that the first step to spaceflight would be to build a liquid-propellant rocket engine. In 1931, he heard through acquaintances that his old friend Korolev had joined up with another older enthusiast, Friedrich Tsander, in an attempt to mount a crude rocket engine on a glider. With a few others, they formed the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD in its Russian acronym), a team with no official standing but a desire to do more than just talk about rockets.
Though GIRD existed for less than two years, its accomplishments were impressive. The late Russian space historian Yaroslav Golovanov characterized the team as an “apprenticeship” for Sputnik. By early 1933, the group had attracted the attention of the Soviet military but it had also had a number of setbacks, including the failure of an engine and Tsander’s death from typhoid fever. Korolev, the leader of the group and the most practically inclined, desperately needed a success to show the military that the group was serious and to win government funding. Tikhonravov’s experiments with a rocket known as 09 provided a glimpse of hope. A simple design that used a combination of liquid oxygen and jellied gasoline, the rocket weighed about 42 pounds. This was seat-of-the-pants rocketry: To launch the 09, the young engineers would put the rocket in the back of a rented truck and rush to their “launch base,” a wooded area in the Nakhabino suburb of Moscow; they had to hurry so they could launch the rocket before the liquid oxygen in the fuel tanks evaporated.
Success came on August 17, 1933, when Tikhonravov’s rocket reached about 1,300 feet. It was the first launch of a Soviet rocket that used liquid propellants, and came seven years after American Robert Goddard had accomplished the same feat in Auburn, Massachusetts. Ironically, Tikhonravov missed the big moment; before the launch, he had driven himself to such exhaustion that Korolev sent him off on a sailing and fishing trip on the Khoper River. A cryptic telegram from the team—“Examination passed”—was the only indication to Tikhonravov that the rocket had lifted off. Korolev, though, was careful to credit his friend with the actual design of the rocket. Years later, in the 1960s, an obelisk was erected in the same woods to mark this birthplace of Soviet rocketry. Tikhonravov always felt embarrassed that the monument was inscribed with only his name; according to Gurko, he felt the launch was a team effort.
GIRD’s successes led to the formation of a rocket research institution in the early 1930s, sponsored by the Soviet government, yet the institute (known as RNII) was mired in infighting. When engineers clashed over technical options—particularly the selection of rocket propellants—they were unwilling to compromise, which created a poisonous atmosphere. Tikhonravov, who by then had moved on to less sensitive projects, largely avoided the disputes within RNII. Creative work was stalled, and the institute—as well as the rest of the country—then suffered Josef Stalin’s purges. Many of those on the “wrong” side of a technical issue ended up in prison; some were shot. Tikhonravov’s wife, Olga, told friends that her husband always kept a suitcase packed. Gurko refused to speculate why Tikhonravov was never included in Stalin’s purges, but others I spoke with believe that he was saved by his natural shyness and avoidance of confrontation.
During World War II, Tikhonravov moved from project to project: He worked on the famous Katyusha rocket launchers, a rocket airplane, and even a manned high-altitude research rocket. He was on the first Soviet team to study the wreckage of the famous German V-2 rocket, a mission that completely changed the trajectory of Soviet rocket development. By the time he met Gurko, he was in his late 40s and a deputy director at the 4th Scientific Research Institute. The institute, a Soviet-style think tank much like the U.S. RAND Corporation, did not build rockets, but it generated ideas on how to use them in battle.
Tikhonravov recruited young engineers to design—on paper—a rocket that could fly across the world. He was well aware that such a rocket could also deliver a satellite to orbit. But the technical limitations seemed insurmountable: How to design a rocket engine that could fire at very high altitudes? In search of a solution, he decided to focus on an alternate path: Why not have all the engines fire on the ground at liftoff? He and his team developed an innovative design, a vehicle that clustered several single-stage rockets with engines that would fire simultaneously at launch. He called the new design a “packet.”
Tikhonravov gave lectures on the idea at several high-level scientific conferences, culminating in a talk in 1950 in which he argued that with current Soviet technology, the country could launch a satellite using the cluster design. A few like-minded rocket scientists—including Korolev—were easily persuaded, but most were appalled that the institute had, as one critic fumed, “decided to switch to the realm of fantasy.” So serious was the fallout that Tikhonravov was demoted and ordered not to meddle in spacecraft design.
He did not give up easily. With Korolev’s quiet support, Tikhonravov regrouped his team of young engineers, adding fresh new university graduates, including the 24-year-old Gurko. The group was small, and most members were in their mid-20s. Together, between 1951 and 1953, the Tikhonravov Group worked intensively on a number of mathematical studies of the packet concept for an intercontinental ballistic missile. Besides Gurko, who worked on thermal equations, the brain trust included Igor Yatsunsky, who shared Tikhonravov’s calm disposition and acted as his deputy; Anatoly Brykov, who studied how to connect missiles into a cluster; Grigory Moskalenko, who explored the mass characteristics of various rocket clusters; and Igor Bazhinov and Gleb Maksimov, who analyzed the motion of missiles through the upper atmosphere. The only woman in the group, Lidya Soldatova, worked with Brykov on making the strap-on booster rockets detach from the core booster.