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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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.

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.

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