M-19 “Gurkolyot”: Grab the Problem by the Throat, Not the Tail

Myasishchev M-19 Gurkolyot schematic

A schematic of the M-19. Despite its great width and length, it was to be very flat, and mass only 500 tonnes. Image by the author, released to the public domain. Click for a larger view.

What it was: The Ministry of Aviation’s candidate for a Soviet shuttle, an apparent attempt to wrest control of the Soviet crewed space program away from the Ministry of General Machine Building. It was a runway-launched, single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane using a hydrogen propellant-based nuclear engine, designed by the Myasischev bureau that had previously worked on the VKA-23.

Details: After the first Myasishchev bureau was dissolved 1960 and many of its people moved to OKB-52, Vladimir Myasishchev didn’t lose his interest in spaceplanes. He became head of TsAGI, the Soviet experimental aviation bureau, then in 1967 was allowed to refound his own bureau, at which point he picked up from where he left off. A few years later the Soviet Shuttle project began, and Myasishchev was in the large camp of designers who were skeptical of the American design which slowly became the favorite behind the Iron Curtain.

Many years earlier, responsibility for the development of rockets in the USSR had been disavowed by the Ministry of Aviation and fallen instead to the Artillery wing of the Red Army. When ballistic missiles and rockets became the glamorous thing in the late 50s the aviation types came to regret their decision and repeatedly tried to barge into the business—Vladimir Chelomei came from the aerospace side of things, for example. Now that the USSR was in the large, reusable orbiter business, the Ministry of Aviation chose Myasishchev’s new bureau as their new champion and set him to work.

What the V. M. Myasishchev Experimental Design Bureau then proposed was a series of three craft, with several variations on each type, that would start with a high-speed test-bed and end with an orbital spaceplane. The middle craft was a reasonable knock-off of the NASA Shuttle, but the first and third were a radical alternative program. Back in the 1960s an engineer at NII-1 (“Institute of Jet Aviation-1”), Oleg Gurko, had come up with a novel concept for a SSTO, based around a nuclear reactor, the details of which we’ll explore shortly.

His suggestion got nowhere in the 60s despite his approaching both Myasishchev and Mikoyan, representing the Aviation Ministry for which he worked. Once work began on the Soviet shuttle, however, the Aviation Ministry’s interest picked up and the Myasishchev bureau was told to work on a proposal based on Gurko’s idea. Myasishchev himself realized that this SSTO would be a massive leap that would take a long time to develop, but he was uneasy with merely copying the American shuttle as that kind of a project would only be completed several years after the United States was flying (as indeed was the case, with STS-1 occurring in spring 1981 and Buran’s one, crewless flight being in November 1988). If his country was going to be behind anyway, why not work on a project that would at least offer the opportunity to leap ahead during the delay? He reportedly summed up his approach as “Grab the problem by the throat and not the tail, or else you will always have the tail”.

The breadth of Myasishchev’s ambition can be measured by understanding that the first plane in his program was not just a testing ground but, in order to bring the Ministry of Aviation on-side, was intended to double as an operational Mach 6 bomber flying at 30 kilometers up, twice as fast and fifty percent higher than the XB-70. The final plane was considerably more capable than even that.

Weighing in at 500 tonnes with fuel, the M-19 was a very flat, 69-meter long triangular wedge with two small sets of wings, one at the tail and one as canards near the nose. Launching horizontally from a runway, the M-19’s trip to orbit would begin with twin turbofan jet engines burning liquid hydrogen. After getting up to Mach 4, the plane would switch over to scramjet engines, also burning hydrogen. In both cases, though, the engines had Gurko’s idea behind them for a little extra kick.

The M-19 would have had a nuclear rocket engine that would take over in turn once the scramjet pushed the plane to Mach 16 and out of the appreciable atmosphere around 50 kilometers high. As the reactor was just sitting there during the turbojets’ and scramjets’ operation, Gurko reasoned, why not use it to superheat their exhaust to increase thrust? The potential increase in efficiency was considerable, and as the nuclear rocket (already more efficient than chemical rockets) would only be used for the final leg, the low inherent fuel use of the air-fed turbo- and scramjets gave the M-19 a tremendous payload fraction: the 500-tonne fully fueled plane was projected to lift 40 tonnes to LEO in its 15m × 4m cargo bay, which compares favorably to even staged rockets. Consider the Space Shuttle at 2040 tonnes and 28 tonnes of payload, or the Saturn V at 3038 tonnes and 118 tonnes of payload. To move whatever was stored in it, the bay was to be equipped with a manipulator unit, and an airlock from the crew compartment allowed EVA. Behind the bay was a large LH2 tank and, it should be made clear, no oxidizer tank. The rocket would run on raw hydrogen, while the two different types of jet would use the air as their source of oxygen.

After completing its mission in orbit, the M-19 would then fly back home, using the same propulsion systems in reverse order to come into a powered landing at an airstrip somewhere in the USSR, with an astonishing cross-range capability of 4500 kilometers. This completely plane-like return was of considerable interest to Soviet space planners for other reasons too, as it meant that the M-19 would reduce search and retrieval costs to nil as compared to capsules unless there was an emergency. Under those circumstances the cabin was to be entirely ejectable, serving as a survival capsule for the three to seven cosmonauts that might be on-board..

That the M-19 was perfectly capable of flying as an airplane in the lower atmosphere made it much more flexible too, as it could be moved to a different launch site relatively easily. And, as it didn’t drop stages on the way to orbit, it could be launched in any direction without worrying about what was downrange—a problem that’s particularly difficult for the USSR and Russia, and has led the latter to build its newest cosmodrome in the remote Amur region by the Pacific Ocean.

Even in space the M-19 was unprecedentedly flexible, able to make repeated orbital plane changes by diving into the upper atmosphere and maneuvering aerodynamically. Whether performing an inclination change or coming down to land, the M-19 was protected by reinforced carbon-carbon (like the Space Shuttle’s leading wing edges) and ceramic heat tiles.

The rocket for the M-19 was to be be built by the Kuznetsov design bureau, also the builders of the conventional engines for the N1, and would have been the first operational nuclear rocket in the USSR (and indeed the world).

Testing beforehand would involve several flying test beds to develop hydrogen-burning engines and scramjets, drop test articles, and the aforementioned hypersonic test vehicle/bomber. Though Gurko himself did not work for the organization assigned to build the M-19 he consulted on it, and the M-19 gained the nickname “Gurkolyot” (“Gurkoplane”). If given the immediate go ahead, the Myasishchev Bureau predicted that the final craft would be ready for flight in 1987 or ’88.

What happened to make it fail: First, Myasishchev’s bureau was absorbed again in 1976, this time into NPO Molniya, newly founded to make the Buran orbiter. The Soviet leadership had placed their bet on a close copy of the US’ Shuttle.

Second, even Myasishchev called the M-19 his “swan song”, and that his ambition was to set the USSR on the right course, not see it through. He was in his seventies even before preliminary work began on the spaceplane, and his death in 1978 took away the program’s biggest voice. While some testing of a jet engine running on liquid hydrogen took place in 1988 (in the modified Tu-155 jet), and the first Soviet scramjet was tested on top of an S-200 missile in 1991, by 1980 the M-19 had receded into the future as a possible successor to Buran, rather than a competitor.

Then the USSR came apart from 1989-91, and the future of the Soviet space program was forced into radically different channels.

What was necessary for it to succeed: This is an awfully tough one to assess, as the M-19 is by some distance the most technologically sophisticated spacecraft we’ve looked at. It was based around so many novel approaches (a nuclear rocket engine, a scramjet, preheating the jets’ air, SSTO, and so on) that it seems impossible even with current aerospace technology. Scramjets and SSTO in particular are two things which seem to endlessly recede into the future as we come to understand how difficult they are.

However, Myasishchev and his bureau acknowledged that it was a radical departure, that it would take a long time to develop, and that nevertheless they thought it could be done—and they were some of the best aerospace engineers in the USSR, if not the world. Who am I to say they were wrong?

Even so, it does seem like they were. The problem was not an engineering one (even if I’m skeptical that anything like this could fly before the mid-21st century), but rather an economic one. The M-19 needed time, and the USSR had surprisingly little left. How to fix the economic mistake on which that country was based? There are convincing arguments that it could not be fixed, and that at best the Soviet Union could have lasted only another decade or two past 1991 while becoming increasingly pauperized year-on-year—hardly the best environment for cutting-edge aerospace research. The M-19 simply could not fit into the time remaining, even with any reasonable stretch in the USSR’s lifespan.

Samoletoya EMZ in V. M. Myasishcheva, A.A. Bryk, K.G. Oudalov, A.V. Arkhipov, V.I. Pogodin and B.L. Puntus.

Energia-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle. Bart Hendricx and Bert Vis.


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