One of the greatest achievements we can commemorate is the creation of the first object thrown by human hands that goes up and does not fall back: the artificial satellite. This was possible thanks to the rocket, which was born as a weapon of war, but almost unwittingly, became the key to open a whole new world to the human species: outer space.
The rocket itself is an artifact that has almost a millennium: the first historical record of its use dates from the China of the year 1232, in defense against the Mongol army which was besieging the city of Kai-fung-fu. Then the invention has spread throughout Asia, and in 1675 the Russian city of Ustuygcity was attacked with these little gunpowder rockets. A few years later the Russian military were already producing it at a factory in Moscow.
Progress in the construction of conventional guns, however, left the rocket into oblivion.
In 1921, after the Bolshevik Revolution, laboratories were founded in the Soviet Union to research the potential of the device. Among these researchers were two young engineers, Valentin Glushko and Sergei Korolev. Soon they begin to develop liquid-fuel rockets, more powerful. By the 1930s, as was the case with other groups of enthusiasts in other countries, their small prototypes were able to reach a couple of kilometers.
In 1944, during the final months of World War II and with the German army retreating, USSR's dictator Joseph Stalin received a correspondence from the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill telling him about a major German research center in the way of the Soviet troops, and asked him to try to capture as much matériel as possible. So, parts of Nazi V-2 rockets were dispatched toward the British embassy in Moscow ... with the logical stop-over at Soviet research laboratories. Valentin Glushko and colleagues examined the Nazi progress, and were surprised by the size of the combustion chamber. Soon they got to guess the vehicle's performance: it was able to place a ton of explosives 250 km away. It was about 15 years ahead of what the Soviets had at the time.
After the war, the Soviet secret police captured hundreds of German engineers and technicians and brought them to Moscow. The orders were to build a production line of V-2 in the USSR. The Soviet version is called R-1, and in 1948 began test flights in Kasputin Yar on the Volga River. The apparatus was 14-m high, 12 ton (when fully loaded) and run with alcohol at 75% concentration and super-cooled liquid oxygen.
The Soviets set design offices on an island of Lake Seliger, 800 km north of Moscow, and placed the German Helmut Gröttrup as director. He was ordered to design a successor to the R-1. Meanwhile, Sergei Korolev was doing the same. The Soviets' intention was to compare the work of both teams, so as to know if they were on the right track. The Germans would be prisoners until the death of Stalin in 1953.
The R-2 would be a R-1 lengthened for extra fuel, with lighter walls. It run with alcohol at 96% concentration and liquid oxygen and had a range of 600 km. It carried in is tip a nasty load of radioactive waste that would be scattered like rain upon reaching the target.
With the new knowledge acquired from the Germans, in the early years of the 1950s Glushko designed an improved engine, which would thrust a new rocket, the R-5. This artifact was 21-m high and 29 ton (when fully loaded), and was capable of launching 1350 kg to a distance of 1200 km away. It was the first Soviet missile equipped with a nuclear bomb, and was produced for attacks on targets in Western Europe.
THE INTER CONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILE
Encouraged by the successes obtained, the Soviet military high command ordered the development of an ultimate weapon: a missile capable of dropping an atomic bomb on the United States of America. The requirement was nothing short of shedding a load of 3-5 ton to a distance of 10 000 km away.
Glushko devised a new engine with four nozzles, operating with cryogenic liquid oxygen and kerosene. Korolev's calculations soon indicated that such a range would not be possible with a vehicle of a single stage: more were necessary. Ideally, a rocket mounted one on top of the other, so as to achieve maximum speed. But this meant that the second rocket should be activated in flight, and the engineers were not sure they could achieve this. They chose a compromise, the so-called one-and-one-half-stage rocket: auxiliary rockets would be fixed to the sides of the main rocket, so all of them could be lighted while still on the ground. The smaller rockets, once they had expelled all their fuel, would separate freeing the main rocket body to continue to the target. The project was approved in 1954 and thus began the development of the R-7.
The finished vehicle had a huge total height of 33 meters, with four auxiliary rocket of 19 meters, conical, attached to the sides. The overall structure was very light when empty, "only" 27 ton, but it is filled with incredible 253 ton of fuel. Its macabre atomic bomb was of the thermonuclear hydrogen type, and the electronics of the rocket was able to drop it within an accuracy of 10 km, enough to vaporize a city thanks to the destructive power equivalent to about 3 million ton of conventional explosives.
From factories in the Samara region, the R-7 would be taken to a new test center in Tyuratam (although officially Baikonur, to mislead). The vast territory of the USSR allowed this rocket to be launched from that place in Kazakhstan, at the west, and make it fall into the Kamchatka Peninsula, to the east.
The first successful flight occurred on 21 August 1957. A few days later, the official news agency TASS (now ITAR-TASS, http://www.itar-tass.com) informed the world of the creation of a missile with extremely long-distance range, of the ballistic-type with more than one stage, in fact nothing less than a missile with intercontinental capability. But almost no one took note of this announcement.
Several centuries ago, Isaac Newton had calculated that if a supergiant arm and hand were available it would be possible to throw a stone at such a distance that it would go all around the world before touching the ground, coming back from behind. In fact that is the secret why the Moon keeps going around the Earth, he explained. Later, half a century before that announcement by the TASS agency, a school teacher in a rural village had calculated that the only mechanism available that could play the role of the supergiant arm and hand would be the rocket. His name was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian. Now, thanks to the work of Sergei Korolev and his team, the USSR had built Newton's supergiant arm and hand.
Mikhail Tikhonravov had devised the project of a large and complicated artificial satellite with a multitude of scientific instruments for the study of space, to be released by the R-7 in 1958. But due to the circumstances of the moment, with the United States also developing missiles and certainly interested in satellites, the Soviets sought a shortcut on the tight schedule and decided to urgently make a simple polished metal sphere the size of a beach ball; they placed two transmitters in it, four antennas, batteries and mounted it in the tip of a R-7 missile.
Because instead of carrying a 5-ton bomb the missile now carried only this small object of 84 kg, it could easily accelerate to reach 28 000 km/h, that is, a speed of 7,9 kilometers per second, sufficient to turn Newton's theory into reality.
On the night of October 4, 1957, a R-7 missile rose above the desert plains of Central Asia, heading east. The big time came, when this machine finally showed its potential by acquiring an enormous speed. After 5 minutes of combustion the tanks were already empty; now inertia would do the rest. It crossed the Pacific, passed through the Americas, flew over the Atlantic Ocean and 96 minutes later came back over the Soviet Union. Because of the altitude at which it was, more than 100 km above the ground, the sparse air molecules were unable to brake its movement noticeably, so it overshoot its own launch site and continued on, starting another lap around the Earth ... and then another ... and then another ... and another ...
Meanwhile, the TASS agency (the same as above) informed the world that in the radio frequencies of 20,005 MHz and 40,002 MHz the audience could hear a continuous beep-beep-beep coming from above: after centuries of dreams, "Homo sapiens" had built an artificial moon.
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Originally published in ABC Color, on 8 October 2007. Photograph: Historic moment of the takeoff of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. Credit: R.K.K. Energiya, also published by the Commission for the Development of the Scientific Legacy of the Pioneers of Space Exploration in "The creative legacy of Academician Sergei Pavlovich Korolev: selected works and documents", Mstislav Keldysh, chairman of the editorial board, Georgiy Vetrov, managing editor and compiler, Nauka publishing house, Moscow, 1980, dust jacket.