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The Man Who Started the Space Age

The Russian (Ukraine-born) rocket engineer Sergei Korolev (1907–66) was the driving technical force behind the initial intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program and the early outer space exploration projects of the former Soviet Union. In 1954, he started work on the first Soviet ICBM, called the R-7. This powerful rocket system was capable of carrying a massive payload across continental distances. As part of cold-war politics, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev allowed Korolev to use this military rocket to place the first artificial satellite (named Sputnik 1) into orbit around Earth on October 4, 1957. This event is now generally regarded as the beginning of the Space Age. Korolev was also the technical expert responsible for the April 12, 1961, mission that placed the first human (Yuri Gagarin) in orbit around Earth in the Vostok 1 spacecraft.

Korolev was trained in aeronautical engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute and, after receiving a secondary education, cofounded the Moscow rocketry organization GIRD (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya, Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). In Russia, GIRD lasted only two years before the military, seeing the potential of rockets, replaced it with the RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute). RNII developed a series of rocket-propelled missiles and gliders during the 1930s, culminating in Korolev’s RP-318, Russia’s first rocket propelled aircraft. Before the aircraft could make a rocket-propelled flight, however, Korolev and other aerospace engineers were thrown into the Soviet prison system in 1937–38, during the peak of Joseph Stalin’s political purges.

Korolev at first spent months in transit on the Trans-Siberian railway and on a prison vessel at Magadan. This was followed by a year in the Kolyma gold mines, the most dreaded part of the Gulag. However, Stalin recognized the importance of aeronautical engineers in preparing for the impending war with Hitler and retrieved Korolev and other technical personnel from incarceration. He reasoned that these prisoners could help the Red Army by developing new weapons. Consequently, a system of sharashkas (prison design bureaus) was set up to exploit the jailed talent.

Korolev was saved by the intervention of senior aircraft designer Sergei Tupolev, himself a prisoner, who personally requested Korolev’s services in the TsKB-39 sharashka.

Following World War II, Korolev was released from prison and appointed chief constructor for development of a long-range ballistic missile. By April 1, 1953, as Korolev was preparing for the first launch of the R-11 rocket, he received approval from the Council of Ministers for development of the world’s first ICBM, the R-7. To concentrate on development of the R-7, Korolev’s other projects were spun off to a new design bureau in Dnipropetrovs’k headed by Korolev’s assistant, Mikhail Kuzmich Yangel.

This was the first of several design bureaus that would spin off from Korolev’s work. It was Korolev’s R-7 ICBM that launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. During the early 1960s, Korolev campaigned to send a Soviet cosmonaut to the Moon. Following the initial reconnaissance of the Moon by the Luna 1, 2, and 3 spacecraft, Korolev established three largely independent efforts aimed at achieving a Soviet lunar landing before the Americans. The first objective, met by Vostok and Voskhod spacecraft, was to prove that human spaceflight was possible. The second objective was to develop lunar vehicles, which would soft-land on the Moon’s surface to ensure that a cosmonaut would not sink into the dust accumulated by 4 billion years of meteorite impacts. The third objective, and the most difficult to achieve, was to develop a huge booster to send cosmonauts to the Moon. Beginning in 1962, his design bureau began work on the N-1 launch vehicle, a counterpart to the American Saturn V. This giant rocket was to be capable of launching a maximum of 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit. Although the project continued until 1971 before cancellation, the N-1 never made a successful flight.

On January 14, 1966, Korolev died at a hospital in Moscow. He was only 58 years old. Some of Korolev’s contributions to space technology include the powerful, legendary R-7 rocket (1956); the first artificial satellite (1957); pioneering lunar spacecraft missions (1959); the first human spaceflight (1961); a spacecraft to Mars (1962); and the first space walk (1965). Korolev is now recognized as the brilliant rocket engineer who ushered in the Space Age.


Text 4 Andrey Nikolayevich Tupolev

Andrey Nikolayevich Tupolev, (born October 29 [November 10, New Style], 1888, Pustomazovo, Russia—died December 23, 1972, Moscow), one of the Soviet Union’s foremost aircraft designers, whose bureau produced a number of military bombers and civilian airliners—including the world’s first supersonic passenger plane.

In 1909 Tupolev entered the Moscow Imperial Technical School (now Bauman Moscow State Technical University), where he became a student and disciple of Nikolay Y. Zhukovsky, widely considered the father of Russian aviation. In 1918 they organized the Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute, of which Tupolev became assistant director in 1918. He became head of the institute’s design bureau in 1922 and supervised the work of various designers—including Pavel O. Sukhoy, Vladimir M. Myasischev, and Vladimir M. Petlyakov—who later became notable in their own right. This bureau, in producing military and civilian planes that were designated by Tupolev’s initials, ANT, made all-metal construction a standard feature of Soviet aviation.

In 1937 Tupolev, in common with many Soviet designers at the time, was arrested on charges of activities against the state. Following his imprisonment, he was placed in charge of a team that was to design military aircraft. From this came the Tu-2, a twin-engine bomber that saw wide use in World War II and, in 1943, earned Tupolev his freedom and a Stalin Prize. Near the end of the war he was given the job of copying the U.S. B-29 Superfortress, three of which had force-landed in the Soviet Far East. This project resulted in the Tu-4 (NATO designation “Bull”), which first flew in 1947 and was the U.S.S.R.’s principal strategic bomber until the mid-1950s.

After adapting jet propulsion to several piston-engine airframes, Tupolev in 1952 introduced the Tu-16 (“Badger”), a medium-range bomber that featured swept wings and light alloy construction. A team under Aleksandr A. Arkhangelsky, Tupolev’s longtime associate, designed the Tu-95 (“Bear”), a huge turboprop bomber that first flew in 1954 and became one of the most durable military aircraft ever built. Two civilian aircraft were derived from these—the Tu-104, which appeared in 1955 and became one of the first jet transports to provide regular passenger service, and the Tu-114 long-range passenger plane, the largest propeller-driven aircraft ever in regular service.

In 1963 Tupolev’s son Alexey became chief designer of a team that produced the Tu-144 supersonic transport. The Tu-144 broke the sound barrier—the first passenger plane to do so—on a test flight in 1969 and reached twice the speed of sound a year later, but it was plagued by design problems and mismanagement and had only a short life as a passenger jet in 1977–78.

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