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The Man Who Launched Sputnik

By Jim Oberg
Apr 16, 2014 5:52 PMNov 12, 2019 5:45 AM


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My contact drove us to Oleg Ivanovskiy’s home in a large block of relatively new six-story Moscow apartment buildings. We entered the building through a heavily built door into a tiled foyer with dim light. On the fourth floor, where we got out of the elevator, several doors lined the landing; they looked as if they could have withstood a siege, and atsecondglance, some looked as if they already had.

Ivanovskiy’s daughter opened his door and graciously waved us in, smiling. Inside the apartment, the transition from grim city mass construction to handcrafted comfort was complete. I felt I might have been transported to a well-appointed dacha deep in some northern pine forest. There was no noise from outside, and the room we sat down in was bright and spacious, dominated by a massive round dining table.

We sat around that table for two hours, talking. He dove into his memory with an intensity undiminished by half a century. Nothing he said was by rote or offhand, and although I knew he had said many of these things before, he delivered his narrative so vibrantly I might have thought I was hearing him recount his feats for the first time.

To this day, Oleg Ivanovskiy says he has no idea why he was chosen to oversee the final preparations of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik’s launch on October 4, 1957, began the era of spaceflight — and famously sparked the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States that was to last until the final days of the Communist empire.

"Better to ask Korolyov," he gruffly responds in Russian when asked, via a translator, why the head of the Soviet space program, chief designer Sergey Korolyov, had personally directed him to take charge of Sputnik. Of course, as we both know, Korolyov died more than 40 years earlier.

Given the circumstances that Korolyov found himself in 50 years ago, it is possible to imagine why he turned to Ivanovskiy. Korolyov’s primary problem was the sheer size of the task. In launching Sputnik, the chief designer had to build the launch rocket, develop guidance and communications equipment, construct ground processing facilities, establish a tracking network, and build the satellite itself. The rocket had already had two successful test launches, so that last challenge remained the biggest.

The reason for the push to get a satellite, any satellite, into orbit was because of information coming from overseas about the Americans, says Ivanovskiy. They, too, were in a rush — and "the respected Wernher von Braun, now working for the Americans, wanted to be first to create a satellite."

Korolyov needed a "Sputnik czar," one man to tie together all the various team efforts, to integrate all the fabrication and test schedules, and to decide — without bothering Korolyov — what to do about the inevitable glitches. "Korolyov entrusted me with the entire responsibility for preparation of Sputnik in its manufacture, tests, and preparation for sending off to [the launch base]," he says. Ivanovskiy, then 35, had worked at Korolyov’s rocket plant for 10 years, first as a technician and later, after finishing his university degree, as a radio engineer. He had been a cavalry rider from 1941 to 1945 and was wounded in action. His selection asSputnik czarwas settled in a brief meeting. "In the evening, two of us — [my boss] Khomyakov and me — entered Korolyov’s office," Ivanovskiy remembers. "Korolyov glanced at us over his gilded eyeglass rims and asked, ‘Have you come into agreement?’ Khomyakov said, yes, we had agreed, but I had had some doubts [about my experience]. Korolyov shrugged his shoulders and asked if we thought he had any experience of flying to the stars. ... Thus, that issue was decided on."

Today, at age 85, Ivanovskiy is proud of his role in the Sputnik story. "I am among those few people still alive who personally took part in that event, the 50th anniversary of which we’ll celebrate this year," he says. "What I can tell you is based upon what I saw, what I lived through, what I felt 50 years ago, and in what I directly took part with my brains, with my hands."

At first, Ivanovskiy recalls, Sputnik was just another engineering job. "At that time, we did not attach any colossal, global significance to the works. On the one hand, it was just another design production order. On the other hand, all our production activity was so secret, and we became aware that that activity was associated with the classified intercontinental ballistic missile R-7 [used as Sputnik’s launch rocket]. But we did not focus on something created ‘for the first time in the world.’ ... It was ordinary, everyday work."

He pauses and admits upon reflection that the work wasn’t, perhaps, all that ordinary. Even the manufacturing workshop got the red-carpet treatment. "The two hemispheres of the Sputnik had to be laid onto supports upholstered with velvet — and that had never been done in rocket engineering before, with rocket elements laid onto such supports. Once Korolyov came into the workshop where fabrication of the first Sputnik was going on and saw some disorder. Shortly afterwards an individual separate room appeared [for Sputnik fabrication], with white silk valances hung onto windows and plush curtains, emphasizing the unusual things going on in that room.

"After everything had been done at the factory, checked out and tested, we flew off to — at that time the word ‘cosmodrome’ did not exist yet — the base or ‘polygon.’ " Everything there was focused on the impending launch. "The process of preparing for flight was divided into two big parts. The first and the biggest and most responsible part lay with the rocket engineers. We knew that not all launches of the R-7 had been successful. That means nobody could guarantee that everything would go out all right. We, the ‘Sputnikovists’ [Sputnik engineers], had less responsibility because the scope of design and development was smaller.

"All preliminary tests had been carried out at the factory prior to shipment to the polygon, such as airtightness, electrical equipment, functioning of the automated controls. Two radio transmitters inside operated at different short-wave radio frequencies. There was no other scientific equipment there. Temperature sensors and pressure sensors would determine if airtightness was maintained inside and monitor temperature change. We could decipher those changes on the basis of the radio signals."

He pauses, recalling an incident that he isn’t sure ought to be mentioned, then launches into an anecdote that sheds light on the difficulties of his position. "All tests of Sputnik were performed with a chemical battery, but we did not use the one that was supposed to fly. Upon the completion of tests [the test battery] was to be replaced with the real one, the ‘flight battery.’ So after we had mounted the flight battery into Sputnik, but before connecting it, we checked out the voltage with a meter ... and saw zero voltage.

"What happened? That was the flight battery of The First in the World Artificial Satellite of the Earth!" I could hear the capital letters in the way he spoke the words. "That had to supply power to Sputnik! For those ‘beep, beep, beeps’ above the Earth!"

But Ivanovskiy wouldn’t kick the problem upstairs. Instead, he himself ordered what needed to be done. "The battery was removed immediately and sent to a local laboratory. Due to wrong wire soldering methods, the wire from that contact had gotten loose. That became the subject of review by the chairman of the State Commission [the Kremlin representative in charge of the space industry] and certainly by Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, whose cheek muscles were twitching." At this point, any failure would be laid at Korolyov’s door. Even though the battery came from another plant, it was now in his satellite.

"So those wires were soldered strongly by our technician, Rimma Kolmenskaya. Everything was checked out, the battery was mounted on its nominal position inside Sputnik, everything was checked out again, Sputnik was sealed, the two halves were connected together, and it was put onto its supports on a small wagon." They finished assembling it just two days before launch. Now came the hard part.

"The technicians who worked with me looked at me and asked, ‘Off we go?’ I answered, ‘Off we go!’ And we pushed the wagon from the small room in which we had been working into the common hall where the rocket was lying, ready to receive our small cargo."

With a hoisting crane, Sputnik, without its "mustaches" — the four long whip antennas that would stream out behind the spherical satellite — was lifted and connected to the nose of the rocket, Ivanovskiy recalls. The mustaches were then screwed on and fastened down, and Sputnik was covered with a small cone.

One step remained. "With a small switch from the control panel, it was possible to switch on the onboard transmitters and through the speaker on the control panel hear ‘beep, beep, beep.’ Not from space yet but from the rocket lying nearby and via the control panel." Ivanovskiy gave the "Go!" and then the rocket people gave their "Go!" and a diesel locomotive began pulling the horizontally mounted rocket tailfirst through the hangar door toward the launchpad.

The moment of rolling a rocket out of its assembly building had already become a special ceremony, and it remains so to this day. Ivanovskiy recalls the scene: "Usually the chief designers came together for such efforts as a forthcoming launch, and by that time it had become a tradition for them to come to the launchpad. When the rocket was coming out, there were 15 to 20 top-level leaders of the rocket industry and representatives of authorized governing bodies. They all took their hats off and were standing silently, solemnly seeing off that rocket crawling over the rails. Since it was moving to launchpad at very low speeds, many people walked along on a sidewalk accompanying the rocket." Adding to the solemnity was the fact that it took place in darkness, perhaps to avoid observation by American U-2 spy planes.

Ivanovskiy didn’t hang around for the ceremony. "After the moment the launch vehicle had left the hall, I went to sleep because I was very tired. Work had been going on practically around the clock. There was nothing [more] to be done with Sputnik." So they all walked back to the barracks.

"The next day, along with my military colleague, a rocket officer named Vladimir Nikolayevich Kobelev — who later became a deputy director of engineering for a major military missile school — I climbed up to the very top where our favorite ball [Sputnik] was residing. We were walking around it and praying. What else did we have to do? Any further activity would start only after the rocket had injected it into orbit, after the internal command had been generated for jettisoning the nose cone and separating Sputnik from the rocket."

At that point, Ivanovskiy says, he remembered a critical step that was his sole responsibility — and wondered if he had forgotten to do it. When Sputnik separated from its R-7 launch rocket, a mechanical switch would close and allow power to flow from the battery, activating Sputnik. To prevent the battery being drained on the ground, a metal plate called a safing clip held the switch open. The plate had to be removed after Sputnik was attached to the rocket. "I removed that plate, and since it was a piece of metal no one needed, I poked it into my pocket," says Ivanovskiy. In doing so, Ivanovskiy was the last human to touch Sputnik.

Standing atop the gantry tower next to the nose cone, he suddenly worried whether he had, in fact, remembered to remove that safing clip. Ivanovskiy gloomily contemplated what he would have had to do next — call a halt to the countdown so that the rocket could be returned to the assembly building and the satellite disconnected to inspect the activation switch.

He shoved his hand into his pocket — and his fingers touched the plate. "The very plate that could have prevented it from switching on happened to be in my pocket. That meant it would work. And it did work."

He continues. "Before the last countdown, when last minutes were counted — I think that was 30 minutes — usually everybody leaves the launchpad, everyone is forced out. As a rule, three to four people are left by the rocket. I remember: There was Korolyov by the rocket, there was Voskresenskiy—his deputy or ‘chief launcher’ as Korolyov called him — by the rocket, there were military people, management, deputies.

"I remember Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov frowned at us, meaning, ‘What are you doing here?’ We realized it would be better to leave. And then we departed for the measurement station." Soon after Ivanovskiy left the pad, a legendary event occurred that he did not witness: A military bugler appeared and blew a call. "Probably a military signal like ‘Listen, everyone!’ The soldier’s name remained unknown. And his signal was the beginning of the space era!"

There was no descending numerical countdown, as with American launches. Instead, at intervals of about 30 seconds, a voice through a speaker declared the time to go in terms of readiness. The warm-up, preignition, and main combustion initiation sequence of the R-7 took 10 to 15 seconds to gather force before the rocket lifted off.

"So for the first time in my life, I experienced launch of an R-7 while being three kilometers from the launchpad. And of course I was impressed when those colossal forces confined in the fuel tank with rocket propellant got released. ... We were jumping like children and crying and hugging and kissing." The launch was near midnight — the flames would have lit up the surrounding steppe like a sunrise. "When the rocket is flying, five bright spots are seen first, four side ones and one in the center, and they were all working! Then the four side ones drop off, and only one star remains. And that small star is fading quickly in between the stars, and eventually that small star is not seen at all.

"When we realized the launch was good — nothing got torn off, nothing got burned or exploded — of course we were interested in rocket’s telemetry, how it would handle its task of putting Sputnik on its specific trajectory," Ivanovskiy says. "After we had got information that everything was well there, and the command had been given for separation of Sputnik, we rushed off to the station that would begin receiving the ‘beep’ signals."

Sputnik had sprung off its launch frame, and the activation trigger had turned on the radio. Ivanovskiy was there for the newborn cries of the very first creature of the space age. "And we really heard those signals there for the first time," he told me. "Yes, and then they disappeared." But that was good news. "It was flying to the east, and the signals were fading gradually because Sputnik was heading to the Western Hemisphere and behind the radio horizon."

Now came the dramatic wait. "We had to see whether it would show up again, if we could hear the signal again, or if it would fall back down to the earth as everything had fallen down before now.

"In that truck, there were radio receivers in the back. I was given one earpiece. And first with some noise and then louder and louder and more distinctly, we could distinguish those ‘beeeep, beeeeps.’ Finally we heard those signals. Close by us was the chief designer of radio hardware, Mikhail Sergeyevich Ryazanskiy. Those radio transmitters were produced at his institution. He called Korolyov by phone and said: ‘Seryozha! Congratulations! There is a satellite.’ And he had tears in his eyes. We were all crying as well."

The next day brought Ivanovskiy an epiphany of how his corner of the world was forever different. "We were flying to Moscow the next day, and we landed at an intermediate airfield. There I saw a newspaper for the first time with the TASS message about the first artificial satellite. I felt ashamed. But why? Because I felt myself completely naked, exposed to public observation. And why? Because we had been brought up [to believe] that what we were doing was top secret and that in no case could we tell anybody anywhere about it — we could neither write nor tell anybody. And here suddenly! Openly! Written on newspaper pages! That was awful."

Afterward, there were awards — even a few bonuses — along with national and professional pride. But mostly the success brought more work, says Ivanovskiy. "There was no miner’s gold, no wealth flooding toward us after that. Whoever we had been before that — ordinary engineers — we remained, with the same salaries, the same concerns, the same job titles. We did not receive any yachts, neither cottages nor palaces."

A month later, while preparing a second Sputnik (this one with a dog aboard), Ivanovskiy was again in charge of final preparations. For a second time he was at the polygon.

"At that time, someone ran in and said: ‘Let’s go outside! The first Sputnik will be flying over us!’ We ran out to the yard of our assembly building and were waiting until something appeared over the horizon. Before that we had not seen anything, but some people had been monitoring, and information was published about when it was flying over. And we noticed a small ‘glowworm,’ how it appeared and how it was slowly, solemnly flying over in the rays of the sunset. We applauded. It was very solemn." But it was not the shining sphere he had patted good-bye to, inches from his face, that night at the launch site only a month before.

"It was not Sputnik at all," he tells me. Rather, "that was the central part of the rocket. The Sputnik itself could not be seen with a naked eye.

"That is how it went," he concludes, leaning back in his chair. "For me, that was the beginning of my space activity. I am still ‘in space.’ In January this year I was ‘only’ 85 years old. And thanks to God, I keep ‘flying in space.’"

He looks back on a career that was launched by this first of all satellites. "I was lucky to take part in all ‘firsts’ of space. The first Sputnik, the first live creature in orbit, there were the first Lunas, the first [probes to Mars], there was [Yuri] Gagarin." Ivanovskiy had accompanied Yuri Gagarin up the gantry elevator on April 12, 1961, and had assisted him into his Vostok capsule, shaken his hand, and sealed the hatch behind him. Ivanovskiy’s was the last face Gagarin saw before leaving the planet. For some of the dogs aboard test flights, his had been the last face they ever saw.

"Korolyov asking me ... well, that certainly was great luck."

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