The Man Behind the Curtain

Space czar Sergei Korolev won fame for the launch of Sputnik, but a more modest genius deserves the credit.

Throughout his life, Soviet space designer Mikhail Tikhonravov (left) never got the credit or acclaim accorded to Sergei Korolev, his friend. Ten years before they launched the world's first satellite, the two paused in front of a bust of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, considered the father of cosmonautics. (ITAR-TASS)
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Over the past few years, I have tried to reconstruct the life of Mikhail Tikhonravov, one of the most puzzling figures in the Soviet space program. Although few Westerners have heard of him, it is quite likely that without him, the Soviet Union would not have inaugurated the Space Age 50 years ago this October. Tikhonravov (pronounced “Tee-kun-RAFF-off”) had a hand in most of the critical events in the history of his country’s space program. He designed the first Soviet liquid-propellant rocket, he proposed the clustered-booster idea for the famous R-7 rocket, he oversaw the design of Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok rocket, and he supervised the development of the first Soviet moon probes. He even coined the word “cosmonaut.”

But perhaps his greatest triumph was Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, which was launched on October 4, 1957. Over the years, much of the credit—some might say too much—has gone to Sergei Korolev, Tikhonravov’s friend and the chief designer of the rocket that lofted Sputnik into orbit. But Korolev couldn’t have created Sputnik. He “needed a visionary like Tikhonravov,” Sergei Khrushchev, whose father, Nikita, led the Soviet Union during that time, once wrote in an essay. “Together they constituted the ‘critical mass’ that shook the world.”

How did a man manage to contribute so much yet remain hidden? His shy nature and an aversion to taking credit all but ensured that his achievements in the Soviet space program would be often overlooked by history. His own office diary, which I was allowed to read, indicates that he was a workaholic, often forgoing vacation time to work. Much of the diary is cryptic or in code since everything he was doing was top secret; Tikhonravov may have been afraid to write too much down. But his words express a strong fealty to Korolev; almost every entry mentions him, and it is clear from the tone that Tikhonravov held Korolev in extremely high regard. One of the few times Tikhonravov shows any emotion in his diary is on the day of Korolev’s death in 1966.

Tikhonravov had lived and worked for many years in the Moscow suburb of Yubileiny. For decades during the cold war, Yubileiny was a closed area. The town was so secret it did not appear on any maps and few Muscovites even knew it existed. It was the site of the most sensitive space organizations in the former Soviet Union. One of those was the 4th Scientific Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense, where Tikhonravov worked among grim military personnel devising strategies for the Soviet nuclear and space programs. There in the 1950s, he organized a group of young men and women—known as the Tikhonravov Group—who worked in secret on the R-7 rocket and Sputnik itself.

Few members of the group are alive today, but one of the brightest members still lives in Yubileiny. Oleg Viktorovich Gurko and his wife Larisa welcomed me last winter into their small, third floor apartment with a warmth that put me at ease. Gurko was wearing a cardigan and tie, giving him a look of formality. Their modest living room was cluttered with mementos from the Space Age: books, models, and souvenirs.

Our conversation soon turned to how Gurko first met Tikhonravov. World War II had just ended, and Gurko was eager to expand the space study group he had organized as a teenager, but he needed an outsider experienced in space science to guide it. Having heard of Tikhonravov’s work, Gurko sought him out in hopes of persuading him to offer his support. Because Tikhonravov worked in a classified military institute, it was not easy to visit him, but Gurko was persistent.

Gurko still vividly remembers their first meeting. He and a friend were shown into an office with two military officers, one a stocky man with an imposing presence, the other a shy, thin man of medium height with clear, lively eyes. Thinking that the heavier officer was Tikhonravov, Gurko turned to him and explained at length the work of the student group. Only after the meeting did Gurko discover that it was the other man—the one who had seemed unimportant—who was Tikhonravov.

TIKHONRAVOV WAS BORN IN 1900 in Vladimir, one of the oldest cities in Russia, located a little more than 100 miles east of Moscow. His parents were teachers, and as a boy, he mastered Latin and ancient Greek. After finishing in the first class to graduate from the prestigious Zhukovsky Military Air Academy (his classmates included future airplane designers Sergei Ilyushin, Artem Mikoyan, and Alexander Yakovlev), he worked in the late 1920s as an aeronautical engineer. In his spare time, he studied gliders. At a 1927 regional glider competition, Tikhonravov met a 20-year-old aviation enthusiast named Sergei Korolev. In an apt metaphor for their later relationship, Tikhonravov designed a glider named Firebird that Korolev flew to gain his pilot license, thus bringing Korolev’s name to prominence within the glider community. Besides holding a day job and working on gliders, Tikhonravov was a prolific writer. He wrote frequently on bird and insect flight. In the hope of replicating the flight of a bird, he spent years crunching numbers and doing experiments. Though he decided that human muscles, even augmented by wings, were simply incapable of flight, “Tikhonravov never gave up studying how birds fly,” Gurko told me.

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.

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