Few people know (mainly because of the Soviet Union and its ‘shared achievements’ policy) that Ukraine, then still in the status of the Ukrainian SSR, and Ukrainians made a significant contribution to the advancement of the global space industry. Behind the scenes of many of the twentieth century’s space achievements lies the work or idea of a Ukrainian scientist.
How a Ukrainian taught NASA to fly?
Oleksandr Sharhei landed on the moon more times than any astronaut, but only in his dreams. The boy was fond of space since childhood. He entered the Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) Polytechnic but needed more time to finish his studies. The First World War began, Oleksandr went to the battlefields, and his dreams of space moved into the background. Sharhei survived and witnessed the surrender of Russia, but almost immediately, he was mobilised to the White Guard. The prospect of another, potentially less successful war did not intrigue him, so he deserted and fled to Ukraine. There Oleksandr, most likely not very legally, received new documents and became Yurii Kondratiuk.
Not on his own, from that moment, Kondratiuk often travelled and, at some point, ended up in Siberia. There he worked as an elevator mechanic and, in his spare time, was busy creating a theoretical frame for his dreams of space. Among the ideas of the Ukrainians were the following:
- using gravitational fields for acceleration or deceleration;
- using the resistance of the atmosphere during landing, and it is better to leave a large ship in orbit, replacing it with a small shuttle;
- using solar energy as power for onboard systems.
But let’s get back to the main activity of Kondratiuk. His success in building elevators impressed the Soviet authorities so much that they arrested him. Before his imprisonment, Kondratiuk managed to finish and publish perhaps his most important creation, the book ‘Conquest of Interplanetary Spaces,’ on the pages of which the author calculated the trajectory of the flight to the moon.
In 1932, Kondratiuk was released and moved to Kharkiv, but then World War II broke out, and the Ukrainian was sent to the frontline. Yurii Kondratiuk died in 1942, but fortunately, his central creation outlived its author.
The book finds itself in the United States and was used in research by Mykhailo Yarymovych; you won’t believe, also a Ukrainian. In 1964, he joined NASA and became responsible for the functioning of all systems of the Apollo spacecraft and in 1969, Apollo 11, with the Ukrainian’s navigation onboard, went to conquer the Moon. Nowadays, not only streets and monuments are named after Kondratiuk. There is even a crater named after him on the reverse side of the Moon. It seems that dreams do tend to come true.
Serhii Korolov and Valentyn Glushko are Ukrainians, thanks to whom Gagarin was in space
In April 1961, the front pages of the world’s newspapers told their readers great news: the first cosmonaut was sent out of Earth orbit and successfully returned. Overwhelmed with pride and euphoria, citizens of the Soviet Union celebrated this event on a large scale, while competitors from around the world acknowledged the achievements of the Soviets. Later, Soviet propaganda would write: ‘Gagarin’s launch into space is an achievement of the entire Soviet nation,’ although those responsible had names. Meet Serhii Korolov and Valentyn Glushko, the creators of the Soviet space program.
The history of both of them begins in Odesa. Glushko was born there, and Korolov moved to the city at 10. Both were interested in science and conquering the sky and graduated from technical, scientific institutions. Despite the common interests and place of residence, future constructors did not know each other. Fate brought them together much later. In 1924 Korolov entered the Kyiv Polytechnic, and in 1926 he transferred to the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. While studying, the young man created several gliders and even his plane. In 1925 Valentyn entered Leningrad State University but was not allowed to get a diploma. The official reason for a country whose fans shout about free education on every corner is pretty interesting — non-payment for the last semester.
In 1929, both Korolov and Glushko began their professional careers. Serhii started in the aviation bureau, and Valentyn did it in the gas-dynamic laboratory, where he worked with engines. After four years, the organisations of constructors were merged into the Reactive Scientific Research Institute. So Serhiy and Valentyn became colleagues. After another four years, as part of the Soviet action called the ‘Great Terror,’ Glushko was arrested, presumably because of his breakthrough scientific activity. All the necessary conditions for work for the Ukrainian scientist were created: torture, interrogation and imprisonment. After three months, Korolov was also arrested. Constructors were sentenced to 8 and 10 years accordingly. Later both ended up in two of many different prison design bureaus, of which there were many at that time. In 1942, prisoner Glushko, heading one of these bureaus, asked for Korolov’s transfer to his team. The scientists were released earlier in 1944 for fruitful work.
After the end of World War II, Ukrainians studied German missiles captured by the Soviets and worked on their reproduction. In 1948, the result of the union of German ideas and Ukrainian designers — the R-1 rocket was successfully tested. Korolov and the engine, with the participation of Glushko, constructed its ‘body.’ R-1 was the first step of the Soviet space journey. Within ten years, Glushko and Korolev created Soviet space program. Its culmination was the first intercontinental rocket R-7, whose versatility had no limits. Do you want to send the first artificial satellite into orbit? Not a problem! Do you wish to deliver a nuclear warhead to Washington? Turn on the stopwatch! The logical development of the R-7 was the Vostok rocket, thanks to which Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
Mykhailo Yangel, the creator of the Soviet nuclear program
The main competitor of Korolov and Glushko in the space arena was, oddly enough, also a Ukrainian. We are talking about Mykhailo Yangel, the chief designer of the ‘Pivdenne’ (‘South’ — ed.) Bureau.
The engineer was born in Siberia, where at that time was a prominent Ukrainian diaspora. After school, he moved to Moscow and graduated from college there. Then Yangel, not by his own will, was sent by the government to Moscow Aviation University. Student’s grades were high, so he spent his last courses working in one of the aviation design bureaus that designed fighters. In 1938, also against his will, Yangel was sent to the United States to get acquainted with the local aircraft industry.
Upon his return, according to the old Soviet tradition, the government allegedly wanted to imprison the constructor for his father’s kulak past. To not be detained, Mykhailo had to take a break from work, travel 5000 km to his homeland, find his father’s dossier and return to Moscow.
During the Second World War, the constructor designed aircraft. After its end, in 1950, he came under the wing of Korolov, whose bureau manufactured missiles, the very ones that ‘could launch a satellite and deliver a nuclear charge.’ At some point, Mykhailo overtook his boss and became the head of the institute. Korolov’s bureau was a part of this.
Later, the Soviets realised that a man and a bomb at the end of a rocket were slightly different things, so Yangel took responsibility for the latter. A separate design bureau, which should be responsible for military missiles, was built in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro). That’s where the constructor created the rockets that became the basis of the Soviet nuclear forces. With them, the Soviets intimidated the world.
The Soviet Union and its nuclear program were often compared to a monkey with a grenade. If so, Yangel designed the grenade.
In addition to military products, the South Bureau produced dual-use products. Thus, based on the R-12 rocket, the Cosmos launch vehicle was created, which successfully sent into orbit not only Soviet but also French and Indian satellites.
Constructor died in 1971, but the bureau works under his name, but now as part of independent Ukraine. Many countries launched satellites into Earth’s orbit thanks to inventions created in the South Bureau. One of the latest projects is the Antares rocket, developed with NASA, whose main task is to deliver cargo to the ISS.
Volodymyr Chelomey — the father of human-crewed orbital stations
Like Korolev, Chelomei studied at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute but graduated from the Kyiv Aviation Institute, which separated from the KPI while the boy was looking in. As a student, Volodymyr wrote more than 20 scientific articles and one manual, which his colleagues studied. Probably, this experience was a bit humiliating for them. Unlike our previous heroes, Chelomei was not imprisoned for his merits. On the contrary — the young man was one of 50 lucky scientists who received Stalin’s scholarship.
Ukrainian, like all scientists, worked for the army during the Second World War. He designed jet engines and went to Germany to study trophy rockets after its completion. But if Glushko and Korolev were responsible for reproducing the ballistic wunderwaffe FAU-2, Chelomei was engaged in learning cruise missile FAU-1.
The next project of the Chelomey Design Bureau was nuclear missiles launched from mines. Later, based on one of them, Proton was created — a launch vehicle which still serves as a basis for Russian astronautics. One of the main tasks of the Soviet government at the time was to keep their cosmonauts in orbit to perform military tasks, although no one openly spoke about it. To do this, the Soviets needed an orbital station, for which they came to Chelomei. In 1969, Americans, using the route of another Ukrainian, Yuri Kondratiuk, whose path was described earlier, landed on the Moon. That event severely blew the Soviet discoverers’ image, and the desire to respond urgently drove the Union. The USSR tried to send, at the time, the unfinished Salyut station into orbit. The first two launches were unsuccessful, and only the third one allowed the astronauts to spend 15 days in orbit. Salyut became the world’s first human-crewed orbital station. Subsequent satellites were launched into orbit automatically, without a crew, but orbital stations were the pride of the USSR until its collapse.
The list of outstanding Ukrainians, who left their mark on the history of space exploration, does not end with these five scientists. 16 Soviet astronauts were born in Ukraine. In 1997 the first astronaut with the flag of already independent Ukraine on his shoulder got to the ISS.
South Bureau produced Zenit, Dnipro, Cyclone, Proton rockets, Sich-1, Ocean-O, Mikron spacecraft and many others.
In the space industry, Ukraine cooperates with the EU, USA, Japan, China, India and several other countries. It is difficult to talk about the future of the Ukrainian space program now, but we can say that the world wouldn’t have reached the known space peaks if not for Ukrainians.
You can find more interesting facts about Ukraine’s history on YouTube channels ‘History without myths’ and ‘The name of Taras Shevchenko,’ including works thanks for which this material was created.