Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik 1 +50

The Space Age began fifty years ago today, but those involved at the time had little idea of how significant the event was to be.

Both the Russian and American teams involved in rocketry at the time were consumed by one overarching goal: to develop an ICBM capable of delivering an atomic bomb to enemy territory. The idea of orbiting a satellite was completely secondary, and the public reaction to the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Russians took both teams by surprise (listen to Sputnik 1).

In fact, the idea of orbiting something was only barely tolerated by the military commands in both countries. The declaration of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) for 1957-1958 was the event that stimulated sufficient political interest in the gains of being first, and was what permitted the orbital programs to go ahead.

(Click on any of the graphics to go to a page with a larger version.)

Photo credit: unknown, via NASAAfter the fall of Nazi Germany, both the USA and the USSR took as much of the V-2 rocket program home with them as they could. The USA got the cream of the crop from the test range at Peenemuende: Wernher von Braun and most of his designers, while the Soviets took much of the hardware and plans from the East at Mittelwerke, as well as von Braun's assistant, Helmut Groettrup. The photo shows the Soviet-built rocket R-2A, clearly showing its V-2 heritage, and probably composed of many parts brought from Germany. This was the first methyl alcohol fueled rocket, changed from the V-2 and R-1 ethyl alcohol motor (one reason for this shift was said to be to stop the guards from stealing the ethyl fuel to drink). The R-2A variant was used for science, rather than the military version which carried a radiological liquid dispersal weapon known as Geran. The R-2 was also the first rocket technology exported to China by the Soviets, and formed the basis of the Chinese Long March program, combined with the information from the deported US researcher and JPL co-founder Tsien Hsue-shen.

This is the "Chief Designer," Sergei Korolev, lionized posthumously by the Soviets as the father of the early successes in the Soviet space program, at the Kapustin Yar launch site in 1953. Having suffered for many years in a Siberian Gulag during Stalin's Great Terror, he was rescuscitated in the late 1940's and held great sway in the Soviet space effort until changes in the Politburo and disputes with the military led to the ascendancy of his arch-rivals, Valentin Glushko and Vladimir Chelomei. Today's Russian rocket fleet owe a great debt to the efforts of these engineers: the Soyuz to Korolev via the R-series, the Proton to Chelomei via the UR-series, and the efforts of Glushko, who provided engine designs for both families of rockets. Only with the lifting of secrecy in Russia have the efforts of the many many people involved in the program come to light, allowing many others to claim credit for their work. Korolev died early, and was never publicly recognized for his efforts.

Close-up of the 80cm aluminum alloy spherical portion of Sputnik 1. The four antennae were actually two sets of two, differing in length by a few centimeters, probably to accommodate the more efficient radiation of the two frequencies used by the on-board radio transmitter. Sputnik 1 was actually a rush job, prepared within one month because the original payloads for the R-7 were way behind schedule. The Sputnik was scoffed at by many as "Korolev's toy." The original scientific IGY payload was eventually launched as Sputnik 3.

Photo credit: unknown, via BBCThis shot shows the scale of Sputnik as it was covered with the fairing cone of the R-7 rocket.

Frame grab from a Soviet animation of the separation of the fairing and the launch of Sputnik 1 from the booster. The small fairing can be seen on the second rocket from the left in the diagram of the multiple boosters that came from the R-7 line:

This graphic shows the evolution of the boosters from Korolev's design bureau. The R-7 was the first ICBM, launched on August 21 1957, virtually unnoticed by the world. It was at this point that the rocket lifting power (or throw weight) was sufficiently high, and the weight of the latest nuclear weapons had been decreased enough for the two to form an effective weapon and delivery system. The Vostok and Voskhod boosters carried the first man in orbit, as well as the first multiple-man crew capsules. The modern Soyuz system has clear design lines reaching back to the earliest of the R-series, and this heritage is part of the reason for the system's extremely high success rate (760 launches to date with 740 successes, per Space Launch Report), as well as its extremely low cost.

Photo credit: Jane SkorinaA mosaic in the main hall at the Korolev Control Centre in Moscow, showing the 'Holy Trinity' of Soviet space efforts: On the left, Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy, inventor of modern rocket theory; on the right, Chief Designer Sergei Korolev; and in the centre, Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. Spectator is Mohammed Masri, from Saudi Arabia.

As Boris Chertok, one of Korolev's deputy designers, noted in a BBC interview, if it had not been for the cold war, the space race would never had occurred, and the space age would have started much later.

One other interesting feature of the Soviet first was that since the US did not object to the passage of a foreign capsule crossing over its territory, this established the principle of international uses of outer space. However a skeptic might observe that the US Corona and Midas spy satellite programs were well into their design stages, and overflight of enemy territory was a necessary condition for this first remote sensing spy program to work. In fact, this space overflight principle probably kept the Cold War from becoming 'hot' at many different points in the subsequent decades because of the ability of both powers to monitor and verify each other's treaty commitments.

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At 10:54 PM, Blogger Blair said...

as always, something fascinating.


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