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Previous chapter: Sputnik origins

The Object D was conceived as a multi-functional science laboratory with an ambitious array of instruments onboard. It was expected to measure density and ion composition of the atmosphere, to study solar radiation, magnetic field and cosmic rays. The satellite promised practical experience, which could later help in the development of attitude control systems for future spacecraft. Also, the mission would provide engineering data on the thermal regime onboard the satellite, on the interaction of the spacecraft with the upper atmosphere, its movement relative to the center of gravity.

Object D: Finally a decision

A decree of the Soviet government No. 149-88ss formally authorizing the development of an artificial satellite was signed on January 30, 1956. It called for the development of an unoriented satellite, designated Object D, during 1957-1958. (Designations "A", "B" and "V" based on letters at the beginning of the Russian alphabet were reserved for various configurations of the R-7's warheads.)

The spacecraft's mass was limited to 1,000-1,400 kilograms, relying on the capabilities of the R-7 ballistic missile. The total mass of scientific equipment onboard the satellite could reach up to 200-300 kilograms and the launch date was set for 1957. (248)(52)(126)

The same decree delegated responsibilities for various aspects of the project to the following institutions:

Academy of Science of USSR General scientific management of the project; supplying scientific payload for the spacecraft
OKB-1 under Ministry of Defense Industry Satellite bus development
Ministry of Radio Industry Flight control system, radio and telemetry systems
Ministry of Shipbuilding Gyroscopes
Ministry of Machine building Ground processing, transport, fueling and launch hardware
Ministry of Defense Launch operations

On February 27, 1956, just days after exposing a bloody legacy of Stalin's crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev made a long-delayed visit to Korolev's OKB-1 in Podlipki, near Moscow. With awe and amazement but still without a full realization of it, the Soviet leader and his entourage saw the coming of the Space Age in the form of a full-scale mockup of the enormous R-7 rocket. When Korolev reminded Khrushchev that with this new giant rocket, America would no longer be unreachable for the Soviet nuclear weapons, the Soviet leader "simply beamed." It was the perfect moment for Korolev to introduce a satellite. Khrushchev's son Sergei described the moment in his memoirs:

"I would like you to know about still another project." As he noticed that that his visitors were about to leave, Korolev added quickly: It will only become feasible with the birth of the R-7. I wrote a report about it to the Central Committee and have had a positive response."

Sergei Pavlovich (Korolev) led us to stand occupying a modest place in a corner, near the door. A model of some kind of apparatus lay on the stand. It looked unusual to put it mildly. A flying machine should have a smooth surface, flowing shapes and clean-cut angles. But this one had some type of rods protruding on all sides and paneling by projections.

Korolev began his exposition far back, with Tsiolkovsky. He recalled the latter's dream of escaping bonds of Earth.

"And now we can achieve that," exclaimed Korolev rather emotionally. But he checked himself at once and continued in a businesslike tone to explain that if a flying apparatus attained a certain speed it would not return to the Earth, but would turn into a small planet or something like the moon and begin revolving around the Earth. (87)

Korolev then went through the usual routine about Americans racing feverishly toward their own satellite launch and the importance for the Soviet Union of being first at that and the relative easiness and low price of achieving the victory in this race. As usual, to Khrushchev and his cohorts, the military goals of the rocket dwarfed the idea of the satellite, in its significance. Yet, Khrushchev gave Korolev his blessing. (87)

First technical requirements for the satellite were issued in February 1956 (247) and on June 14, Korolev finalized a list of modifications for the R-7 rocket needed to be implemented in order for it to carry Object D. The preliminary design for Object D was completed by July 1956. (52)

On September 14, 1956, Keldysh invited Korolev to a meeting of the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, discussing the satellite program. The report made by Keldysh revealed a number of milestones in the future space exploration program:

  • Radio transmitter in orbit
  • Orbital flight of a dog
  • A mission to photograph far side of the Moon

Keldysh did promise to deliver specifications for the science payloads of the satellite, which had been originally scheduled to be completed in August 1956. The original development schedule also called for the Academy of Sciences to supply mockups of the scientific instruments for the installation on the prototype of the satellite in October 1956. Now, Keldysh promised to deliver all prototypes in November 1956, despite clear signs of the program's lagging schedule. (18)

Reorganizing for space

Early work on "Object D" coincided with the internal reorganization of Korolev's OKB-1 during August and September 1956. Among other structural changes, Department 9 responsible for satellite development was formed within the design bureau. (71)

Korolev made sure that Mikhail Tikhonravov, the chief "ideologist" of the satellite project and his personal friend, played a key role in the upcoming development of the spacecraft. On Oct. 3, 1956, Korolev requested Ustinov to transfer Tikhonravov to OKB-1 to work at Department 9. On Dec. 27, 1956, the same request went to Marshall of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin. (247, 248) It was eventually approved. Department 9 was led by S. S. Krukov with Tikhonravov as a scientific consultant. The group was put in charge of the development of the preliminary design of the future satellite. According to Golovanov, as of Nov. 1, 1956, Tikhonravov officially worked for OKB-1. (18)

At the end of September 1957, Korolev delivered a report on the state of the satellite project to the Scientific and Technical Council of the NII-88 research institute, which just formally separated from his OKB-1 design bureau. The key thesis of the document was a provision for the development of three rather than one variations of scientific satellites with various scientific packages. NII-88 approved Korolev's plan. (18)

Next chapter: Shortcut to simplest satellite

Writing, photography and illustrations by Anatoly Zak; Last update: September 28, 2007


Object D, later known as Sputnik-3, was the first truly scientific spacecraft launched in the USSR. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Sputnik-3, view from the back. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


spacecraft science