Vladimir Nikolayevich Chelomei was perpetually the second-most important designer of Soviet spacecraft and rockets, yet by the end of his life his Proton rocket had become a workhorse of the Soviet (and later Russian) space program and he was the godfather USSR’s ultimate achievement, the space station Mir.
Chelomei was born on June 30, 1914 in Siedlce, which is in Poland in the present day but was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Shortly thereafter, on the outbreak of World War I, his family relocated to the Ukraine. He grew up there and by his early twenties he was one of the rising stars of Soviet engineering.
His involvement with rockets began with his development of a pulse jet engine in 1942. While it was too inefficient to be useful it established him as a person to call when the USSR received a downed V-1 from the British in June 1944. After the death of Soviet missile designer Nikolai Polikarpov six weeks later, Chelomei was made head of OKB-51 and told to reverse engineer the V-1 and build a Russian version. This he did, the 10Kh.
In 1953 he lost OKB-51 to aircraft designer Artem Mikoyan, who wanted to build his own cruise missiles and had made the politically astute move of hiring as an engineer Sergei Beria—son of the infamous NKVD leader. A few weeks later, however, Stalin died and Georgi Malenkov became for a time the leader of the USSR, With Malenkov’s aid, Chelomei rebuilt his department as OKB-52 and set to work developing a next generation cruise missile, the submarine-launched P-5.
In both the USSR and US cruise missiles were falling into the shadow of ballistic missiles by the mid-1950s, and so after Sergei Korolev’s massive increase in prestige following Sputnik 1, Chelomei sought to enter the field himself. To this end, and perhaps remembering what had happened with him and Mikoyan, he made a point of hiring Nikita Khrushchev’s son Sergei as an engineer in March 1958. With Khrushchev’s blessing other Soviet aircraft manufacturers with space ambitions such as Myasishchev, Tsybin, and Lavochkin were incorporated into OKB-52, and Chelomei set to work on Kosmoplan, his alternative to Sergei Korolev’s vision for the Soviet space program. At the core of the plan was his “Universal Rocket” system, which would build up to progressively larger boosters: the UR-100, the UR-200 and UR-500, and then the enormous UR-700), while the LK-1 and later LK-700 would be used for manned lunar missions. Korolev’s OKB-1 remained the main Soviet space program, OKB-52 (soon reorganized as TsKBM, which is confusingly not the same as TsKBEM, the name later given to OKB-1 under Valentin Glushko) became a parallel effort—albeit one with less financial support.
Chelomei’s moment came after successfully developing the UR-100 ICBM, which was the USSR’s answer to the Minuteman missile. Using storable propellants gave the missile a nominal three-minute turnaround time, far better than Korolev’s R-9 with its LOX and kerosene could give. The UR-100 became the most numerous ICBM in history and Khrushchev rewarded its designer with control over the Lunar flyby program on August 3, 1964. The LK-1 would proceed, and the UR-500 would be developed to launch it. OKB-1’s N1–L3 was still the primary contender for a Moon landing, but it seemed only a matter of time before the UR-700/LK-700 would replace it.
Korolev began fighting to have that decision overturned immediately, and barely two months later Khrushchev was ousted from power. Chelomei’s star began to descend again, and in the confusion Korolev managed to reclaim some of his former domain: the LK-1 was essentially cancelled in October 1965 although work continued on the UR-500. Only when Sergei Korolev died in 1966, Chelomei was finally able to move ahead clearly on his booster as part of the Zond mission, as no-one remaining at OKB-1 had the power or political savvy to change it.
Zond failed in large part because of the UR-500’s initial problems: its first two flights were successful, but of the 23 launched before 1970 thirteen failed in one way or another—and it had a nasty habit of failing on its more important missions. Since then, however, under the name Proton it has gone on to become one of the world’s workhorse launchers.
This would set the pattern of Chelomei’s remaining career: starved of funds and support he would develop his programs very slowly to avoid failures. If something did go wrong, it was usually because of control getting mixed up with OKB-1 under Vasili Mishin or Valentin Glushko.
While he continued to work on Moon programs and other spacecraft when he could, Chelomei’s focus switched to space stations. His first was Almaz, a military-purpose station which was partially taken away from him and used as the DOS framework for the first civilian Salyut stations (though it was still launched on Protons). Salyut 1 led to disaster for reasons unrelated to his work on it, but as that program went on and produced a string of successes some of the missions became progressively more and more his.
It was this way that the Indian summer of his career came in the mid-1970s. He had been able to continue with the crew capsule of his proposed LK-700 lunar lander by repurposing it as the VA crew capsule of the TKS craft he built for resupply of his Almaz stations. They never flew for that purpose, but the support module that made up the other part of the TKS in turn took on a new life as the FGB, or in English the Functional Cargo Block.
This piece of equipment led to the modular DOS-7 based Salyut 7, which near the end of its lifetime in 1985 gained an experimental attachment: the so-called Kosmos 1686 module, which was actually a heavily modified FGB. After this success, the USSR began constructing their Mir space station in February of 1986. Of that space station’s seven modules, only its docking module was unrelated to the FGB or the Almaz in some way.
Even the ISS benefited from Chelomei’s space station development. The very first ISS module, Zarya, was an FGB as will be the upcoming Nauka. The Zvezda module is DOS-8 and so, while more distantly related, ultimately goes back to his work on Almaz.
Unfortunately Chelomei didn’t live to see the final vindication of his work. He died on December 8, 1984 shortly after an accident with his car: it slipped into gear while he was working near it and it badly injured him causing an eventual fatal stroke. At the time Mir was only just coming out of financing doldrums due to the Buran shuttle program, and the ISS was still years in the future