In contrast to the low priority assigned to the military space station projects at the overcommitted TsKBEM, the Ministry of Defence encouraged the development of Chelomey's Almaz. Although this project suffered protracted delays, by 1969 it was the only real Soviet space station project. It is true that there were ideas for joint endeavours in space station development between Mishin's team in Kaliningrad and Chelomey's in Reutov, but owing to the poor relationship between the two Chief Designers no one at the TsKBEM wished to approach Mishin officially to propose a formal collaboration. Even the Kremlin recognised that rivalry between the bureaus had seriously damaged the Soviet space programme. Once, even the mighty Ustinov said that Mishin and Chelomey behaved just as if the bureaus were their personal "principalities". Although the Kremlin could have ordered strategic integration, in practice it did little to force the bureaus to collaborate.
In the meantime, the Americans had been very busy. In August 1965 NASA had assigned a group of experts the task of defining a programme of long-term scientific research in Earth orbit using Apollo hardware. This drew up a phased programme that would lead to a scientific space station. Over the years most of these projects were dismissed, but in the spring of 1969 it was announced that a 'Sky Laboratory' (Skylab) would be launched in 1972. It would be a 90-tonne giant, and with a length of 36 metres and a diameter of 6 metres it would have a volume of 400 cubic metres - four times that of Almaz. The pace of the American space programme renewed the Kremlin's concern. It was clear that the USSR had lost the race to land a man on the Moon, work on the Almaz space station was seriously behind schedule, and all that the TsKBEM had to offer was the Soyuz spacecraft. The Soviet response to the American plan would therefore have to be quick and efficient.
In August 1969 a group of designers led by Boris Raushenbakh, the TsKBEM Department Chief responsible for the development of spacecraft guidance systems, put it to Boris Chertok, their boss, that a propellant tank of the Soyuz rocket should be converted into a space station. It was estimated that this could be done within a year, and could be launched before Almaz - and before Skylab, of course. As the Chief Designer, Mishin was the top man. His First Deputy was Sergey Okhapkin, who was in charge of the development of rocket systems, including the N1 launcher. Next was Konstantin Bushuyev, the Deputy Chief Designer for the development of unmanned and manned spacecraft, including the Soyuz spacecraft and its L1 and L3 variants. Deputy Chief Designer Chertok was the fourth man, and his responsibility was the development of guidance, control and electrical systems for launchers and spacecraft. Chertok was one of the pioneers of Soviet rocketry, having worked with Korolev and the other leading Soviet rocket designers in analysing the design of the V-2 rockets that were confiscated from the Nazis. Raushenbakh had left Keldysh's tutelage to join Chertok's group in the early days of OKB-1, and was one of the few top Soviet spacecraft designers whose name was known in the West. His proposal was to modify a tank to accommodate various systems from a Soyuz spacecraft, and to install solar panels, a docking mechanism and a hermetic tunnel to provide access from a docked Soyuz. The fact that this structure was to be launched by the Proton rocket meant that its mass could be no greater than that of Almaz, but it would be much simpler.20
Initially, Chertok hesitated. His main concern was the limitations implicit in the systems developed for the Soyuz spacecraft. An additional issue was that a vehicle having three times the mass of the Soyuz would require more powerful engines to maintain its orbit and to control its orientation. Furthermore, this propulsion system would require to be able to support a mission of many months, rather than a brief Soyuz flight. Chertok consulted his old friend Aleksey Isayev. In 1944 Isayev had been appointed the Chief Designer of OKB-2 (in 1966 renamed Himmash), and had worked with Chertok and Korolev in Germany. He was now the leading designer of rocket engines for both unmanned and manned spacecraft. When Chertok explained the TsKBEM's idea, Isayev said that he had already developed such a propulsion system for Chelomey's Almaz. The logical way to proceed would be to combine the proven systems of the Soyuz spacecraft with those already developed for the Almaz station. Thus was born an idea with dramatic implications for the future of world cosmonautics.
Interestingly, only a small group were involved in originating this project. Taking the lead was Konstantin Feoktistov. As a Department Chief in Bushuyev's group, he was of similar rank to Raushenbakh. He had been involved from the earliest days in the design of the Vostok spacecraft, and in return for leading the modification of that capsule to accommodate three cosmonauts he had been assigned to the crew of the first Voskhod flight in October 1964. The Soyuz spacecraft was very much one of his 'offspring'. On hearing of the proposal to convert a propellant tank into a station, Feoktistov asked: why start with an empty tank? There were several Almaz prototypes standing idle in Chelomey's factory in Fili. It would be better to modify one of these.
However, Chelomey was sure to oppose any attempt to requisition his spacecraft, the Ministry of Defence and Minister Afanasyev would reject any further delays in Almaz development and, of course, Mishin would not appreciate a proposal to use a
20 The main habitable compartment of the Skylab space station was the fuel tank of the second stage of a Saturn IB launch vehicle, so the basis for Raushenbakh's idea is obvious.
competitor's hardware in a TsKBEM project. But Feoktistov and Chertok thought differently. Their strategy was to avoid anyone who might raise an objection, and to go straight to Dmitriy Ustinov, who was on the Central Committee of the Kremlin and was in overall control of the Soviet space programme. They were sure he would understand the strategic implications of the idea. However, it was no simple matter to contact Ustinov. Normally such an approach would be made by Mishin, as head of the bureau. But Mishin was in Kyslovodsk, taking his annual leave; and anyway he would object. In Mishin's absence, Bushuyev was one of the few people with the authority to seek a meeting with Ustinov.
Feoktistov recalls: ''Several times Bushuyev, Chertok and I reviewed this matter. Chertok, and his engineers who'd worked on the development of guidance systems, supported the idea of moving immediately. But Bushuyev hesitated because Mishin would be against the idea, and we would not have the support of our own bureau.''
Someone suggested that Bushuyev should call Ustinov and ask for a meeting, but Bushuyev did not wish to take such an important step without the knowledge of his bureau chief. However, Feoktistov had a reputation for being disobedient, and he proposed that he call Ustinov. Intriguingly, although Feoktistov was not a member of Communist Party, he readily arranged a meeting with one of the most influential men in the Central Committee.
Ustinov was aware that even under the most optimistic scenario, Almaz would not be ready until early 1972. If everything went to plan Almaz would beat Skylab, but if the launch were to fail, or if the station were to experience a problem that would prevent a crew from boarding it, then the Soviet Union would again trail behind the Americans. Another issue was that as a military project, the design and operation of the Almaz station should remain a secret. Skylab was a scientific project funded by NASA. If the first Soviet space station could be portrayed as a civilian space project, and it was given lavish coverage in the newspapers, then it would serve to mask the true role of the subsequent Almaz stations - about which much less information would be released. That is, to launch a scientific station first would serve as a maskirovka, or deception, designed to hide the real project. Ustinov fully appreciated this point. He invited Chertok, Bushuyev, Feoktistov, Raushenbakh and Okhapkin to his office on 5 December 1969. Also present were Leonid Smirnov, who was Aleksey Kosygin's deputy for space matters and chairman of the VPK since 1963, Afanasyev, Keldysh and some of Ustinov's officials. As Mishin was on vacation it was reasonable that he should not be invited, and Chelomey, being in hospital, was conveniently unavailable.
In advance of the meeting, the TsKBEM people agreed to let Feoktistov talk first. His presentation was very convincing. It would be possible to equip the core of one of Chelomey's stations with the solar panels of the Soyuz spacecraft, together with its guidance and command systems. In approximately a year's time, Feoktistov said, the Soviet Union would have the world's first space station. Chertok then noted that the systems of the Soyuz spacecraft were considered to be reliable because they had been tested during 14 unmanned and manned orbital flights. The development of a docking system incorporating an internal tunnel was underway. Keldysh asked how the construction of such a space station would interfere with the development of the N1-L3 lunar programme. Okhapkin said that the two projects were separate, and the designers involved in the lunar programme would not be needed for the station. Of course, Ustinov knew that both Soviet lunar programmes were under review. After the success of Apollo 8 in December 1968 the L1 circumlunar project launched by a Proton rocket had lost its purpose, and the N1-L3 lunar landing was contingent on successfully introducing the N1 launch vehicle - and after two spectacular failures in January and July 1969 some people were beginning to doubt that this would ever fly. And then, of course, the Americans had already won the race to the Moon.
Ustinov was enthusiastic about the space station conversion, not only because if it worked it would demonstrate that the Soviet Union was ahead of the Americans in this aspect of manned spaceflight, and not only to provide a maskirovka for Almaz, but also because Ustinov had never liked how Chelomey had exploited the personal support of Khrushchov and his links with the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defence
Mishin's deputies: Konstantin Bushuyev (left) for satellites and manned spacecraft, and Boris Chertok for control and guidance systems.
to expand his activities into manned spacecraft. Ustinov wanted all such work to be undertaken by a single design bureau. Converting the core of a military Almaz into a civilian space station would not only enable the Soviet Union to once again claim leadership in space, it would also put Chelomey in his place!
The meeting ended with the decision to immediately prepare a project time-scale, and by the end of January 1970 to issue a decree to endorse the plan. Although the TsKBEM rebels were surprised by the ready acceptance of their proposal, they had (to coin a phrase) been 'pushing an open door'. Brezhnyev accepted the importance of space stations for national prestige. In fact, he had referred to them several times in speeches which he made that autumn, and on 22 October, in welcoming home the crews of the 'group flight' of Soyuz 6, 7 and 8, he had asserted that the USSR had a broad space programme which was planned years in advance and would unfold in a logical manner. The strategy was to downplay American successes and not to admit Soviet failures. This was why the USSR was only one of two European states (the other being Albania) not to run 'live' TV coverage of the first manned lunar landing. In order to convey the impression that the Soviet space programme was following a grand plan, Brezhnyev had spoken of ''space cosmodromes" from which men would set off on journeys to the planets. Obviously, however, this plan would unfold by a series of ever more ambitious steps, the first of which would be relatively modest. By the end of November 1969 Academicians Keldysh and Boris Petrov had written in newspaper articles that space stations would permit unprecedented monitoring of meteorology, oceanology, ecology and aspects of the economy; they would serve as laboratories to study physics, geophysics, advanced technology and astronomy; they would serve as factories; and later they would test systems needed by the promised interplanetary spaceships.
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