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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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.”

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.

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