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 4 of 4)
Those who knew them say Korolev and Tikhonravov were completely different in character. Korolev was impulsive and had a volatile temper, and was feared by all. Tikhonravov, by contrast, always seemed approachable. Former cosmonaut Vitaly Sevastyanov, who worked under Tikhonravov, recalls that the man was “unhurried, thorough in his judgments, [and] capable of reflection. He never imposed his ideas on anyone else, and never raised his voice.” Sevastyanov remembers that while Korolev would rage over the smallest trifle with others, with Tikhonravov he would always calm down.
Yet there was occasional friction between the two. For example, although he led the design team that created Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok spacecraft, Tikhonravov was absent at Baikonur on April 12, 1961, when Gagarin was launched into orbit. Korolev hadn’t bothered to invite him for the historic launch—a slight that, according to former Korolev deputy Boris Chertok, “very deeply upset” Tikhonravov.
Design work under Korolev may not have been easy but it was rewarding. Tikhonravov’s last major contribution to the Soviet space program was designing the Luna probes, which in 1966 made the first soft landing on the moon.
By that time, Korolev was dead. Tikhonravov left the space business soon after, unable to get along with Korolev’s successor, the irascible Vasily Mishin. Tikhonravov continued teaching at the Moscow Aviation Institute, but spent more time with Olga, whom he had met when both were young rocket enthusiasts in the amateur group GIRD and who shared his deep interest in space travel. In his spare time, he wrote and painted.
By the time Gurko last saw him in late 1973, Tikhonravov had cancer. He fell gravely ill soon after and died at the age of 73 on March 4, 1974. Olga died 19 years later. Their daughter, Nataliya, does not grant interviews. But others, like Gurko, are eager to promote Tikhonravov’s legacy. In the history of the Soviet space program, “Tikhonravov’s name should be right up there with that of Korolev!” Gurko said as I said goodbye.
Back in Moscow, I stopped by Novodevichy Cemetery, where some of Russia’s most famous sons and daughters are buried. There, an imposing bust of Tikhonravov stands over his grave. An inscription describes him simply as the designer of the “first Soviet rocket.” There is no mention of Sputnik, the R-7, Vostok, or Luna. In death as in life, Tikhonravov remains a modest figure, overshadowed by others who were more charismatic.