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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Gagarin’s spacecraft was guided by Ukrainian instruments

Ukrainians’ involvement in the world’s first manned space mission
12 April, 2011 - 00:00

Mykola PONOMARIOV, colonel (retired), Baikonur Cosmodrome veteran, military representative at the Arsenal Plant (1961):

“In July 1960, I was posted to the military representation at the Arsenal Plant in Kyiv. The plant was tasked to produce homing systems for missiles and spacecraft. Arsenal had experience in making survey instruments, so it had a lion’s share in the preparations for Gagarin’s space mission. Quite a few young graduates of the leading Soviet institutes and universities were posted to Arsenal.

“The task was complicated and the work schedule very tight. What made matters even more complicated was the special quality and reliability standard. Workdays lasted as long as was necessary. I, for one, would start at 9 in the morning and end at 1 a.m. No one complained; this was something that had to be done, period.

“At the cosmodrome the situation was very much the same (I was fortunate enough to take part in the final phase of preparation of the spacecraft Vostok-1. I found myself at Baikonur in November 1960. I was supposed to spend a month there, but returned to Kyiv after three months.

“The homing systems were made ready at the cosmodrome, but at the very last moment something happened that no one could have foreseen. Prelaunch system tests failed, as the light conductor (a thin-walled tube running along the length of the rocket) turned out to be deformed, most likely damaged by the assembly crane when installing the rocket. The situation seemed critical; it looked as though the launch would be canceled. My colleagues who witnessed it told me later that Arsenal’s metalworker Viktor Filippov of Kyiv (he was a member of the launch team) said he knew what had to be done. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev gave his permission and Viktor climbed the 30-meter length of the rocket, got inside the light conductor tube and righted the bent walls with his shoulders. After that the tests showed the homing system was effective, the spacecraft was launched on time, the world saw the first man in space, and the metalworker Filippov was conferred the title ‘Hero of Socialist Labor,’ as submitted by Korolev.”

Yevhen PONOMARENKO, lieutenant colonel (ret.), military representative at Arsenal (1961):

“I was born in Kyiv and started working at the Arsenal in 1959. We were making missile homing devices, and toward the end of 1960 one such system was modified for the Vostok spacecraft series. As a military representative, I monitored the requirements for specification, development, production, and test phases.

“A missile was homed in on target using survey instruments — theodolites, collimators, and so on — from the launch pad. Another component of the homing system was mounted on its hull, at a height of 19 meters. The rocket’s launch pad position was ‘fastened’ to the ground surveying network.

“Vostok-1’s carrier rocket R-7 was actually a ballistic missile. Its trajectory was set on the launch pad, so that the spent rocket stages would fall on Soviet territory. It was launched at an angle of 60 degrees toward the horizon, so that Earth rotation would add acceleration.”

“I frequented Baikonur in the course of developing the homing system. The flight on board of an IL-12 mail plane from Moscow region lasted more than eight hours.

“I vividly remember April 12, 1961. I got to the Vostok launch pad in the morning, although all the operational checks of our system had been successfully made the previous day. Around seven I saw the bus with the cosmonauts approach the pad. Through the bus windows I could see the faces of Yurii Gagarin and his backup man, Gherman Titov. And then all except the prelaunch personnel were ordered to vacate the site.



“We were taken to an observation post three kilometers from the launch pad. In fact, it was an ordinary wooden porch with a loudspeaker from which one could hear commands from the flight control bunker. It also offered a good view of the pad with the white rocket and gantries.

“There were several dozen people at the observation post, all having to do with the launch. We watched the launch procedures and heard the radio exchange between Kedr (Cedar — Gagarin) and Zarya-1 (Korolev). We held our breath listening to the chief designer’s commands: ‘Key in start position!’… ‘Purge!’… ‘Key in drainage!’… ‘Launch!’… ‘Ignition!’… ‘Lift off!…’ And then Gagarin’s calm reply, ‘Let’s go!’ [Off we go!] White flame and smoke erupted from under the rocket with a deafening roar, then the white rocket lifted off and started an accelerating ascent. It was in zenith when we saw the first stage detach itself. The rocket could be seen for about a minute after liftoff, then it disappeared…

“Everyone was in a state of great agitation. Someone exclaimed, ‘Let’s go see Korolev!’ We returned to the launch site and went to a wooden barracks not far from it. In it was the chief designer’s study. We saw Korolev and his retinue enter it, so we waited by the porch. Some 40 minutes later he stepped out looking very happy and called out: ‘Congratulations! Gagarin has landed safely!’ I’ll never forget the emotions I felt at the time. That was a real triumph! I’m also reminded of it by the Order of the Red Star conferred on me for Gagarin’s space mission.”

Valentyn RUDAKOV, leading designer, Arsenal’s Central Design Bureau (1961):

“I started working for Arsenal’s Central Design Bureau (CDB) in 1958. We developed missile launch pad azimuthal homing devices, but then we were tasked with making such homing devices for manned flights. This involved 70-meter rockets that were exposed to the elements, temperature fluctuations, with a margin of error of not more than 10 arc seconds. An error in launch pad orientation could mean the Vostok’s failure to reach orbit within the set parameters, so the aircraft wouldn’t land in the target area. In fact, this error could mean the project’s failure.

“Officials in charge of the leading Soviet optics factories refused [to assume responsibility for] this complicated task, so Defense Minister Sergei Zverev got in touch with Serafim Parniakov, a former classmate at the Leningrad Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics. Parniakov was then head of Arsenal’s CDB. He said he would think it over and shortly afterward we were tasked with developing such devices for Gagarin’s spacecraft, although we started making progress only after Parniakov came up with the idea of mounting a pentaprism at the top of the rocket, so as to convey the rocket’s position to ground instruments.

“We still had a long way to go, so we worked as hard and as long as it took. We were served hot meals at the design bureau. Folding cots were placed in between the drawing boards; we were issued linen and proceeded to work in three shifts.

“We were working on instruments that would endure heat, cold, and liftoff vibration, so we had to check and double check every design solution. We made all sophisticated calculations using slide rules and manually operated calculating machines — there were no computers. Our blueprints were sent to production facilities. Ready parts and units were tested and now and then proved ineffective, so there were times when we had to start from scratch.

“Thinking back to that hard period, I can only marvel at our enthusiasm. No one promised us bonuses or government awards. We were young and found the challenges fascinating; we were inspired by being involved in an extremely important project; we were members of the country’s elite designer community.

“I often went on business trips to Korolev’s design bureau in Moscow and to the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Too bad I missed Gagarin’s liftoff on April 12. We followed news of the space mission in Kyiv and our joy knew no bounds when we heard about the safe landing.

“Thirty participants in the program received government awards, including Serafim Parniakov who was conferred the Order of Lenin. I received the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

“There were new projects after Gagarin’s space mission, and we worked just as hard and with the same enthusiasm, without waiting for any rewards. Parniakov once asked if I needed an apartment or something. I said I didn’t. As you can see, my wife and I are still in a communal flat.

“In subsequent years, my colleagues and I developed instruments for the Soviet lunar program, then I started working on space navigation devices. My star sextants are still being used at the International Space Station Mir, but that’s another story.”

By Serhii PONOMARIOV. Photos from the personal archives of Mykola PONOMARIOV, Yevhen PONOMARENKO, Valentyn RUDAKOV