Sputnik's Builder

Oleg Ivanovsky oversaw building, testing and launching Sputnik, the first spacecraft, launched fifty years ago today. He didn't know what he was in for.

October 4, 2007, Text: Bruno van Wayenburg, Photography: Kristina Sazonova/Epsilon.This article was published in Dutch in NRC Handelsblad and De Standaard.

Oleg Ivanovsky never saw it coming. The splash made by his Sputnik, launched fifty years ago today, took him by complete surprise, as did the space race that followed. "I didn't think, 'wow, are we doing something special', and I wasn't a space fanatic either", says the veteran engineer who was in charge of building, testing and launching the very first artificial satellite. "It just was our job, another order for our organisation," he reminisces in his flat in the north of Moscow, Oleg Ivanovsky, photo Kristina Sazonova

The rest of the world begged to differ, and responded in astonishment, admiration and, later, shock. For the very first time, a rocket had turned out to be powerful enough to make an object enter earth orbit. A 58,5 centimeter wide metal ball, with four pole-like antennae attached, weighing 83,6 kilograms, conquered gravity. Many observers in the west assumed that the decimal point was a typo, since the US worked on satellites weighing only around 10 kilograms.

Sputnik traced its orbits for four months, 250 kilometers above the surface of the earth, until it burnt up in the atmosphere on January 4, 1958. Evening and morning skywatchers could spot a tiny, moving star, and for three weeks, as long as the batteries worked, Sputnik broadcast beeps on radio frequencies of 20,005 and 40,002 MHz. Any radio amateur could verify that the Soviet Union, considered a technologically backward dictatorship, could reach any point on earth with its rockets.

The shock lead to harsh criticism for American president Dwight Eisenhower. Wasn't the US supposed to have launched the first satellite, as a part of the International Geophysical Year 1957? To be sure, Russian scientists did announce their satellite beforehand, but they were hardly taken seriously. The 'missile gap', the supposed huge backlog in rocket numbers and technology, became a much used turn of phrase. The cold war warmed considerably, as the frequency of thermonuclear tests shot up in 1958. And all of a sudden, there was plenty of attention and money for science, technology and education in the US.

According to some historians Sputnik set in motion the development of micro-electronics, computers and internet, and is ultimately responsible for the present American dominance in science and technology. But in any case, the first artificial moon, sparked the space race, that culminated in the Americans landing on the moon, twelve years later.

Ivanovsky wasn't the only one who didn't expect all this fuss. Soviet authorities themselves didn't see the much use for the the metal ball in space. Government mouthpiece Pravda announced the first space craft in a short news story. Only after the furore in the west, the party gushed on for many pages about the new Soviet triumph, citing western press. "Only then I thought, hell, what did we create", says Ivanovsky.

Oleg Genrikhovich Ivanovsky (85) is one of the last remaining veterans who witnessed the complete Russian space program from within. As a young soldier he was wounded badly in World War II. In 1947, without much schooling, he landed a job as a junior assistant running errands at OKB-1, the design bureau of Sergei Korolev, the strong-willed, foul-mouthed rocket engineer who had already earned a reputation as a management genius. Over the years, Ivanovsky was involved with the Sputnikd, the first Soviet missions to the moon, Mars and Venus, and the first manned spaceflights, including the very first by Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Later in the 1960's, he worked for the aerospace company Lavochkin in Moscow, where he became the director of the company museum, a function he still holds. Ivanovsky published the first, heavily censored, accounts of the Soviet space program, under the obligatory alias Alexei Ivanov. His recent memoirs, under his own name, are much more candid.

The walls of Ivanovsky and his wife's appartment are adorned with typical Russian landscapes full of birches and lakes, painted by the retired engineer himself. A small shrine-like bookshelf is dedicated to space. Ivanovsky points to photo's, medals, models and "books by me and about me." The former chief designer is a friendly, talkative gentleman who occasionally surprises with a diabolical sneer targeting journalists, always on the hunt for trivia, scandals and secrets, as sarcastically as military soviet bureaucrats and their obsession for secrecy.


Oleg Ivanovsky, photo Kristina Sazonova

"In the fall of 1957, Korolev asked me whether I wanted to work on the first artificial satellite of the earth, Sputnik. I had already graduated as a radio technician then," Ivanovsky says, "Initially, I had my doubts. It was all very much unknown to me. But Sergei Pavlovich [Korolev] said: 'What do you think? We are going into space, to the moon and the planets. Do you think we have any experience? Don't you think this is new for me?' So then I said yes."

Korolev, an aircraft engineer who dreamed of space flight, had been working on rockets in the 1930's, but was arrested in 1938 in Stalin's purges, and imprisoned in a Siberian Gulag mine, with little hope for survival. But the war saved the engineer, who had suddenly become useful. Korolev was placed in a research prison for aircraft technology. In 1945, he headed the Russian effort to salvage the remains of the German rocket program. Under Wernher von Braun, the Nazis had developed the first ballistic missile V-2, which had brought extensive damage in Great Brittain. Korolev's R-1 (from 'Raketa', 'rocket') was a straight copy of the V-2, and a predecessor of the R-7 or 'semyorka', which launched Sputnik. A direct descendent of R-7 still functions as a space workhorse under the name 'Soyuz'.

"But originally, these rockets weren't meant for any of this," says Ivanovsky, "R-7 was the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, developed as an answer to the threats and possibilities of the Americans to bomb our country with nuclear weapons". OKB-1 was in the first place a military organisation. Spaceflight was Korolev's private idea. In 1956, he had personally convinced Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to back his plan for launching a satellite. "If the main task doesn't suffer, do it", Khrushchev had said.

Only after a long series of explosive and career threatening failures, Korolev managed to launched R-7 succesfully from from European Russiato Kamchatka peninsula in the Russian far east. The success provided Korolev with his long awaided chance. His engineers had been working on a huge, 1300 kilogramme satellite called 'Objekt D', but Korolev decided it wasn't ready, and decided to launch something much simpler, for fear of being scooped by the Americans.

'"Sputnik was extremely simple," says Ivanovsky. A hermetically sealed ball made of an aluminum alloy, containing a battery, a fan, sensors for temperature and pressure and two radio transmitters, equipped with vacuum tubes, not transistors. The four antenna's on the outside measured 2.4 and 2.9 meters. "PS-1 was simple, but all questions around it were huge," Ivanovsky says, "we made a construction like that for the very first time. There were problems with sealing it hermetically, and the temperature regulation was new as well". In the vacuum of space, PS-1 could only lose heat by radiating it as infrared light, so Sputnik had to shine like a mirror. "Nobody could say: you should build it like this, because that's how we did it ten times before," remembers Ivanovsky, "We were especially worried whether it would still workafter all the accellerations and vibrations of the launch, in a vacuum, under heavy radiaton and in weightlesness. Those were all circumstances we couldn't imitate completely on earth".

The launch took place on October 4, at 22.28:34, from the Tyura-Tam launch site in the Kazakh Soviet Republic (the later Baikonur). Ivanovsky describes in his memoirs how the engineers awaited the radio signals, expected to be heard on receivers in the launch bunker, as soon as the satellite appeared on the western horizon.. "[colleague] Slava Lappo had a more sensitive receiver, so everybody looked at him...Suddenly, he stooped forward, touched the dial, and breathed heavily...He adjusted his headphones and said, shyly and insecurely, 'I think that's it'... and after a few seconds, 'That's it! That's it! Switch on the tape recorders!'"

Sputnik's famous radio beeps weren't meaningless, says Ivanovsky, and he sharply disagrees with the often-heard allegation that Sputnik was an unscientific stunt. "In the length of the beeps, information about temperature, pressure and voltage were encoded. Our scientists measured the transmission speed of the signals in the atmosphere, as well as the exact orbital time of Sputnik. That depends on friction in the very tenuous gas in the upper atmosphere."

"It may not have been much, but our scientists used those measurements. But of course, the main outcome was that it was possible at all. With a rocket, you could give something enough speed to enter an orbit around the earth."

"By the way, we did cheat the world a bit. The small star that many people took to be Sputnik, actually was the last stage of the R-7 rocket, that also entered orbit, a healthy seven-tonne piece. But that had to be kept secret, I don't know why. Sputnik itself could only be seen using binoculars or a telescope."Oleg Ivanovsky, photo Kristina Sazonova

After their initial lukewarm reaction, the Soviet authorities realised the enormous propaganda value of spaceflight. Khrushchev summoned Korolev, and ordered another success, to be accomplished with the October Revulution's 40th birthday, November 7, a month later. "This is the Soviet tradition of the birthday present," explains Ivanovsky, "which has cost many lives during the war. Often, a victory was demanded as a 'present', leading to useless bloodshed. What were we to do? Repeating the first Sputnik was senseless, and Obyekt D, the large satellite, wasn't finished yet. Launchin that wouldn't be a daring step, but stupidity, a crime."

"We got the idea of cobbling together something from what we had already. We had a spare version of Sputnik, that had shown it could work. And luckily, Korolev had asked medical researchers to work on a hermetically sealed cabin to launch a dog. Then we found out that in Leningrad, the physicist Sergei Vernov had an apparatus to measure radiation levels in space, more or less ready. We threw that in as well." For the timing mechanism, a clock from the Pobeda car factory was used. "We worked without proper design drawings, we gave our sketches straight to the benchmen. Those were not eight hour working days," Ivanovski remembers.

On November 3, four days before the anniversary, Sputnik 2 went up, carrying the first living being into space, the dog Laika. She shot to fame, but survived the launch only hours. "She died of overheating, but gave much to biology," says Ivanovsky, "We didn't know if an animal could survive for longer than a few minutes in weightlessness. But from the data from Sputnik 2, we could see that she moved, and even ate, after the launch."

The radiation detectors also yielded a scientific discovery, although the honors eventually went to American rivals. Unexpectedly, they picked up higher radiation levels than expected. The physicist Vernov and his colleagues suspected a solar flare, even though that didn't show up in earthly measurements.

On January 31, 1958, the Americans joined the race, when they successfully launched their Explorer I satellite, which also measured the heightened radiation levels. After Explorer III saw them as well, the American physicist James Van Allen concluded that earth is surrounded by doughnut-shaped belts of charged particles, now known as the Van Allen belts. "Sadly, Vernov didn't look at the data in time, or at least didn't understand them well enought," Ivanovsky says, "otherwise, the Van Allen belt might have been called the Vernov belt now."

The space race was now in full swing. Up to and including 1960, nine Russian missions failed, and five succeeded. The Americans scored six successes agains fifteen failures, some partial. In the years following, the success rate went up slowly. The goals were the moon, Venus, Mars, as well as the first communication and spy satellites. But after Laika, it had become clear that the first prize was going to be the first human in space.

The Soviets got that scoop, when they launched 'pilot-cosmonaut number 1' Yuri Gagarin. Oleg Ivanovsky was the technician to bring Gagarin to the launch pad, and closed the hatch of the Vostok space craft. But just before that, he betrayed a secret to Gagarin.

"The medics were afraid that he would loose his mind, once he found himself in weightlessness and total isolation," Ivanovsky explains. He points at his head. Fearing that a crazy Gagarin might switch on the braking rockets without any reason, the doctors wanted a safety code lock on Vostok's controls. Only after Gagarin would have proven to be sane, the code would be sent to him by radio.

But the engineers didn't agree. They thought the chance of a radio malfunction was much higher than the chance of a cosmonaut going mad. The result was a strange compromise. Gagarin had to get the code out of a sealed envelope above his head in the cabin. "Imagine," says Ivanovsky, still a bit angry, "When he'd decide to steer by hand, he would have to take the envelope, open it, take out the paper, read it, and only then find out what buttons to push. Not earlier. So I told asked him: 'Yura, do you have the numbers? They're 1-2-5' He laughted, and said that two other colleagues had already told him. So I wasn't the first one even there."

Oleg Ivanovsky, photo Kristina Sazonova

Gagarin's flight was going to be one of the last big firsts for the Soviet Union. Soon, the American president John Kennedy promises to put a man on the moon 'before this decade is out', and provides the necessary money and political support to boot. Not much later, Ivanovsky is forced to accept a political job in the Kremlin, and loses touch with engineering for a few years.

Soon after the death of Korolev, in 1966 during routine surgery, it becomes clear that the moon is an impossible goal for the Russans, due to financial, organisational and technical problems. The secret N-1 rocket, needed to reach the moon, keeps failing, sometimes explosively. Even in July 1969, when Apollo-11 is approaching the moon, an unmanned Russian moonlander is on its way. The mission turns out to be another failure.

Ivanovsky won't deny it: the space race, for all its mad haste, crazy secrecy and its hunger for prestige, has cost enormous amounts of money an energy, and more than one human live. "But still," he says while grinning, "What sporter doesn't think about records, when he's training. Man just happens to be a being that always wants to know something more, create something new, attain something higher. And when you're working on that anyway, you'd better be the first one, please."

Many thanks to Julia Kovaleva and Tatiana Shevtsova.