Sputnik remembered: The first race to space (part 1)
Sputnik’s radio transmitters
The development of Sputnik’s radio transmitter package was fraught with uncertainty. Korolev visited Riazanskii’s institute several times in the late winter and early spring of 1957 to discuss the nature of the instrument. Korolev was adamant that signals from the transmitters should be picked up by “the most dilapidated receiver, [and] that the whole world should hear them!” Yet, Korolev was also well aware that there was really no way to predict the behavior of radio waves, let alone the lifetime of the satellite in orbit. Riazanskii resisted putting a firm limit on the working lifetime of the radio transmitter but eventually guaranteed that it would provide a “decent signal” for at least two weeks. Based on these discussions, on February 15, 1957, Korolev and Riazanskii signed an agreement (which included the technical specifications) for the latter to deliver a functioning radio transmitter unit for use on PS-1.18
In conceiving the basic design of the transmitter, Korolev and Tikhonravov took the advice of many, including Academician Vladimir Kotel’nikov (1908–2005), who was the director of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Radiotechnology and Electronics, as well as scientists from other Academy institutes, such as the Institute of Earth Magnetism and Propagation of Radio Waves and the P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute. The actual hardware was built in a subdivision of Riazanskii’s NII-885 institute, the Laboratory for the Propagation of Radio Waves, headed by one Konstantin Gringauz (1918–93). Gringauz had already been developing a radio transmitter for the heavy Object D satellite for a year, work that was suspended when Riazanskii ordered him to develop a transmitter for the smaller PS-1. Not everyone agreed with Gringauz’ vision of the instrument: despite objections from everyone (including Korolev), Gringauz insisted that PS-1 carry a high frequency transmitter (i.e., the 20.005 megahertz transmitter operating in the decameter waveband) in addition to the VHF transmitter (which had been commonly used on Soviet ballistic missiles.) Many believed that having a high-frequency transmitter would delay the satellite launch since it would have to be much larger than its twin. In the end, Gringauz won over his opponents, partly because everyone agreed that a high-frequency transmitter would ensure that the radio transmissions would be heard around the world.19
The transmitter hardware was built by one of Gringauz’ youngest engineers, Viacheslav Lappo, who spent day and night trying to make the deadline. Lappo later confided in Soviet journalist Iaroslav Golovanov that he built the system without really knowing whether it would function in outer space. Since a radio transmitter had never been in space before, there was no hard data on what to protect against; there was only conjecture. As Korolev’s deputy Konstantin Bushuev (1914–78), who was closely involved in the satellite’s development, later recalled, “in developing and preparing the satellite for launch, we were faced with many questions which remained unclear. The level of our knowledge about the physical conditions of the upper atmosphere and the space around Earth was totally insufficient.”20 Lappo tried to account for sharp temperature fluctuations, cosmic radiation, even meteorites, but not with much confidence. In the end, PS-1’s designers under Tikhonravov decided to sheath the radio transmitter within the battery system, almost as if to “protect” it from the elements.
Overall, Lappo made six transmitter units, the extra ones for testing. One was used on a Tupolev Tu-16 aircraft that flew over ground-based tracking stations so the controllers could get familiar with PS-1’s transmissions. A second was suspended from a helicopter on a 200-meter-long cable to verify the operation of the long antennas (they worked excellently, and tracking stations in the Far East were able to pick signals up.) Of the remaining transmitter sets, two were for “reserve” and two were prepared for the launch. Lappo later recalled a humorous incident when Korolev showed up suddenly at his laboratory late at night and asked to listen to the signals from the satellite. The young designer described the operation of the transmitter to Korolev, explaining how the “beep-beeps” would change in frequency and length according to the internal pressure and temperature of the satellite. Lappo told Korolev, “You understand, Sergei Pavlovich, that in the hour of its death, it will squeak differently.” Korolev seemed very pleased with this, and afterwards, almost bashfully added, “Couldn’t you make it squeak a word of some kind…?”21 Testing on the entire radio transmitter system was completed by May 5, 1957, ten days before the first attempted launch of the R-7 ICBM.
Computing Sputnik’s trajectory
In March 1957, Korolev asked a young engineer at his design bureau, future cosmonaut Georgii Grechko (1931–2017), to calculate the trajectory for injecting PS-1 into orbit around the Earth using an R-7 missile. These enormously complicated computations were initially done by hand using six-digit trigonometric tables. Later, Keldysh arranged for Grechko to get a few hours of nighttime access to the latest computer, a large-scale behemoth capable of 10,000 operations per second, kept at Keldysh’s Department of Applied Mathematics at the Academy of Sciences. Unlike machines in the West, this computer was programmed using tapes rather than punch cards. Because the machine worked on vacuum tubes, it heated up fairly rapidly, which forced the users to keep the windows open to generate cold draughts in the room. Grechko remembers he and his colleagues turning blue from the bitter cold. He later added:
Because of the peculiar configuration of Sputnik’s launch vehicle (which had no Fakel trajectory monitoring package), there would be no way to precisely measure and verify the satellite’s actual orbit using radio instrumentation. In this case, there were only two ways to do this: by telemetry signals (from the rocket’s Tral system) indicating the actual moment of main engine cutoff of the core booster of the R-7, and by noting the moment that the satellite started its signal transmission.23 The orbital trajectory calculations were carried out and completed in two separate phases, in March and August 1957.24 Based on their results, the original plan was to deliver PS-1 into an orbit with parameters of 223 by 1,450 kilometers and an orbital period of 101.5 minutes.25
Through the first half of 1957, the PS-1 satellite’s form changed quite a bit from the early design that Korolev had approved in January. On June 24, Korolev’s deputy Bushuev called the Chief Designer—who was at Tiura-Tam launch site (now known as Baikonur) overseeing continuing launches of the R-7 ICBM—to tell him that he had just signed off on the new and final configuration of PS-1.26 It was now time to manufacture all the parts and assemble them into one flightworthy unit.
For every project at Korolev’s design bureau, there two major phases: design and production. For PS-1, Tikhonravov had led the design phase (although many others had participated.) In terms of transitioning from design to experimental production, Korolev usually appointed a “lead designer,” a mid-level engineer who would be responsible for converting the designers’ drawings into metal. They would also be Korolev’s “eyes and ears” in the production shop, reporting back any glitches to the Chief Designer himself. In the case of PS-1, Korolev appointed Mikhail Khomiakov (1921–?) to be lead designer of PS-1; Khomiakov, on his initiative, asked another man, Oleg Ivanovskii (1922–2014), to serve as his deputy.
Ivanovskii had an unusual background: after fighting in World War II, he worked as an electrician at the famous NII-88 institute, the heart of the Soviet postwar missile program. It was there that he first met Korolev. In 1952, he decided to get a higher education and joined the Moscow Power Institute (MEI), where he did his diploma work with Academician Kotel’nikov, the scientist who later contributed to the Sputnik transmitter design. After graduation as an engineer, Ivanovskii worked briefly at NII-88 before being tapped in 1955 to become the secretary of the local Communist Party bureau (partbiuro) of Korolev’s design bureau. In a society where Party credentials were crucial to upward mobility, Ivanovskii’s Party work gave him a high profile. Two years later, when the partbiuro was dissolved during an organizational restructuring, Ivanovskii decided to return to engineering work. Khomiakov, with the approval of Korolev, invited Ivanovskii to help him out in fabricating the first Sputnik.
Unlike Khomaiakov who remained largely silent, Ivanovskii wrote a memoir of his time as a designer, which has been published in many editions in Russian.27 Yet, strangely, Ivanovskii’s memoirs provide only glimmers of the development of Sputnik: a few random details and generalized descriptions that say little. Vagueness seems to characterize the recollections of many with regard to the world’s first artificial satellite. Famous Soviet space historian Iaroslav Golovanov wrote:
The few extant details do, however, provide a fairly colorful picture of the preparations leading up to the launch of Sputnik. A number involve Korolev. At some point, probably in the late summer of 1957, when many of the satellite components had been manufactured and tested, Korolev convened a meeting of the leading Sputnik designers and announced that the satellite must be larger—that the diameter be increased from 0.6 to 1 meters! He was suddenly concerned that the satellite would not be visible with the naked eye. Naturally, many designers were upset, not the least because they had spent months bringing the project to fruition. One of Korolev’s senior aides, Deputy Chief Designer Sergei Okhapkin (1901–80), was the most upset since he was afraid that a change in the design so late would mean they would miss the launch date. A bigger satellite would also mean a more powerful launch vehicle, meaning more changes and more time. Eventually, even the mighty Korolev was convinced that this was a bad idea.29
PS-1 was assembled at Factory No. 88 located right next to Korolev’s design bureau in Kaliningrad (now called Korolev.) Most factory engineers involved in the creation of Sputnik did not perceive it as anything more or less important than any other object created at the plant. The factory’s chief engineer, Viktor Kliucharev, later recalled that constructing PS-1, especially in comparison to the immensely complicated R-7 ICBM, was a relatively painless job for the workers. For the factory foremen, the most challenging job proved to be manufacturing and assembling the hemispherical casings of the hull of Sputnik. These half shells were made by “stamping,” which produced many defects (or folds) typical of “deep drawing” which took great skill to eliminate from the final operational models. Technologists also had to ensure that the satellite was as shiny as possible to maintain coefficients of absorption and reflection to make it as visible as possible. Shop workers spent a lot of time “finishing” the aluminum outer shell of the satellite.
In the summer of 1957, Korolev and Academician Kotel’nikov had discussed ways to increase the reflectivity not only of the satellite payload but also the core booster, which would also be inserted into orbit with PS-1. Kotel’nikov, the director of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Radiotechnology and Electronics, assigned one of his scientists, V. M. Vakhnin, to develop a deployable angular reflector that would later be installed on the core.30 The use of this reflector made it possible for Soviet ground-based radar stations to track the core for several weeks after launch.
Production culture changed quite a bit after Korolev’s first visit to the assembly shop. Khomiakov later recalled that Korolev “demanded that everything, beginning with the atmosphere in the building… and ending with quality of manufacture be changed.”31 Korolev was particularly aghast that workers were trying to weld the satellite’s casings by hand. Emphasizing the importance of full internal pressurization, he insisted on automatic welding, as well as recommending new methods to check the air tightness of the hull. Factory workers eventually used a special helium leak detector (known as the PTI-4) to test the integrity of the satellite. But most important for Korolev was a clean environment. He told his foremen: “In three days everything here must shine. Hang white gloves on the windows, dress everyone who works here in white coats and gloves. Paint the stand under the satellite white and line the pedestal in velvet.”32 After Korolev’s visit, things changed. Kliucharev remembers that:
Flight and test models of the PS-1 were manufactured in August 1957 in parallel with assembly of the R-7 rocket that would deliver it into orbit. Ivanovskii recalls that because the two systems were manufactured in adjacent halls, PS-1 workers would frequently run over to see the R-7 being assembled to make sure that they were not lagging behind, since they did not want to be the source of any delays.
Once all the assembly and testing operations on PS-1 had been finished, in early September 1957, Korolev invited all those involved in the satellite’s assembly and testing—about 40 people, including his deputies, department chief, and factory shop foremen—to discuss the status of the satellite. He asked Khomiakov to give a report, who provided a detailed status summary, but twice mistakenly referred to “PS” as “SP.” The latter was the nickname many at Korolev’s bureau used to informally refer to the Chief Designer (“SP” for “Sergei Pavlovich.”) Korolev interrupted Khomiakov, asking people angrily “not to confuse the two.”34
In late September, the PS-1 was finally delivered to the launch range at Tiura-Tam. The satellite was shipped in two separate containers, one containing the main body and the other carrying the four long antennae. (The launch vehicle had already arrived earlier.) Soon after, on Korolev’s orders, a group of the main production personnel, including both Khomiakov and Ivanovskii, left Kaliningrad for the launch site on Korolev’s orders.35
Publicizing Sputnik before launch
As many have noted over the years, the Soviets were not shy about announcing the fact they would launch a satellite during the IGY. Between 1953 and 1957—peaking especially in the latter years—several hundred articles on space travel flooded the popular Soviet media. Most appeared in popular science journals such as Nauka i zhizn’ (Science and Life), Kryl’ia rodiny (Wings of the Motherland), Tekhnika-molodezhi (Technology for Youth), and Priroda (Nature); others appeared in popular general issue journals such as Ogonek (Zest) or daily papers such as Pravda, Izvestiia, and Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star). Although none of these articles contained any specific details about Sputnik, its launch vehicle, its designers, or indeed its schedule of launch, the prolific nature of these articles suggested a deep and persistent interest in spaceflight in the Soviet Union. Recent information now indicates that designers in the “secret world” of the Soviet military-industrial complex (such as Korolev and Tikhonravov) directly and indirectly passed information to public writers for public consumption.36 Korolev was explicit about the need to publicize the impending Soviet space program. At a meeting in July 1956, he had told fellow chief designers that “the results of the true situation [with the satellite project] needs to be communicated at [international] conferences not by direct participants of the work but by major scientists, [who are] able to understand what they’re talking about.”37 Korolev specifically singled out the upcoming IGY conferences in Barcelona and Rome.
Less than two months later, Academician Ivan Bardin (1883–1960), a reputable Soviet metallurgist who was chairman of the Soviet IGY committee, officially confirmed at Barcelona that the Soviet Union would launch a satellite during the IGY. Bardin, like Korolev, had long complained to the Soviet government of being hobbled by secrecy rules. After he wrote a letter to the Politburo, the Soviet government reluctantly agreed to let Bardin and others talk very generally about an impending satellite.38 As a result, four months before the launch of the satellite, in June 1957, Bardin provided more information to CSAGI although he did not elaborate on a timing for the launch.39
Korolev and Tikhonravov also disseminated information about the planned satellite to the general Soviet populace through other conduits. In one particular case, they managed to galvanize the energies of thousands of young amateur radio enthusiasts all across the Soviet Union to help the engineers track the satellite once it was in orbit. At the time, there were few professional observation posts spread across the Soviet landmass—the few existing ones belonged either to the Air Defense Forces or a few scattered astronomical observatories, so making use of amateurs was a clever and effective way to “fill in the blanks.”
Here, Academician Kotel’nikov, who had counseled Korolev’s engineers in the creation of PS-1’s radio transmitters, played a key role. On Korolev’s instructions, some of Kotel’nikov’s scientists at his institute passed on details of the satellite’s radio transmitters, including its transmission frequencies, to the Central Radio Club of the major Soviet paramilitary youth organization, DOSAAF. Soon, DOSAAF, in coordination with Kotel’nikov’s scientists, delivered special tracking instruments (tape recorders, signal generators, etc.) to 28 separate amateur radio clubs across the country, who all reported to the central club back in Moscow.40 The particular clubs were chosen according to their location, spread along a line from the Baltic states all the way to Chukotka in eastern Siberia. Nikolai Kazanskii, president of the Soviet Amateur Radio Federation, remembers that he actually attended a meeting where Korolev was present where they asked him how many minutes it would take for the DOSAAF people to relay information on positive identification of the satellite to Moscow. Kazanskii assured them that he could get news from any of the outlying clubs to the central location at Rastorguevo (in Moscow) within 15 minutes.41
Simultaneously, in the summer of 1957, DOSAAF published information about the satellite in its amateur ham journal, Radio, which had a circulation of about 200,000. There was no information on the actual satellite nor about when or how it would be launched, but there was data useful to amateur radio enthusiasts: how the satellite might fly, how its signals might transmit through the ionosphere, and of course, the transmission frequencies (20 and 40 megahertz!) DOSAAF also funded test runs on the equipment delivered from Kotel’nikov’s institute: at the Central Club, they used a Iakovlev Iak-12 airplane, a tiny single propeller vehicle capable of carrying one or two extra passengers, to send out signals from a makeshift transmitter which radio hams tracked from the ground. By October, there were many thousands of young Soviet citizens who were ready for the “real” thing.42
Evgenii Riabchikov, a journalist for the popular Soviet journal Ogonek who was one of the few in his profession with access to the “secret” world, also contributed to public anticipation for Sputnik. Riabchikov, who had spent time in Antarctica with the Soviet expedition working under the auspices of impending the International Geophysical Year, wanted to do a series of articles on space exploration. He met with PS-1 designer Tikhonravov, who eventually arranged for Riabchikov to talk directly to Korolev. As a result of these discussions, Riabchikov published two major Ogonek articles in the summer of 1957 that included very general details about Sputnik without mentioning either Korolev or Tikhonravov. Official state censors allowed such articles to be published once they were approved for public consumption by Academy of Sciences Corresponding Member Evgenii Fedorov (1910–1981), a meteorologist charged with approving the dissemination of scientific information to the public.43 Fedorov, like Academician Bardin, was another “public” member of the Soviet IGY committee who actually knew very little about the satellite effort.
All this publicity certainly made a difference in the West. In 1957 alone, as the months counted down to the launch of Sputnik, there were a number of important signs that something big was imminent. The various statements of Academy of Sciences President Aleksandr Nesmeianov (1899–1980) on a future satellite launch were prominently featured in major American newspapers such as the New York Times. In a page one story on June 2, 1957, the paper reported (quoting Nesmeianov) that the Soviets had completed work on the rockets and instruments necessary to launch a satellite into an orbit a few hundred kilometers above the Earth; the Times helpfully added that “a kilometer is roughly five eighths of a mile.”44 Riabchikov’s Ogonek article was also picked up in the same paper a few days later, with the additional information that the satellite would be launched by a multi-stage rocket and that the orbital period of the satellite would be 90 minutes. Nesmeianov added that “soon, literally within the next few months, our planet will acquire another satellite, a man-made satellite at that.”45 A few days later, the Times quoted Academician Fedorov, the chief censor of the Soviet scientific community, as claiming that a satellite launch would happen before the end of 1958. He also provided more details on orbital parameters (190 by 480 kilometers) and launch time (early morning)—which were strangely far different from real plans.46