Chief Designers 6: Max Faget

"Cutaway Diagram of Project Mercury"

A cutaway drawing of Max Faget’s biggest achievement, the Mercury capsule.This 1959 diagram was drawn in an unsettled period between the “C” and “D” designs of the craft, the latter of which flew. Public domain image from NASA.

Maxime Allen Faget was the premiere American spacecraft designer from the days of the Mercury capsule to the initial stages of the Space Shuttle. It was due to his understanding of Harvey Allen’s “Blunt Body Theory” that American spacecraft had their iconic bell shape, and his strong opinion about his ideas for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo led contractors to coin the aphorism “What Max Faget wants, Max Faget gets”. Experience proved that going against his intuitions was the quickest route to a losing bid in NASA design competitions.

Faget was born in Stann Creek, British Honduras (now Dangriga, Belize) on August 26, 1921. His father was a noted tropical disease researcher, employed by the British, and his family was of French descent via Hispaniola and New Orleans (his last name was pronounced in the French manner, fa-Zhay). His father was also American and so so was young Max; accordingly the family eventually returned to the United States. The younger Faget reportedly had a passion for science fiction—he had a subscription to Astounding Science Fiction—and model airplanes, interests which presumably led him to his ultimate career.

Max Faget and Frank Borman

Max Faget, foreground, and astronaut Frank Borman. This photograph was taken in April 1967 during the investigation into the Apollo 1 fire. Public domain image via NASA.

In 1943 he graduated from Louisiana State University (where his roommate was rocket designer Guy Thibodeaux) with a degree in mechanical engineering, then served on the submarine USS Guavina during World War II. After the war ended he joined NACA in 1946, which meant he was in on the ground floor when that agency became NASA in 1958.

Even before that happened he had been working on the design of a space capsule radically different from what had been considered before. Experiments in the mid-1950s with ballistic missiles had proven that the best simple way to get something safely out of orbit was with a blunt-ended capsule rather than the sharply pointed craft that had been imagined necessary until then, or the lenticular shape that was also considered at the time. Taking this idea, Faget came up with a rough sketch that would eventually evolve into the Mercury capsule.

This work was mostly done after Faget joined the Space Task Group, a group of 45 people—37 of them engineers—based out of Langley Research Center in Virginia until 1961. With the addition of Canadian Avro engineers, Faget gained his right-hand man for Mercury, Jim Chamberlin. Then in 1961, following Kennedy’s declaration that the United States was going to send a man to the Moon, the Space Task Group was greatly enlarged and moved to become the Manned Space Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas. Their task was to follow through on Kennedy’s promise, and Faget was its Chief Engineer from February 1962.

As a result, Mercury went ahead with him in the lead; among other things, he created the escape tower for Mercury and later adapted for use with Apollo. He would then go on to shepherd the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft designs to completion.

Faget had an informal veto on NASA’s spacecraft designs from about 1958 to 1970, and he was not afraid to use it. Most notably the design competition for the Apollo spacecraft was jury-rigged to select the second-best scoring proposal over that of Martin-Marietta because it more closely resembled what he had designed himself in counterpoint to the external proposals.

Space Shuttle concepts

Space shuttle concepts around 1970. Faget’s “DC-3” is second from the top on the right. The bizarre SERV is top left. Public domain image from NASA.

His touch left him only once during his career at NASA, during the Space Shuttle design. At first he favoured something like Big G, but he soon came over to the side of a reusable spaceplane. While each NASA spaceflight centre had its own ideas, Faget considered all of them too complex and came up with a simpler, stubby-winged design called the “DC-3” in honour of the great cargo plane of the early days of aviation. This set off a battle within NASA over the cross-range capability of the Shuttle-to-be, with one side eventually settling on a delta-winged configuration and one side taking up Max Faget’s design as adopted and submitted by North American Aviation. Only the delta-wing arrangement would give the Shuttle a high cross-range, and that was felt to be useful enough that many in NASA held out against Faget’s proposal until the scales were tilted in their favour. Faced with a budget crunch, new NASA director James Fletcher arranged to have the US Air Force brought on as a partner for the spaceplane, and their requirement for cross-range was even higher than that envisioned by the delta-wing partisans at NASA. The DC-3 was abandoned and the Space Shuttle as we now know it began to take shape. His failure to get his design selected was apparently a source of minor annoyance to Faget for the rest of his life, but he dove into the construction of the new spaceplane and helped bring it to completion.

Faget left NASA in late 1981, not long after the flight of STS-2. He founded Space Industries Incorporated in 1983, which focused on projects intended to explore the unique conditions of space as they could be applied to industry and chemistry. Their Industrial Space Facility—a small, unmanned space station—never flew, but the Wake Shield Facility (which used its motion through space to make a “shadow” of ultra-high vacuum behind it it) ran experiments on three Space Shuttle missions from 1994-96.
Faget died of bladder cancer on October 10, 2004 at the age of 83.

Chief Designers 5: Wernher von Braun

von Braun and Nebel, c.1932

Wernher von Braun, right, and VfR compatriot Rudolf Nebel, circa 1932. Image origin unknown, believed to be in the public domain. Please contact the author if you have more information. Click for a larger view.

For many years Wernher von Braun was considered the paramount figure in the history of spaceflight. Certainly he had the unique distinction of being a key figure in two national space programs: the precocious and abortive German one, and the dominant American one. However against this we need to set the fact that he was “only” a rocket designer and was not intimately involved in developing the spacecraft that rode on top of them—one could make the argument that Max Faget was the most important figure in American manned spaceflight history because he was dominant in that role—and he pales in comparison to what we have learned about Sergei Korolev’s role in the Soviet space program since the 1980s. He and Korolev were the two greatest visionaries of the early space program, but then von Braun also suffers from having the most morally problematic career of any leading person in the history of space as well.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany (now Wyrzysk, Poland) on March 23, 1912. From 1915 he and his family lived in Berlin. Reportedly the present of a telescope and later a copy of Herman Oberth’s seminal book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket into Interplanetary Space) fascinated him and drew his attention to space.

A peripatetic school career let him develop his skills in physics and mathematics, ultimately leading to a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin in 1932 and a degree in physics from Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in 1934. It was in 1930, however, that his future was cemented by his joining the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (“Spaceflight Society”, commonly known as VfR), which had been founded three years previously. Their experiments with rocketry drew the attention of the German Army, particularly Walter Dornberger.

Under Dornburger, von Braun became the head of a rocket research program at Kummersdorf—the thesis for his 1934 degree was classified and unpublished until 1960—and civilian testing of rockets was banned. Unfortunately for Germany and the world as a whole, these preliminary steps were taken under the new German government of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Von Braun’s fortunes and that of German rocketry would rise and fall with them.

After several years of success at Kummersdorf, von Braun’s group was moved to Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. There they developed the A4 rocket, better-known as the V-2. This was the first man-made object to reach space, doing so several times on suborbital test flights, possibly as early as the steep misfire that was the fourth V-2 test flight on October 3, 1942 and certainly no later than the end of 1944. Unfortunately for von Braun’s future legacy it was used to launch conventional warheads at the UK and later the invading Allied armies after D-Day. Both London and Antwerp suffered under his rocket. Perhaps even worse was the fact that from the autumn of 1943 the V-2 was built in the Mittelwerk using slaves taken from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Von Braun managed to distance himself from this during his lifetime by pointing to his imprisonment by the Gestapo for two weeks in the spring of 1943, but the historical consensus since then is that von Braun knew more than he let on during his life and did little to resist the SS (who ran Mittelwerk, and of which von Braun had been an honorary member since 1940) after his release from prison so long as he could continue his rocketry work.

Ultimately his efforts to clandestinely jumpstart a German space program as a side effect of his military research came to a halt with the end of World War II. He and some 500 others of his Peenemünde group surrendered to the American 44th Infantry Division and were eventually sent to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip, a program to transfer as many key German scientists as possible out of Germany and away from the USSR and UK. Upon arriving in the US he and his compatriots had their war careers and Nazi activities hidden by the American government. For the next five years his role was to teach the US Army about the V-2 and its underlying technology while essentially under house arrest at Fort Bliss, Texas.

In 1950 he and what was left of the Peenemünde group were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, where their conditions were relaxed and they were allowed to enter civilian life in the United States. Von Braun became technical director of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, whose purpose was to develop a long-range ballistic missile. This they did, the Redstone. During this time, von Braun also became famous as a public advocate of spaceflight, helping to write a popular series on the future possibilities called “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” for Collier’s magazine in 1952-4; later he was technical director and a spokesperson for a highly rated television special on the same topic for Disney in 1955. He also became an American citizen during this time.

At this point the United States was close to launching its first satellite into space, but the government was loath to have it done by the German expatriates. Only after the launch of Sputnik 1 and the answering failure of the United States’ first Vanguard launch on December 6, 1957 was the Army and von Braun able to overcome this reluctance. On January 31, 1958, the first American satellite, Explorer 1, rode into orbit on top of a Jupiter-C rocket—a Redstone derivative produced by the Huntsville team.

Wernher von Braun's NASA portrait, 1960

Wernher von Braun’s NASA portrait, 1960. At age 48 he had just become director of Marshall Space Flight Center after already being the most important person in Germany’s wartime rocketry program. Public domain image.

For the next two-and-a-half years, von Braun’s responsibilities were slowly transferred from the Army to the US’ new civilian space agency NASA. Project Mercury was begun, and used Redstone derivatives for launches. Hunstville began work on a heavy launcher named Saturn, initially for an Army space program but then that was transferred to NASA too. Finally all Army space activities were passed over to NASA on the order of President Eisenhower. On July 1, 1960 the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville was renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center and put entirely in the hands of the civilian space agency. Von Braun was to be its first director, a position he held until 1970.

Those ten years saw von Braun living his dream, developing the Saturn V and being a key contributor to the Apollo program that landed men on the Moon. His vision of America’s future in space began to diverge from reality post-Apollo 11, however. He was a strong advocate of continuing on to Mars—the Integrated Program Plan’s Mars mission was largely his baby—and after two years in Washington following his transfer from Huntsville he came to realize that it was not going to happen. He resigned from NASA on May 26, 1972.

In 1973 he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which slowly sapped away his life. Before he was done, however, he helped to found the National Space Institute, one of the precursors the National Space Society, a major space advocacy and education group. He served as its first president before his hospitalization and then death on June 16, 1977 at age 65.

Chief Designers 4: Sergei Korolev

Monument to Korolev in Baikonur

Sergei Korolev was unknown in his lifetime, and under-reported until glasnost. This monument to him is in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Public domain image.

For many years, Wernher von Braun was lauded as the father of manned space travel, but to a large extent this was an artifact of Soviet secrecy. The USSR was the first to most early spaceflight goals, but the the man in charge was unknown in the West and even to a very large extent within the Soviet Union too. Only after his death did his name become known. Until then he was referred to only as “Chief Designer”, a term the author has expanded to include the other giants being profiled. But Sergei Korolev was the most important and influential of them.

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was born in Zhitomir in what is now Ukraine on January 12, 1907. His parents separated while he was very young, and he was raised by his grandparents in his mother’s home town of Nizhyn. He became interested in aeronautical engineering as he grew older, and joined an aviation society in Odessa after his mother and her new husband moved there. He began concentrating on the study of engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute followed by the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, from which he graduated in 1929.

He began working at the 4th Experimental Section design bureau and soon became interested in rockets as a way to accelerate planes. He then helped to found the first professional rocket-design organization in the world, GIRD, in 1931, and soon became the director of the group. A few years later GIRD was amalgamated with a second group based in Leningrad to form RNII; the second group had as a member the man with whom Korolev would do most of his important work in the 1950s, Valentin Glushko.

Sergey Korolev, age 30

Sergei Korolev, age 31, just prior to his arrest in the Great Purge. Public domain image.

Korolev became chief engineer of RNII, but in 1938, during the Great Purge, he was arrested on the testimony of three fellow engineers. Two of them were executed during the purge, but the other was Glushko. Despite Korolev’s later protestations to the contrary and their periods of cooperation, there is reason to believe that he never forgave him for this.

He certainly had a lot to forgive. Korolev was tortured in Lubyanka Prison, found guilty in a show trial, and sent to work in a gold mine in the notorious Kolyma region of far north-eastern Russia. Conditions were brutal and the period of over a year that he spent there had effects on his health for the rest of his life.

Thankfully for the eventual Soviet space program he was sent back west to Moscow at the end of 1939 and put to work in a sharaska, one of the organized prison camps in the gulag system aimed at research and engineering for the Soviet Union. While still a prison camp, conditions there were considerably better than in Kolyma.

He was first assigned to work with famous Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, but in 1942 was moved to a project under Glushko that worked on rocket-assisted takeoff units for aircraft. Its success was enough that he was released from prison on June 27, 1944 as part of a larger amnesty for engineers in the sharashka system.

His decisive turn towards ballistic missiles may have taken place in 1945-6, when he was one of the team sent from the USSR to the newly conquered Germany to examine that country’s rocketry program. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, he became the chief designer of long-range ballistic missiles for the newly formed OKB-1 design bureau. It was there that he started to show his organizational and leadership abilities, and OKB-1 quickly developed the R-1, R-2, and R-5 missiles.

The culmination of this work was the R-7 Semyorka, the first intercontinental ballistic missile. More interesting from the standpoint of space history, though, was the fact that an ICBM can very easily serve as an orbital launch vehicle. Capitalizing on the favour that his missile work had brought him in the eyes of Nikita Khrushchev—Stalin and his purges having thankfully died in 1953, Korolev had had his previous sentence expunged in April 1957—he adapted the R-7 to lift a satellite into orbit. The intended payload was heavy and late in coming, so Korolev arranged for a small improvisation dubbed Sputnik 1. With it he inaugurated the Space Age on October 4, 1957.

For the next few years the successes came fast and thick, culminating in Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 1961. By 1964, however, an alliance between one of his allies and one of his rivals had attacked Korolev’s program. The rival was Vladimir Chelomei, who worked his way into Khrushchev’s favour by developing the UR-100 ICBM—a considerably better missile than the R-9 with which Korolev tried to counter. The ally was the aforementioned Valentin Glushko, who had designed the rocket engines used by the R-7 and its manned launching derivatives. His working relationship with Korolev came apart over a disagreement about which propellants were best for rocketry: cryogenic LOX and LH2, or storable-but-toxic N2O4 and UDMH. History has judged Korolev right, as even Glushko came around to cryogenics when it was his turn to develop a large launcher in the 1980s. Only China launches people with N2O4 and UDMH. Even so, at the time Glushko defected to Chelomei’s camp and took all his skill at developing rocket engines with him.

From 1964 to early 1966 Korolev’s political skills came to the fore as he worked to wrest back complete control of the Soviet space program from Chelomei, a task in which he was largely successful. But in that time the Russians’ manned space program foundered, partly from this internal confusion and partly because of the fall of Nikita Khrushchev and his replacement with the much-less interested Leonid Brezhnev.

Whether or not Korolev would have been able to put the program back on track is an open question. He entered hospital on January 5, 1966 for surgery on a bleeding intestinal polyp and never came back out. While under the knife, his surgeon—the Russian Minister of Health, Boris Petrovski, which shows how important Korolev had become—apparently discovered a large, malignant tumour in Korolev’s abdomen (there are contradictory reports from various sources, but this is likeliest). The surgery dragged on far longer than it should have as the surgeon attempted to deal with the unexpected development and Korolev’s poor health post-Kolyma either caused him to have a fatal heart attack or bleed out due to a sudden hemorrhage. He died on the operating table on January 14, 1966 at the age of 59.

The USSR’s manned space program came apart at the seams for a while after this, either because Korolev’s successor Vasily Mishin was incompetent or the USSR was not yet able to deal with the additional complexity of a Moon mission—opinions vary. The years from 1966 to 1974 were fraught with exploding N1s and deaths during the first Soyuz and Salyut missions. A resurgence would have to wait until the mid-1970s. Korolev was at least known by name during this time period, but observers in the West still underestimated his importance. Only the onset of glasnost in the USSR let him step out of the shadow and assume his central position in Soviet space history.

Chief Designers 3: Jim Chamberlin

Jim Chamberlin's Achievement

Jim Chamberlin’s major accomplishment, the Gemini spacecraft. Though only baseline Geminis flew, there were numerous proposals to adapt this workhorse to different uses. This photograph shows Gemini 7 from the inside of Gemini 6. Public domain image via NASA.

James Arthur Chamberlin was a key member of NASA’s Space Task Group, which became the Manned Space Centre (now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas. During his NASA career he was the Head of Engineering for the Max Faget-designed Mercury capsule, then graduated to become the designer of the Gemini capsule. Many of the Gemini-derived proposals in this book came from him, or involved him heavily. He was also responsible for McDonnell Douglas’ unsuccessful shuttle proposal and instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle that actually got built.

Chamberlin was born in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on May 23, 1915. After his father was killed in World War I, his mother relocated the family to Toronto, and Chamberlin eventually was trained as an engineer at the University of Toronto and Imperial College London. After working in the United Kingdom for a few years, he returned to Canada and spent most of World War II designing aircraft.

Jim Chamberlin, 1950s

Jim Chamberlin sometime in the 1950s prior to joining NASA. Public domain image via Industry Canada.

After the war ended he moved on to Avro Aircraft of Toronto, a subsidiary of Hawker Siddley. There he rose in the ranks until he became the chief of technical design for the Avro Arrow, an advanced jet interceptor. When that program was cancelled in 1959 (a source of some chagrin in Canada to this day), he led more than two dozen now-unemployed Avro engineers to the United States; they joined the recently created Manned Space Center in Langley, Virginia during April of 1959. Project Mercury was already underway, with Max Faget’s work on designing its capsule begun even before the formation of NASA in July 1958. Chamberlin became Faget’s right-hand man as head of engineering and project manager in charge of seeing the Mercury capsule through its manufacture by McDonnell Aircraft. NASA’s own history describes him as the man in charge of “troubleshooting problems that cropped up during the early Mercury flights”.

With that experience under his belt, Chamberlin was assigned to be the chief designer of the follow-up to Mercury. The Apollo program was already underway too, but was still years away from producing something tangible, and the Gemini capsule flew into that gap.

Even today the Gemini has its proponents, some even calling for its return as a solution to the United States’ troubles with manned space exploration in the 21st century. It was a very versatile craft, and when McDonnell was shut out of building the Apollo spacecraft (which was given to North American Aviation and Grumman Aircraft Engineering), the manufacturer and Chamberlin bombarded NASA with variations on the Gemini that could perform missions to space stations, as space stations, and even a landing on the Moon. None got built, though a few came close. The real Geminis flew in 1965 and 1966, but by then Chamberlin had relinquished his position in the program and become a troubleshooter for all aspects of the Apollo spacecraft: Command Module, Service Module, and Lunar Module.

In 1970 Chamberlin left NASA and joined the company he’d worked with for a decade—now McDonnell Douglas after a merger with Douglas Aircraft. He first worked on McDonnell Douglas’ candidate for the Space Shuttle, but that competition was won by North American Aviation’s design. He then worked at McDonnell Douglas’ facility on-site at the Johnson Space Center until his death on March 8, 1981.

Chief Designers 2: Vladimir Chelomei

Vladimir Chelomei late in life. Image source and copyright status unknown; if you know, please contact the author.

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 N1L3 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.


Chelomei in the 1970s. Source: NPO Mashinostoyenia

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

Chief Designers 1: Valentin Glushko

(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 Glushko as a younger man.

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.


Glushko near the end of his life, after successfully turning around the Soviet space program.

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.