Fifty years ago, on October
Boris Chertok, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, helped develop the first Soviet launch vehicles and was the right-hand man of Sergei Korolyov, the man who designed all Soviet rockets, missiles and spacecraft for 20 years from the 1940s to the early 1960s.
Chertok said the launch of Sputnik One was preceded by intensive work involving a team of designers led by Korolev. The initial plan was to launch a heavy-duty satellite which would have carried several scientific instruments. However, the project ran into difficulties and it was decided to develop a rudimentary spacecraft with two radio transmitters instead. Even amateur radio enthusiasts could track Sputnik One. Yet the reality was that the satellite was merely a by-product of an ambitious program aimed at developing the first Soviet inter-continental ballistic missile.

According to Chertok, Sputnik One was treated by its designers as a mere toy. Nobody on the program expected it to become an international sensation. He said the satellite had lifted off atop the sixth R-7 ICBM, and there was no real guarantee it would reach orbit: of the previous five R-7s only two had performed without a hitch, two others exploded and one never left the launch pad.

Chertok said the unique spacecraft had to be built from scratch and that its weight limit was 100 kilograms.

Designers realized that a spherical design was the best engineering solution. Chertok said the Sputnik One launch had tremendous scientific and political significance not necessarily related to space exploration. It became obvious that nuclear-tipped ICBMs could hit any target in the world, and in one stroke made the quantitative nuclear superiority that the United States had built up irrelevant. This changed the entire balance of international relations.

The Pentagon, which pursued a policy of brinkmanship, was shocked to learn that the USSR had developed a multi-stage ICBM that could breach any air-defense system. The United States did not launch its first 8.3-kilogram satellite until February 1, 1958.

However, despite the publicity, some aspects of the Sputnik One launch remained secret for a long time. Chertok said the launch vehicle malfunctioned twice during launch, and the mission was nearly aborted. To start, the rocket did not reach the first interim stage of its trajectory on time. To make matters worse, the rocket engine started burning additional fuel when one of its systems went dead during the sixteenth second of the flight. As a result, the rocket and the satellite entered an orbit 80 to 90 kilometers lower than intended. Nonetheless, the aim was reached - the USSR had ushered in the Space Age.

Despite the fame of Sputnik, the secrecy surrounding the project meant those responsible for its success were denied recognition. Chertok said Pyotr Kapitsa, Member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, wrote that the supervisor of the space-satellite program deserved a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the Nobel Committee could not award the prize because Sergei Korolev's name remained classified until his death in 1966.

RBTH dossier

Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, (January 12, 1907, Zhytomyr - January 14, 1966, Moscow), was the chief Soviet rocket designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. Korolyov's greatest strengths proved to be in design integration, organization and strategic planning. A victim of Stalin's 1938 Great Purge, he was imprisoned for almost six years. The Central Design Bureau 29 of the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs - the leading secret police organization), served as Andrei Tupolev's engineering facility, and Korolyov was brought there to work. During World War II, this "sharashka" (an informal name for secret research laboratories in the Soviet labor camp system) designed bombers ground attack aircrafts. In 1942, Korolyov managed to be moved to another "sharashka" supervised by the rocket engine designer Valentin Glushko. Korolyov was kept in this laboratory and lived in constant fear of being shot for the military secrets he possessed. On June 27, 1944, Korolyov was finally discharged by special government decree. Following his release, he became a rocket designer and a key figure in the development of the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program. He was then appointed to lead the Soviet space program. Before his death, he was often referred to only as "Chief Designer," because his pivotal role in the Soviet space program had been held a state secret by the Politburo.

Boris E. Chertok made an invaluable contribution to the Soviet/Russian space program, most notably in his work on the control systems of the Mir space station. Professor Chertok joined the Research Institute of Aircraft Industry in 1930 as an electrical engineer. From 1945 to 1947, he served as Head of the Rocket Technology Research Institute in Bleicherode, Germany. He continued his work there as deputy chief designer of control systems for rockets and space apparatuses from 1947 to 1951. Professor Chertok served as deputy to the chief designer at the Central Design Bureau from 1951 to 1966 and at the Rocket and Space Energy Corporation from 1966 to 1992. He is a professor at Bauman Moscow Technical University and Head of the Movement Control Department at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. A member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor Chertok is a recipient of the highest awards in Russia.

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