What it was: An attempt to turn a Soviet copy of the V-2, the R-1, into a suborbital manned rocket.
Details: After the fall of the Third Reich and the scattering of its rocket scientists to the winds, all three of the main Allied powers found themselves in possession of at least a few V-2 rockets. All of them then considered putting a man on top of one for a suborbital flight. In the case of the British and the Americans this was barely more formal than someone saying “Hey, why don’t we put a man on top of one of these things?”, but in the Soviet Union a considerable amount of design work was done before the project eventually came to a halt.
To some extent this was because the Russians did far more work with the V-2 than the other two powers. They managed to retrieve only a very few German-built V-2s and so set about learning how to build them on their own. In 1951 the home-built R-1, a copy of the V-2 with a few local improvements, was accepted into the Soviet military as their first operational ballistic missile. This work was done by OKB-1 under Sergei Korolev and lead quickly to the R-2 (AKA the Scud), the abortive R-3, and eventually the R-7 that was used to launch Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into space.
The R-7 was famously built to use a core engine with strap-on boosters (four in the case of the R-7), as opposed to the Americans’ pre-Shuttle tendency to use a serially fired stages for manned flights. The initial Soviet studies on strap-on launchers were done by a relatively unknown GIRD member named Mikhail Tikonravov, who was one of the very few notable rocket engineers to escape the pre-War purges and so was well-positioned to work on Russian missiles as soon as the war was over.
His projects prior to studying the pros and cons of what he called “packet” launchers included the VR-190. As mentioned earlier, the US and UK never got very far into manned space travel based on the V-2 due to extreme skepticism on the part of the responsible parties in both countries. The USSR was the exception, and surprisingly Stalin was not only aware of it—Tikhonravov mailed a proposal directly to him in March 1946—the Soviet dictator specifically approved of it. The designer, who was Deputy Chief of NII-1 (“Scientific Research Institute-1”) worked on this goal until 1949.
Dubbed the VR-190 (Vysotnaya Raketa, “High-Altitude Rocket”), Tikhonravov’s variation on the V-2 took advantage of Russian work (partly done by the German engineers they had dragooned back to Kaliningrad) on separable nosecones for the V-2 that had been incorporated into the R-1. The German missile had problems with falling apart as it re-entered the atmosphere and the Russians and their Germans had realized that they could save weight and trouble by only worrying about the payload — the rocket itself had done its job by the time the dive back down arrived, and it could be dispensed with.
With the idea of a nosecone that could be swapped in or out now floating around, there were several different ideas put forward for how this capability could be used scientifically. In the early 1950s OKB-1 would fire R-1s into suborbital space with scientific instruments, gas sampling containers, and “biologicals” on board; the first living things to go to space and return were a pair of dogs, Dezik and Tsygan, who went up on July 29, 1951 (Charmingly, Tsygan was adopted as a pet afterwards by physicist Anatoli Blagonravov, later a negotiator for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Dezik, unfortunately, did not survive his second flight).
The VR-190’s payload was to be a manned capsule containing two cosmonauts—a word coined by Tikhonravov—seated side-by-side but facing in opposite directions. Its mission was not even suborbital in the technical sense that it would not have been launched any distance downrange. Rather, it was a pure vertical hop, aimed for maximum height at the cost of all else.
Perched atop the modified R-1, the cosmonauts would have ridden up to 190 kilometers before their capsule separated from the main body of the rocket. A parachute would have returned them safely to Earth, where dry land was the target. A moment before actual landing a probe on the underside of the capsule would detect the ground and fire retrorockets to counter the last of the craft’s speed—a tactic familiar from actual Soviet and Russian craft built later, first conceived of here.
What happened to make it fail: Despite Stalin’s approval, it seems to have bogged down in bureaucratic rigmarole and never got the attention or funding it would have needed. Certainly many of the people to whom Tikhonravov reported were skeptical of spaceflight, and in the atmosphere of terror that Lavrenti Beria cultivated in the 1940s USSR few were willing to stick out their necks, not least because there’s evidence that Beria himself was not sold on manned spaceflight. A few months after making his proposal Tikhonravov was moved out of NII-1, where he was under the control of a doubtful Ministry of Aviation, to the newly formed NII-4. This new bureau’s job was to develop theoretical concepts for military use of rockets but he was assigned quite strictly to that. He and his team continued to work on the VR-190 in his spare time.
By 1949 the focus of biological experiments had been shifted to the aforementioned dogs, and Stalin’s interest had drifted toward the far more sophisticated Sänger-Bredt spaceplane and sent Mstislav Keldysh on a quixotic quest to build one for the Soviet Union. Tikhonravov’s attempt to refocus it back in early 1950 was slapped down by the powers-that-be, who felt he should stick to what he had been asked to think about. Tikonravov was demoted from his position at NII-4 and eventually wound up at OKB-1 working under Sergei Korolev as a spacecraft designer. His previous work was instrumental to getting approval for launching Sputnik 1 in 1957, and he was a key person in the design of “Object D”, later dubbed Sputnik 3, which followed Sputnik 1 and Laika’s Sputnik 2 into space.
What was necessary for it to succeed: At the time rocketry was #2 on Stalin’s list of important military goals. Developing nuclear weapons was #1 and rocketry research was relatively focused on military applications of fission and then fusion bombs. The key turning points both came in 1953: Stalin’s death in March, and the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb test on October 12, 1953. The Soviet leadership was thrown into fratricidal chaos internally and stasis externally, not least because of Stalin’s micromanagement—for example, Georgy Malenkov, one of the initial triumvirate which took over, was ostensibly on the committee controlling the development of ballistic missiles prior to Stalin’s death but in practice he actually knew very little about the projects he supposedly oversaw.
With the pressure off to catch up with the United States in nuclear arms after the successful test, missiles to deliver them moved to the top of the Soviet wish list at the same time the grip of the country’s leadership had faltered enough to let the designers work on space projects that would have got them shot under Stalin and Beria (the latter judicially murdered himself in December 1953).
So the key to getting the VR-190 into space with its two cosmonauts aboard might be to have Stalin die (or be assassinated) not long after he approved Tikhnonravov’s initial proposal. The new leadership would be inclined to let things roll on their course for a while until more sure of themselves (as they did in real history) and the shakeups of the Politburo’s civil wars might have got pro-rocket Ministers in place of the pro-aviation ones that stopped Tikhonravov in 1949-50. This wouldn’t have been a sure route, but it would at least open up possibilities that did not exist in the late Stalin-era USSR.
That the VR-190 could have been successful is fairly clear given the pace at which events moved from 1953 to 1957. The R-1 was much less powerful than the R-7, but then the R-7 was much above the requirements of a suborbital flight. Reaching space in a vertical shot is much easier than orbiting the Earth, yet Vostok 1’s historic flight was a full orbit launched on top of a slight variant of the very rocket which produced Sputnik 1 in 1957. The VR-190 would have been dangerous (two of its eight dog flights ended in death) but the USSR or, for that matter, the US or even UK with their captured V-2s, could have grabbed the first laurel of human spaceflight sometime about 1951, more than half a decade before the Space Age actually began.
Sources: Challenge to Apollo, Asif Siddiqi. “The Man Behind the Curtain”, Asif Siddiqi, published in Air and Space Magazine, Oct.-Nov. 2007. “Tikhonravov”, Russian Space Web, Anatoly Zak.