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
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The packet-design studies that these young scientists produced profoundly influenced Korolev’s thinking on an intercontinental ballistic missile. When Korolev’s design bureau finally settled on an ICBM design, they chose Tikhonravov’s cluster. The idea went through a number of major redesigns before the final version emerged as the R-7 rocket for Sputnik. In spirit, this majestic booster, whose descendants today launch cosmonauts to the International Space Station, owes its birth to Tikhonravov and his team.
There was more creative work to come. Tikhonravov obtained support to redirect his group of young scientists to start studying satellite design. In late 1953, at Tikhonravov’s initiative, his bosses approved “Theme 72,” the first serious study of satellites conducted in the Soviet Union, similar to the satellite studies RAND conducted at the time in the United States. The Tikhonravov Group explored a variety of engineering problems, with each member taking on a specific topic, such as placing a satellite in orbit, returning the launcher to Earth, and optically tracking the satellite.
Tikhonravov’s study was groundbreaking, but it would have languished had it not been for Korolev’s enthusiasm for it. In May 1954, Korolev sent a letter to the Soviet government asking for approval to design and build a satellite. He attached a summary of Tikhonravov’s work, which showed not only that a satellite could be built, but that the Soviets could beat the Americans into space. It took a year for the request to get through the Soviet bureaucracy and win approval. Tikhonravov’s office diary provides a glimpse of the frustrations of this critical period. In one passage, he laments that after explaining satellites to an audience, “[t]here were no questions. Don’t they get it? Or are they not interested?”
Armed with government approval, Korolev’s engineers began building the first Soviet satellite, a nearly 3,000-pound observatory to study geophysical phenomena. The project proved to be overly ambitious. Korolev and Tikhonravov had to depend on a great number of subcontractors who rarely made their delivery deadlines. The two were also well aware of the United States’ satellite project, Vanguard. In late 1956, both men were becoming worried that all of this complicated equipment would delay the primary goal: to get to space first. The historian Golovanov, who interviewed Tikhonravov, wrote about a crucial exchange between the two friends. Once, while Korolev was complaining about the delays, Tikhonravov suddenly piped up: “What if we make the satellite a little lighter and a little simpler? Thirty kilograms or so, even lighter.” This single question, unassumingly raised, was the key to Soviet leadership in the Space Age.
In typical fashion, Korolev went into action, marshaled a handful of engineers, and ordered them to work on a “simple satellite.” It would be a metal sphere (Korolev thought a sphere was the most elegant design) carrying a battery, a radio transmitter, a heat regulation system, some antennas, and not much else. There would be no subcontractors who could disappoint the program at a critical moment. Tikhonravov, who had by now transferred from the military institute to work directly under Korolev, oversaw the production of the 184-pound satellite.
In the weeks before launch, Tikhonravov spent days and nights next to the satellite, overseeing all the preparations. He took a break only to attend celebrations for the 100th birthday of Soviet space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The ceremonies were held in Moscow and in Tsiolkovsky’s hometown, Kaluga, just two weeks before Sputnik’s launch. A rare photo of Korolev and Tikhonravov in Kaluga shows both uncharacteristically smiling—they were on the cusp of their greatest achievement. Both men soon flew back to Tyuratam (later named the Baikonur Cosmodrome) to oversee work on the satellite. Remarkably, though Tikhonravov is acknowledged as the godfather of Sputnik, few remember him spending much time at the launch pad. Shy and unaccustomed to the hectic life at the launch range, he stayed out of the spotlight while Korolev directed all the preparations.
On the night of October 4, 1957, Tikhonravov’s “simple satellite” took off in a burst of thunder and flames and headed for the heavens, opening up the Space Age. Ecstatic and exhausted, Korolev and Tikhonravov were awake the whole night. The next day, Tikhonravov had only this to say in his diary: “Newspapers write about the Sputnik launch!”
After Sputnik, Tikhonravov directed all space projects under Korolev. Unlike his boss, who had become the monarch of the Soviet space program, Tikhonravov wielded little decision-making influence, although he guided the design of many spacecraft. Why was Tikhonravov in the shadows? Gurko believes that excessive modesty kept Tikhonravov from having a higher-profile career. “Tikhonravov was unusually intelligent, but he also avoided publicity," Gurko says. "He didn’t care for awards or positions or influence.”