By Dennis Newkirk
© 1993 CSPACE Press
In April 1993, cosmonaut and Doctor of Science and Mathematics Georgy Mikhailovich Grechko was visiting the US. He made time during an 18 hour day, after staying up most of the previous night trying to make calls to Moscow, to skip lunch and answer some questions about his experiences in the Soviet space program. The interview and background material has been summarized into the commentary below (unatributed quotes are Grechko's).
As a youngster, Grechko spent two years without his parents in the Ukrainian city of Chernigov while it was German occupied territory. In those years his toys were rifles, guns and hand grenades. Some of his friends were killed or wounded but Grechko luckily escaped those years with only one wound to his left hand, caused by an explosion of a cartridge. When he graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Mechanics in 1955, he had excellent grades and this afforded him the choice of his place of work. He liked science fiction but there were no satellites or jobs to make satellites yet and that is what he was interested in. At that time there were designers making artillery rockets, anti-aircraft rockets, sounding rockets and short range ballistic missiles, so he chose to work with the designer building the biggest rockets, as they would be the best bet to make the first rocket to launch a satellite.
When Grechko entered the Korolev Design Bureau, his first project was work on the R-7 (SS-6) ICBM calculating trajectories the missile took from when flying from Tyuratam to Kamchatka. Soon the R-7 was also prepared to launch the worlds first satellite, and for Grechko this was the happiest time of his life, a dream come true. He also greatly enjoyed working for Sergei Korolev, because Korolev extended the spirit of pioneering to all his engineers. For example, at Baykonur sometimes Korolev would have someone wake him up before dawn and he would to go out and watch a rocket being moved to the launch pad in the morning dawn. Sometimes with their jobs done, some of Korolev's engineers would gather at the protective fence around the launch pad to watch. They were forbidden to go closer. Korolev would arrive at the fence gate in his car and pick up his engineers to take them beyond the fence to watch the launch from a better vantage point. In this way, Korolev would try to install in them a feeling of romanticism about rocketry and a desire to work hard. Even if the team were made of of sometimes crazy and unpleasant people, Korolev did this with only one goal, to forge ahead with the design satellites, spacecraft and rockets as quickly as possible. Grechko describes Korolev as supporting all new ideas immediately, he didn't play dirty political games or try to hide or deceive. He was very honest and direct. In those early days, even a young engineer could ask Chief Designer Korolev for an audience, years later that had become very hard to do. Also in those early years, it was possible to make many things without mounds of documentation. Today, Grechko says, to make the smallest devices there must be a vast quantity of documentation made before construction can begin.
Next to Korolev, Academy of Sciences President Mstislav Vsevolodovich Keldysh (sometimes called the 'Chief Theorist') was perhaps the second most powerful man in cosmonautics in the early years of the 1960's. Keldysh had his own Institute of Applied Mathematics and worked closely with the Korolev bureau. For instance, Grechko calculated trajectories in Korolev's bureau and in Keldysh's institute they calculated the same trajectories and compared the results to insure correct results. The Institute also devised new and better methods of how to calculate spaceflight trajectories. Keldysh was a very respected man within the government, and his opinion was highly valued. The friendship between Keldysh and Korolev contributed much to the successes of the early Soviet space program. After the big propaganda success of Sputnik, Korolev was invited to meet Khruschev in the Kremlin. Grechko quotes Korolev as saying "Khruschev said, 'please do something, launch something new for the anniversary of the revolution' ", but this was after Oct. 4 and the anniversary was Nov. 7. And, in less than one month Sputnik 2 was launched with a dog on-board. Grechko believes the feat of creating a satellite, a mission and launching it within a month is impossible for anyone in the world to accomplish today. This also illustrates the period before the mid-1960's as a time of individuals took responsibility for their actions and they could stake their personal reputation on the results of their projects. This was soon to change however.
When the Soviet government and space industry became more bureaucratic, to approve a project it took "signatures, signatures, signatures, signatures to avoid punishment if something went wrong". The design bureaus made project proposals to the Politbureau, Khruschev, and Central Committee of the Communist Party, but the Politbureau and Central Committee "never made any decision, not even for one Ruble", without asking many Chief Designers and Academicians for their support of a project. When perhaps a hundred people who can be blamed if they are wrong, signed a document supporting the project, the Politbureau and Central Committee approve the project and it would get government funding. It was their politics to never voiced their own opinions. A chief of a department or the Minister of Defense, for instance, would not say, "I have an opinion on this project...", they instead said, "There exists an opinion", but who's opinion you never knew. Was it the Ministers, Deputy Ministers or some other aids? This practice made a Central Committee position very advantageous because they could approve anything and then never be blamed because nobody knew who to blame for mistakes. Grechko believes Soviet industry in general was much more dishonest in their business deals than western business. "With one hand behind the back" they would deceive and mislead for their own hidden agendas.
After Gagarin's flight in 1961, Korolev believed the next cosmonauts should include specialists, engineers and scientists. They, as space engineers, would be the most capable of capitalizing on the experience of space travel and seeing for themselves how the spacecraft operated in space. But, the reason lie somewhat in Korolev's own desire to have flown in space, and if he couldn't for medical reasons then at least he would enable his engineers to make the trip. There were those in the government who did not approve of this idea. Grechko says, "The Ministry of Defense and their supporters would say, 'you guys you are engineers, you duty is to design spacecraft and we are pilots, we should fly, not you.' ", but Korolev was right in the end because space has become a place for specialists and professionals to work, not just military pilots like Gagarin and the first group of cosmonauts.
When the bureau began to design spacecraft for 3 cosmonauts, Korolev said that one of the 3 crew should be Flight Engineers chosen from his young engineers. 200 to 300 of them were invited by Korolev to undergo medical testing that was the first stage in cosmonaut selection. In those times medical tests were very hard, sometimes cruel, and in April 1964 only 13 got the okay from physicians to be a cosmonaut. Fortunately, Grechko's old hand injury was either not discovered or considered acceptable. Such injuries could be serious problems for a cosmonaut candidate. Gherman Titov had hidden a once broken wrist from the doctors as it would have disqualified him. He had never had it treated properly and he regularly had to painfully exercise it to maintain its strength.
Based on Grechko's work on lunar landing probes and resulting knowledge about lunar spaceflight, he was assigned to train for the circumlunar mission. But, the L1 mission he was training for was cancelled in 1968 after the NASA Apollo 8 flight. He then was transferred to the lunar landing program, but this also was cancelled because the lunar lander was technologically inferior to the Apollo Lunar Module. Grechko believes the risk, and the expected or probable loss of life, was too high to continue the project especially in the light of the highly successful Apollo landings. The N-1 moon rocket was capable of being made reliable but without a reliable lander there could be no mission. The lunar landing mission cosmonauts were transferred to ASTP, Salyut, or Almaz programs.
Grechko then began training for missions to Salyut space stations. He was on backup crews for Soyuz 9, Soyuz 12, and his first flight finally came in 1975 with a 29 day mission to the Salyut 4 space station. He describes a typical day, "Sometimes in the morning I knew I had a very interesting scientific program and decided not to eat all the day to save time. I would get a chocolate from the food stores to eat during the work, but at the end of the day I would find the chocolate still in my pocket. Because there are to many new prospects in space, so much is interesting that I don't like eating or sleeping. I like experiments and my duty was engineering, exploring all devices of the station, but my hobby was science.". Grechko was most successful with the scientific experiments on board Salyut 6 space station in 1977-78.
For 96 days he and Yuri Romanenko were visited by two other Soviet crews, a Czechoslovak cosmonaut and the first unmanned Progress cargo spacecraft. The mission set a record for duration and after landing it took about 2 weeks to be able to function relatively normally. It was about 3 months before the doctors judged Grechko to be fully recovered. Not qualified for flight but okay for normal activities. His next position was on the backup crew for the Soyuz T-11. This positioned him to make his last flight was in 1985 on Salyut 7 which lasted 9 days. He coauthored the scientific program of his mission and he became the 'scientist' on board a space station.
One of Grechko's crew mates Viktor Savinykh described one of Grechko's experiments in his diary. Grechko and Savinykh were positioned at a port hole to photograph the various layers of the atmosphere as the sun set on the horizon. At the same time, Vladimir Dzhanibekov tracked the suns movement from a porthole while Vladimir Vasyutin had to stop work with another experiment to record the exact time of sun set. The experiment lasted less than a minute, but it took at least an hour to prepare the cameras and instruments, and position and instruct everyone properly. Savinykh also noted that the space veterans, Grechko and Dzhanibekov, were sleeping at most only three to four hours a night during the joint mission. Grechko has admitted before to not getting any sleep some nights in order to carry out his mission experiment plan, and once Dzhanibekov found him after he had fallen asleep while taking a break looking out a port hole at the Earth.
After returning the Earth, Grechko became the head of a laboratory to study the atmosphere by processing the data he had obtained from space. He is still qualified for spaceflight, but there is little chance he will fly again. After his flights and years as an engineer and scientist, Grechko believes that it is most important that humanity "...not become only consumers and loose our pioneering spirit. We must continue pioneering.".
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