85 years ago: The USSR launched its first rocket using liquid propellant
On Aug. 17, 1933, the group of Soviet engineers from the GIRD rocket research organization, successfully fired the first Soviet rocket burning liquid oxygen. The GIRD-09 experimental vehicle flew for 18 seconds and reached around 400 meters in altitude before crashing back to Earth.
Known specifications of the GIRD-09 rocket:
Jar of jelly: Origin of Vehicle 09
In 1932, the Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion, GIRD, the first professional rocket-development organization in the USSR, formed just a year earlier, began work on Rocket Projectile No. 9. The project was also known as Vehicle 09 as well as R1-09, R1(09) or GIRD-09. Engineers at GIRD informally called it "nine". The development of Vehicle 09 was centered at GIRD's Design Brigade No. 2 led by Mikhail Tikhonravov, for whom it became the main occupation at the time.
The Vehicle 09 became the first ballistic rocket that GIRD was able to take entirely from paper to the launch pad and the closest to date the Soviet engineers got to launching a liquid-propellant rocket, so important for space enthusiasts. However, the rocket eventually became known as a hybrid vehicle, because its liquid oxidizer was mixed with a jelly-like substance made of gasoline, also known as "solid benzene".
This exotic propulsion concept (which would not stand the test of time), was an attempt to resolve technical problems encountered by Tikhonravov's team during its work on the preceding Vehicle 07. Designed to carry "traditional" liquid fuel and oxidizer, "07" posed numerous propulsion problems during tests.
Coincidently, the Central Soviet of OSOAVIAKhIM, a government-sponsored society that supported GIRD, asked Korolev to dispatch an experienced engineer to the city of Baku, Azerbaijan, for a series of lectures on rocketry and interplanetary flight. (At the time, Baku had its own flourishing space enthusiast community). Korolev sent Nikolai Efremov, a senior engineer at Tikhonravov's Brigade 2. In Baku, Efremov met by chance with a local inventor named Gurvich. In one of his conversations with Gurvich, Efremov complained that benzene could not be made solid like dry alcohol. "The solid benzene also exists," Gurvich responded, "Not exactly solid, but there is (such a thing)." Gurvich then gave Efremov a three-liter jar of jellied gasoline, which turned out to be a mix of benzene with rosin.
Efremov wrapped the jar in one of his extra shorts, in order to smuggle his highly flammable cargo on a train back to Moscow. Later, Gurvich sent GIRD a whole bucket of the "secret" substance, which proved to be workable. (18)
Development of Vehicle 09
Despite the highly experimental nature of Vehicle 09, it was still expected to become a practical weapon.
The rocket was developed on a technical assignment from the Directorate of Military Inventions, UVI, which was a part of the Technical Staff of the Head of Armaments within the Red Army, RKKA. (At the time, UVI funded GIRD along with OSOAVIAKhIM). The military goal of the 09 project was to match the overall effectiveness of a traditional artillery shell with a caliber of 122 millimeters. To that end, the 18-kilogram rocket was designed to climb as high as six kilometers and to develop a speed of around 250 meters per second, carrying six kilograms of payload. (137) In the experimental version of the rocket, the payload consisted of a parachute for soft landing of the rocket's body.
The design of Vehicle 09 was ready by the beginning of 1933. Head of GIRD, Sergei Korolev supervised one of the earliest tests of the rocket's combustion chamber on March 5, 1933. (84) According to the recollections of Nikolai Efremov, trials of the 09 engine began at a test range in Nakhabino near Moscow in April 1933, initially using liquefied air. (845)
The good progress with initial tests allowed to quickly switch from liquefied air to pure liquid oxygen, with the first firing apparently conducted on May 31, 1933. However, in the following 2.5 months, there were 22 or 23 tests, which revealed numerous problems.
First, the ignition system refused to work, apparently due to the freezing of valves and when that issue had been resolved, the flow of liquid oxygen was diluting the fuel and the walls of the combustion chamber or nozzles were burning through. (845)
Also, the burning was sometimes becoming explosive and was accompanied by ejection of unburned blobs of jellied propellant out of the nozzle.
Engineers tried different fuel injectors, trying to optimize the spraying of the propellant, and introduced special dividers to protect the combustion chamber. (845) The GIRD's shop struggled to implement endless design changes. (681) Exhausted engineers wondered aloud whether the 09 project could ever be completed. Only by the beginning of August 1933 was the engine finally made to work for the necessary time. (845) The final bench test of the engine was completed on August 5. (84)
In the meantime, the rocket's parachute system was tested at Tushino airfield near Moscow. A U-2 bi-plane piloted by an OSOAVIAKhIM pilot with Efremov as a passenger was used to drop a mockup of the rocket from an altitude of one kilometer. After some struggle with the wind and vibrations, Efremov, who was in the passenger seat of the aircraft, managed to ignite the fuse line of the parachute release mechanism a moment before dropping the mockup. However, the parachute deployment device failed to work. (18)
August 11: Misfire
Vehicle 09 was finally scheduled for its first flight on Aug. 11, 1933, from Nakhabino. The rocket would be fired from a vertical stand at Site 17 of the test range.
Remarkably, as the project finally overcame its technical problems, Tikhonravov and his GIRD associates Zuev and Andreev, who were at the root of its development, suddenly went on a fishing vacation and would not see the fruit of their efforts. One source explains that "vacation" by a bitter power struggle at GIRD on the eve of its anticipated merger with a sister organization in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and the planned formation of a large rocket research institute. (750)
In any case, the first flight test of Vehicle 09 was led by Sergei Korolev, with the help of Yuri Pobedonostsev, Zinaida Kruglova, Anatoly Korneev and Nikolai Efremov.
In addition to the core team, many well wishers at GIRD turned out to witness the launch, so that the only truck available to GIRD for a trip to Nakhabino was completely packed and the engineers had to put the precious rocket on their laps to fit nearly 30 people.
At the launch site, the group went through the entire preparation routine: Kruglova stuffed the combustion chamber with gasoline, while Efremov filled the oxidizer tank with liquid oxygen, which immediately revealed a leak.
After fixing the problem, the oxygen tank was refilled. This time everything looked good and Efremov asked Korolev's permission for launch. Korolev lit up the fuse line for the delayed deployment of the parachute, but the main ignition never worked. The sparkplug apparently failed. Instead, the parachute's release mechanism fired on the launch pad, ejecting the fairing of the motionless rocket.
The problem was found quickly and after a short repair, the flight attempt was re-scheduled for August 13. (18)
August 13: Encore mishap
The second launch attempt was met with miserable weather: cold and rain. Not surprisingly, a much smaller group headed to Nakhabino, but Korolev invited the department chief at Directorate for Military Inventions, UVI, Yakov Terentiev to attend the new attempt.
When the liftoff time came, the engine ignited, but the rocket remained in the launching stand and the pressure of oxygen was found to be not exceeding 3.5 atmospheres, instead of required 17 atmospheres. The flames were raging on the concrete pad below and then drowned the rocket itself, until the propellant was completely consumed. The fire damaged the aft fairing and stabilizers, so Korolev had to cannibalize parts from a backup rocket. (845) Back at GIRD, everybody was quite depressed. (18)
As Korolev explained to Terentiev, due to lack of pressure sensor on that version of the rocket, something his engineers could not get their hands on, the team could not pinpoint the right moment when the oxygen pressure would reach the ignition level. Terentiev promised to help with that and a new attempt was scheduled for August 17. (241, 84)
August 17: Finally a success!
According to Terentiev, he had related his experience to Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who led the armaments program of the Red Army, RKKA, and actively patronized GIRD.
Tukhachevsky expressed interest in attending the next launch attempt, but then called Terentiev on the eve of August 17 and said that he wouldn't be able to come because he would have to take part in the meeting of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. However, he urged the team to proceed with the launch attempt and recommended to Terentiev to go again. (241)
The 10-person team departed for Nakhabino in the morning of August 17, but spent most of the day in preparations. This time, there were only a few observers, relieving social pressure on the launch team.
The rocket was first loaded with benzene, then placed onto the launch stand, where it was fueled with liquid oxygen and its nose faring was installed.
After sealing off the oxygen valves, the team waited for the oxygen pressure to reach the 18 atmospheres necessary for liftoff. (681) Efremov and Korolev standing by the entrance into the firing control blockhouse had to stand on their toes to monitor a small pressure gauge at the top of the rocket.
They barely saw that the gauge reached 13.5 atmospheres (instead of the needed 17 atmosphere) and then stopped. At the same time, a thin stream of vapor from the rocket revealed that a safety valve was leaking, preventing the pressure from reaching the maximum level. (845)
The leak would probably prevent the rocket from reaching its maximum altitude, but Nikolai Efremov urged to proceed with the liftoff, since the very fact of launching would be much more important than any records. (84)
"Good... let's launch," Efremov remembered Korolev saying after some hesitation. (18) Efremov pulled out a pack of matches and gave it to Korolev, who then lit up the fuse cord of the parachute release. Korolev and Efremov then rushed to the blockhouse and crowded by the narrow slit window trying to see the rocket. At the "contact" command, Zinaida Kruglova activated the ignition and Efremov pushed out the handle of the oxygen supply lever. The initial loud bang was followed with the familiar healthy whiz of the engine.
The rocket began slow upward movement, then froze for a moment at the tip of the launch stand before bursting into the air. Korolev and Efremov rushed to the door of the blockhouse. When Korolev stumbled at the entrance, Efremov pushed him outside, but then froze at the same spot himself, trying to catch a glimpse of the ascending contraption. The rocket first flew vertically, but then began to visibly wiggle, turned over to a horizontal flight, which quickly turned into a steep descent. Kruglova, who was finally able to get out of the blockhouse after Korolev and Efremov, saw the rocket plunge into the trees and smash into to the ground. The engine apparently continued firing until the rocket hit the nearby trees and fell apart.
The machinist B.V. Shedko, who doubled as a photographer at GIRD and who was assigned to capture the historic event, got so distracted with all the excitement that he photographed the empty woods instead, as he later honestly admitted in the organization's newspaper. (241) (Unwillingly, Shedko started a long sad tradition of many Soviet space firsts not being properly imaged.)
Before liftoff, GIRD's assembly technicians Evgeny Matysik and Lev Ikonnikov (and possibly Pobedonostsev (18)) climbed up trees to better see the launch. When the rocket lifted off, they began jumping excitedly so much on their branches that Matysik lost balance and fell down, fortunately without hurting himself.
All others were screaming and hugging each other, celebrating the hard-won success.
The witnesses then quickly located the rocket with smoke still billowing from its nozzle. (845) However, the team members had to cross the security fence of the range before they could find the remnants of their machine crashed in the woods. (241) Korolev sat right next to the rocket, which was still hot and smelled of gasoline. (18)
Participants in the August 17, 1933, launch at the impact site of Vehicle 09: (Standing, back row): Sergei Korolev, Senior engineer N.I. Efremov, chauffeur Budkov, Head of Brigade 1 L.K. Korneev, assembly technicians A.S. Raetskiy and L.A. Ikonnikov. Sitting, front row: Head of assembly technicians Evgeny Matysik, engineers of Brigade 2: Olga Parovina, Nina Shulgina and Zinaida Kruglova. Photo by GIRD's machinist B.V. Shedko.
The main body of the rocket was broken into two pieces and one of its stabilizers was sheared off, apparently from hitting the trees. Engineers quickly established that a leak in the damaged flange insulator between the combustion chamber and the nozzle had created a sideway force, overturning the vehicle during its short flight. The maximum altitude of the pioneering shot was eyeballed at 400 meters, even though some said that the rocket had only climbed to only 20 or 30 meters. (750)
The team members then picked up all the debris, photographed them and carried them back to the launch site. (241)
Realizing the historic significance of their achievement, Korolev immediately proposed to write down a formal document on the key points of the flight.
Somebody handed Efremov an office ledger, which somehow was available in the blockhouse. On the first available clean page, Korolev made a historic record, writing in rough cursive, as the dusk approached:
"We, undersigned, the commission of GIRD plant for launching Vehicle 09, including Head of GIRD, Korolev, S.P., Senior Engineer of Brigade No. 2 Efremov, Head of Brigade No. 1 Senior Engineer Korneev L.K., Brigadir of assembly technicians Matysik on Aug. 17, 1933, after reviewing the vehicle and related hardware made a decision to put it in the air. The launch took place at Station No. 17 of the Nakhabino engineering test range on Aug. 17 at 19 hours 00 minutes.
Mass of the vehicle, approx. 18 kilograms
Mass of propellant (solid benzene) 1 kilogram
(Mass) of oxygen 3.45 kilograms
Pressure in the oxygen tank 13.5 atmospheres
Duration of flight from the liftoff moment to impact 18 seconds
Altitude of vertical ascent (estimated) approximately 400 meters
The launch proceeded slowly, at the maximum altitude rocket went horizontal and then on a shallow trajectory fell into the nearby forest. During the entire flight, the engine remained operational. At ground impact, the exterior skin was bended. The connecting manifold was broken.
The switch from vertical to horizontal flight and then turn to the ground happened due to the breakage of the gases (burn through) at flange, resulting in the appearance of a side force, which toppled the rocket.
Signed: Korolev, Efremov, Korneev, Matysik at the Nakhabino station on Aug. 17, at 20 h. 10 min. 1933.
The document was preserved at the Russian Academy of Sciences, according to E. Matysik, who participated in the experiment.
Read much more about the history of the Russian space program in a richly illustrated, large-format glossy edition:
A museum replica of the GIRD-07 (left) and 09 rockets. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A "cutaway" replica of the final version of the "09" engine (shown upside down) for the GIRD-09 and 06 rockets. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak
A launching rig for Vehicle 09.
An apparent contemporary photos of the GIRD-09 rocket at launch site in Nakhabino. Credit: RGANT
Korolev and Yakov Terentiev in Nakhabino in August 1933.
A team of GIRD specialists probably during preparation of Vehicle 09 for launch in August 1933 (left to right): Zinaida Kruglova, Nikolai Efremov, Evgeny Matysik and Nina Shulgina.
A likely preparation for the failed launch attempt of Vehicle 09 on Aug. 13, 1933. The person at the right is likely Pobedonostsev Matysik is at the top left. Left on the ladder is Anatoly Raevsky, on the left, with his hand in his pocket, is Mikhail Vorobiev. A tall man next to him is Vasily Avdonin, a glider pilot and a mechanic. On the right with a paper in his hand is Nikolai Efremov. A chauffeur is leaning on the pipe. (Credit: ARRAN
The installation of the rocket into its launch device (a possible reenactment).
The fueling of Vehicle 09 before launch.
A front section of Vehicle 09 with liquid oxygen tank at the impact site on August 17, 1933.
Aft section of Vehicle 09 at the impact site on August 17, 1933.
A preliminary report on the launch of Vehicle 09. Credit: ARRAN