A Tale Of Soviets' Secret Aim
Space was the last thing on Boris Chertok's mind when, crouched in a bunker beneath the barren steppe of Kazakstan, he first heard the roar of the new rocket that would launch the world's first satellite.Skip to next paragraph
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For this was May 15, 1957, almost five months before Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit the globe, stunned the world on Oct. 4. And as far as Mr. Chertok was concerned, the R-7 rocket he had helped to design and build had only one purpose: to drop nuclear bombs on American cities.
"The rocket and the first artificial satellite were not so much the result of humankind's curiosity about space and their surroundings as they were of the cold war," Chertok says with a shrug and a wry smile.
Sitting in his office at NPO Energiya, the company where he has worked for half a century, Chertok betrays his continuing passion for space by his choice of wall decorations - a colorful image of nebulae relayed to Earth by the Hubble space telescope, a photo of an American astronaut on the moon, and a science-fiction scene.
But as the world marks the 40th anniversary of the dawn of the space age,
Chertok, who is first and foremost a rocket scientist, says he "feels hurt on behalf of the rocket. The great achievement was not the Sputnik itself, but the rocket capable of carrying it into space."
That rocket was the fruit of a crash program launched in 1953 by the Soviet government as it strove desperately to catch up with the United States in the nascent arms race.
Moscow had built an atom bomb, but it had no way to deliver it anywhere in America. While US strategic bombers were stationed at NATO airbases all around Soviet borders, in the mid-1950s the Soviet Air Force had no plane capable of reaching US targets and returning.
"One of our main motivations was the desire to reach military parity with America," Chertok recalls. The solution was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that would break through the atmosphere to fly through space. "We understood that we were on the front line; that only we rocket engineers were in a position to give our country parity."
Those were heady days for Soviet rocket pioneers, working in a headlong rush at top-secret facilities all over the country. Chertok, deputy director of the ICBM project, divided his time between his office and the secret launch pad that had been set up in Kazakstan.
"A terrible piece of barren steppe," he remembers, where summer temperatures could reach 122 degrees F., where the scientists and mechanics lived in railway cars, and where there was so little natural water they sometimes washed in bottled mineral water. Later the place would be named Baikonur, and become the Soviet Cape Canaveral.
On the evening of May 15, 1957, after four years of design, tests, redesign, and more tests, the R-7 rocket was ready for its first launch. "The launch went perfectly - our biggest worry had been that the rocket would blow up at takeoff," Chertok recalls. Ninety-eight seconds into the flight, the missile exploded when a leaky fuel pipe caught fire.
Even though the rocket had reached the stratosphere by the time it disintegrated, "none of us had any idea that we were going to conquer space" that evening except team leader Sergei Korolyov, Chertok says.
As far as his colleagues were concerned, space was just en route from Moscow to Washington for a Soviet nuclear bomb. Mr. Korolyov, however, had raised the prospect of a satellite launch in a secret memo to the Soviet government in 1954. He had been given the go-ahead to set up a team to build one.
Although Sputnik was as secret as the bomb, "we knew of their work," Chertok says. "We thought it was a kid's game. 'Let those guys busy themselves with toys,' we said. 'We are doing the honorable and necessary work of building an H-bomb carrier. Who needs a satellite?' "
In four more tests that summer, the scientists found that the shroud that protected the warhead tended to burn up as the rocket reentered the atmosphere. So while the bomb team worked on improvements, Korolyov won Premier Khrushchev's approval to use his two remaining rockets for satellite launches.
"But when we asked where the Sputnik was that we were to launch, it turned out not to exist," Chertok says. The satellite team, working on an ambitious 3,000-pound apparatus packed with scientific instruments, was behind schedule.
"The Americans were breathing down our necks, so Korolyov had a brilliant idea. 'We'll make a simple satellite ourselves.' And in just two months our plant made the world's first artificial satellite."
Chertok was stunned by the effect of the news. "We thought the satellite was just a simple thing: what mattered to us was to test the rocket again to gather statistics on how its systems were functioning. And suddenly the whole world was abuzz. It was only later that we understood what we had done."