(This is the first in a set of profiles I’ll be mixing in with the usual material every now and then. In the history of space missions that never happened about a dozen names appear over and over: a half-dozen Soviets, three or four attached to the American program, and a couple elsewhere in the world. Most of them have one or more character flaws worthy of the best fictional characters. Two are quite famous—Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev—but the rest are of varying degrees of obscurity. If you want to know about what might have been, you need to know about them, and as the USSR called theirs “Chief Designers” that’s what I’ll call them here.)
Valentin Petrovich Glushko was the pre-eminent Soviet rocket engine designer of the 20th century and, from 1974 until his death in 1989, the head of NPO Energiya—de facto head of the Soviet space program.
Glushko was born on September 2, 1908 in Odessa (part of what was then the Russian Empire and is now Ukraine). Inspired by the novels of Jules Verne he became interested in space as a teenager and started a seven-year correspondence with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. After attending Leningrad State University, he began work with their Gas Dynamics Laboratory. In 1932, the GDL was melded into Sergei Korolev’s Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GRID, the first professional rocketry group in the world) to form the Reaction Engine Scientific Research Institute (RNII).
In 1938 Stalin’s Great Purge swept across the USSR and Glushko was one of the millions of people caught up in it. While under interrogation by the NKVD he was made to denounce his co-workers, including Korolev. Glushko was sentenced to eight years in prison, but was sent to a relatively benign engineering work camp to continue with his rockets. Korolev was sentenced to the infamous Kolyma slave labour mines and nearly died from starvation and torture. He was released more than a year later and sent to work in a similar engineering camp, and even managed to work professionally with Glushko until the mid-1960s, but it’s likely that their later falling out—and its effect on the course of the Soviet space program—was at least in part due to these events.
During World War II Glushko continued his imprisonment and work on rockets, primarily ones to assist airplanes on short takeoffs. He was formally released in August 1944, and in December of the same year he was named the head of a new design bureau, OKB SD (soon renamed OKB-456).
As one of the Soviet Union’s foremost experts on rockets he was sent to Germany at the end of the war to investigate their rocketry program, which had shot far ahead of any other in the world in the preceding few years. While in Germany he helped to get the German V-2 engine factories back to work—under Soviet control—and was part of a small official Russian delegation observing Operation Backfire, a test firing of a British-seized V2 at Cuxhaven (Korolev came along unofficially, hidden amongst the Russian soldiers who accompanied them).
In October of 1946, the Soviet Union all but kidnapped all Germans in the Soviet Zone involved with the V-2 and brought them to the USSR. There they were sent to work on a Russian copy of the V-2 (the R-1)and—more importantly—teaching their captors how to develop this kind of rocket indigenously. Glushko was put in charge of building the Russian version of the V-2 engine, the RD-100.
By 1951 the Germans were sent home and under Glushko the Russians built the next stage in V-2 engine development, which the Germans had designed: the ED-140. This in turn led to the RD-105 and RD-106 (neither of which was very successful) and then, from the standpoint of history the most important, the RD-107.
This engine was developed and working properly by the end of 1955. Since 1950 Sergei Korolev had been coordinating a project to build and fly the world’s first ICBM, the R-7, and Glushko’s RD-107 (and the related RD-108) was the engine selected for its three stages. After two failures, the third launch of an R-7 was successful on August 21, 1957. Six weeks later Sputnik I was on top of one and the Space Age began. An R-7 derivative using Glushko’s engine was not only later used for putting Yuri Gagarin in orbit, it’s still being used to put people into space on Russian rockets more than fifty years later. Every manned Russian spacecraft has been pushed into orbit by Glushko’s RD-107s or a derivative of it.
This period of triumph came to an end in late 1961. Bearing in mind that the R-7 was a missile first and a satellite launcher second, it wasn’t very good for what was supposedly its primary job. It used liquid oxygen as a fuel oxidizer, and since that needs to be stored at cryogenic temperatures the time it took to launch one was too long. Against the R-7 Vladimir Chelomei had put up the UR-100 missile, which used the room-temperature propellants nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH; these could be loaded in a missile and left for months, and let one be launched on a few minutes’ notice. Soviet leaders considered it more successful than what Korolev and Glushko came up with to counter it, the R-9, and built far more of them.
As a result, Glushko came around to the anti-LOX, storable propellant camp just as OKB-1 were settling the initial design of the N1 and refused to go along with Korolev’s intention of using liquid oxygen with kerosene and liquid hydrogen for the fuel. Glushko felt that it would be impossible to develop large engines that used those propellants, while Korolev was of the opinion that nitrogen tetroxide and UDMH were too toxic—they were dangerous for personnel to handle, and a pad explosion involving them would make for an environmental disaster. The two fell out completely over the disagreement and never worked together again. The N1 went ahead (arguably to its detriment) with engines by Nikolai Kuznetsov’s OKB-276, while Glushko went ahead with his own ideas.
For Vladimir Chelomei he developed the engine for the UR-500 ICBM, a variation of which became the Proton launch vehicle. This was tapped for Chelomei’s abortive moon program in 1964-65, and for the longer-lived Zond program; it helped contribute to its failure by going through some terrible reliability problems until 1971. After that, though it became the satellite launcher of choice for the Soviet Union and even Russia in the present day.
Besides that success, though, Glushko’s remaining career became a wonderland of alternative launchers, spacecraft, space stations, and even a lunar base. When the N1 began drifting into trouble, he started developing the massive RD-270 engine for Vladimir Chelomei’s alternative Moon rocket, the UR-700. It never went anywhere due to lack of funding, and Glushko evidently decided to solve the problem by political decapitation.
Korolev had died at the start of 1966 and been replaced by his lieutenant, Vasili Mishin, OKB-1 being renamed TsKBEM at that time. Fairly or not, Mishin was blamed for the long series of failures in the Soviet space program from 1966-1974, and Glushko finally managed to convince the relevant Soviet officials (Leonid Brezhnev, Minister of Defense and Politburo member Dmitri Ustinov, and the Minister directly responsible for TsKBEM Sergei Afanasyev) that Mishin should be relieved and his bureau and Glushko’s amalgamated under him.
From 1974 to 1989 Glushko was the top man in the Soviet space program, and it can fairly be said that he got it back on track in the late 1970s and mid-80s, but even then the political gyrations and declining finances of the USSR kept many of his projects in the realm of fantasy. In the eighteen months between his takeover and early 1976 he proposed the Zvezda program to begin a Soviet Moon base, backed with a super-heavy derivative of the Proton called Vulkan that could lift an astonishing 230 tonnes to orbit.
When told to stop this and work on a copy of the American space shuttle, he switched over to the Energia rocket (and planned to work back up to the Vulkan by adding more strap-on boosters to it) and the associated Buran shuttle. Paradoxically, to do so he had to back down from earlier insistence on storable propellants: Energia used LOX, liquid hydrogen, and kerosene much as Korolev had wanted two decades before Glushko’s biggest rocket flew. Some sources say that the 1973 death of nine people in the explosion of a Kosmos rocket (which uses similar, but not identical, fuel as a Proton) ultimately changed his mind at a time when he was under pressure from his own bosses to make the switch. True to form, the RD-170 engine he developed to burn those fuels for Energia led to derivative engines still being used today.
Also in the plus column, the Mir space station was arguably the Soviet Union’s biggest achievement in space after Yuri Gagarin, but the Mir-2 follow-up fell to the same problem as Energiya/Buran: the economic and then political collapse of the Soviet Union.
He passed away on January 10, 1989, in Moscow, at the age of 80.