This page no longer updated from 31 October 2001. Latest version can be found at Soviet Space History - Era of the Chief Designers

Sputnik 3
Sputnik 3 -

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The Era of the Chief Designers

Korolev works for Tass, Chelomei works on crap, Yangel works for us

The Foundations of the Space Age - the theoretical and ideological basis for spaceflight in Russia - were established by Tsiolkovskiy. Between 1883 and 1932 he worked out the basic theoretical concepts of rocketry and space flight. His visions of man leaving the earth and colonising space became a kind of space ideology that inspired and guided Soviet rocket engineers and space scientists. There was no real comparable ideological underpinning in the West.

Tsiolkovskiy's work led groups of enthusiasts to begin work on basic rocket technology. These young engineers - among them Korolev in Moscow, Glushko in Leningrad, and Tikhnoravov - would become the chief designers who led the Soviet Union into space. Many of these talents were caught up in Stalinist purges in 1937-1938 and ended up in work camps in Siberia. Wartime necessity drove Stalin to bring the survivors back into 'sharashkas' - prison engineering design bureaux. Soviet military rocket research during World War II concentrated mainly on Jet-Assisted Take-off (JATO) units for combat aircraft and the RP-318, BI-1, and Malyutka rocket interceptors. Only toward the end of the war was work begun on long range rockets (Tikhonravov MK 4-stage rocket and Korolev's D-1 and D-2).

The huge German technical advances in rocketry during the war rendered this indigenous work obsolete. Stalin was determined to leapfrog the West by assimilating this new technology as quickly as possible. A decree of 13 March 1946 set up a number of research institutes to exploit the technology, and several thousand Germans were brought to Russia for this purpose. Young engineers were named to head the institutes, and more future chief space designers - Keldysh, Isayev, Chelomei, Yangel, Reshetnev - began work on rocket technology. Keldysh pursued one of Stalin's pet projects - the Keldysh Bomber, an intercontinental rocket based on the German Saenger spaceplane design. This work eventually lead to the Buran / M-42 / M-44 and Burya intercontinental cruise missiles, but was a dead end as far as spaceflight was concerned. Similarly, tests were conducted with rocket-powered aircraft (LL, I-270, Samolyot 5, 346) but these did not lead to operational air or spacecraft.

Istrebitel SputnikIstrebitel Sputnik - I2P ASAT. As far as is known follow-on models (IS-P, IS-MU) and the R-36-launched targets had a similar appearance.

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Tikhonravov wrote a seminal paper on 15 March 1950 on the potential uses of artificial satellites. A decree of 26 May 1954 ordered preliminary studies of such systems. The technological basis was the N-3 project, which covered various engine and propulsion approaches. In August 1955 a unit was formed by Korolev to co-ordinate with Tikhonravov development of the first artificial satellite, for launch by the R-7 8K71 ICBM.

In two hours of key discussions in January 1956 the Soviet General Staff were briefed on the future uses of satellites - communications, reconnaissance, navigation, meteorology, geodesy. The fantastic vistas presented resulted in considerable scepticism. Nevertheless the first official plan for future Soviet spaceflight was contained in a decree of 30 January 1956. This set forth the following objectives:

Luna 1 / E-1Luna 1 / E-1

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A major objective of this period was military control of ballistic missiles and satellites, as well as development of specifications for launch vehicles and spacecraft. For this purpose the military co-operated with scientific institutes. The Fourth Scientific Research Institute of the Ministry of Defence (MO 4-NII) completed the first draft project for the KIK ground control system and use of satellites for military purposes. A combination of modest updates to selected PVO Air Defence sites and ICBM tracking stations made up the KIK network. Raw tracking information was fed into the 'Centre' for orbital calculations.

Sputnik-1's launch on October 4, 1957 caused a tremendous sensation throughout the world and marked the beginning of the space race. The casual plan of 1956 was accelerated, and Korolev was authorised to develop new upper stages for the R-7 that would allow launches of unmanned probes to the moon and planets.

Korolev was not only in competition with the Americans, but other Soviet Chief Designers who wanted a 'piece of the action' in the space race. Korolev's chief rival was Chelomei, a designer of naval cruise missiles. It was apparent that the ballistic missile was superior to the cruise missile as a weapon system at intercontinental ranges and also would allow the exploration and colonisation of space. Chelomei hired Nikita Khrushchev's son on March 8, 1958. This gave Chelomei sudden and immediate access to the highest possible patron in the hierarchy. He was rewarded with his own design bureau, OKB-52, in 1959. In this period Khrushchev was pursuing a major cutback of the military and consolidation of the defence industry. As part of this the Myasishchev and Tsybin aeronautical design bureaux were closed and the staff ended up being included Chelomei's organisation.

Kosmoplan - MarsKosmoplan - Mars - Kosmoplan - Mars reconnaisance version

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Chelomei's cruise missiles were designed for long-term storage in environmentally-controlled capsules. Chelomei saw that this technology could be applied to ballistic missiles and spacecraft as well. A whole family of unmanned spacecraft, dubbed Kosmoplans and Raketoplans, would be built using modular elements. The spacecraft would be launched by Chelomei's equally modular family of UR universal rockets, capable of both ICBM and space launch missions. The UR-200 would be used for launch of smaller earth orbital Kosmoplans, and the UR-500 Proton 8K82 would be used for launch of manned, lunar landing, and interplanetary Kosmoplan / Raketoplan designs.

In 1959, as Chelomei laid out these plans, he knew a tremendous struggle would be required to wrest any part of the space programme from Korolev. Korolev was interested in military projects only so far as they provided financing for his dreams of space exploration. He jealously wished to keep all manned, lunar, and planetary space projects to himself. In a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Part in January 1960 he proposed an aggressive program for Communist conquest of space. He declared:

As payloads for this enormous rocket, Korolev proposed the following spacecraft be developed for launch in the period 1963 to 1965:

Venera 1Venera 1

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For his part, Korolev and the other chief designers would pledge to support this overall effort by the development of draft projects and fundamental research work to validate and mature the necessary technologies. They would place before the Central Committee in the third quarter of 1960 comprehensive plans for development of the new projects. It was requested that that the Central Committee authorise the design bureaux to undertake these draft projects, and that the Ministry of Finance be directed to allow the bureaux to use reserve funds to finance the work.

This letter was followed by a meeting with Khruschchev on the subject on 3 March 1960. Korolev believed it would be truly possible with backing from the very top to have a large rocket in the USSR in a very short span of time. Unfortunately at the meeting Korolev made a slip of the tongue he would always regret, admitting that his plan had not been agreed among all of the Chief Designers. This resulted in Khrushchev throwing the matter back for a consensus plan.

By 30 May 1960 Korolev was back with a plan that now included participation of his rivals, Chelomei and Yangel. The military, however, had not been fully consulted or reached any final conclusions as to its needs. The consolidated plan was as follows:


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Launch Vehicles


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Manned Spacecraft

Vostok spacecraftVostok spacecraft - Vostok spacecraft view 1

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Scientific and Planetary Spacecraft

VKA-23 1960 designVKA-23 1960 design

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Military Spacecraft

The final government decree 715-296 of 23 June 1960 'On the Production of Various Launch Vehicles, Satellites, Spacecraft for the Military Space Forces in 1960-1967', authorised draft project work to begin on this massive agenda.

Meanwhile the projects authorised in the 1950's were underway, maintaining the Soviet lead in the space race. In January 1960 Star City, the Cosmonaut Training Centre, was founded by the Soviet Air Force and Kamanin was made the head. The first cosmonaut candidates arrived in March 1960. Following unmanned flight tests of Vostok 1KP, Vostok 1K and Vostok 3KA configurations, Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight on 12 April 1961. Five further manned Vostok flights maintained the Soviet lead in the space race. In order to keep up with the Americans, Korolev developed and flew a multi-crew version of Vostok (the Voskhod 3KV) and a Vostok with an airlock to accomplish the first spacewalk (the Voskhod 3KD). Further Vostok and Voskhod flights (such as the Voskhod 3KV Tether experiment) were planned but cancelled in order to concentrate on the more capable Soyuz spacecraft.

In parallel with Vostok the more sophisticated Zenit-2 and Zenit-4 photo-reconnaissance variants of the spacecraft reached service. Zenit-2 flights began in December 1961; 13 were flown in two years. The system was accepted into the military service in 1964. Zenit-4, the high resolution version, followed in 1965.

Continued in Soviet Space History - Generation 1.

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Last update 12 March 2001.
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© Mark Wade, 2001 .