Computing in the Soviet Space Program












The DNIEPER computer

Southern Machinery Construction Plant: Computer Testing of Rocket Engines

by Boris Malinovsky

from History of Computer Science and Technology in Ukraine

Translated from the Russian by Slava Gerovitch

The development of automated systems for testing rockets and rocket complexes began at the Institute of Cybernetics of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in the mid 1960s. A group of researchers from the Measurements Laboratory of the Rocket Engine Test Department of the Dnepropetrovsk Southern Machinery Construction Plant of the USSR Ministry of General Machinery Construction asked us to help automate the recording and processing of data from rocket engine tests. Tests were performed on a special stand. The rocket engine was firmly attached to a powerful base. After start-up numerous gauges that were attached to the engine sent signals to tens of arrow-pointer indicators, which occupied a whole wall in the laboratory. To record their measurements laboratory researchers had to take photographs of this wall at certain intervals. Later they studied the photographs, noted the positions of arrows on the indicators, and determined what signals were coming from the gauges during the tests. The subsequent processing of these measurements' results took weeks.

A year earlier Boris Malinovsky's department of the Institute of Cybernetics had designed and developed an automated system for thermal testing of rocket heads for one of the organizations of the space center in Podlipki near Moscow. This system was based on the Dnieper computer, which had been designed in this department and produced at the Computer and Control Machines Plant in Kiev. This computer had a special unit that maintained connection with the monitored object. This unit automatically requested and received information from sensors, and the computer processed test data showing heat resistance of rocket heads. Before we started, we had a tour of the test stand. It was located in a low, not very big, ferroconcrete bunker that contained a rocket head. Powerful fans created dense air flow that simulated the rocket's entry into the earth atmosphere. The bunker had an observation window, through which one could see the rocket head heated up to redness. This spectacle and especially the roar of the air flow made a strong impression. The task of automating measurements in this case appeared simple enough, since the gauges were all of the same type, their number was not high, and the algorithm of data processing had been prepared by testers themselves.

The new task (at the Southern Machinery Construction Plant) was much more complex. Gauges were very numerous and had varying output signals: pneumatic, electric, frequency, and others. The algorithm of data processing had two parts: express-analysis and the final processing. And the test stand was much more impressive. It was located in a huge ferroconcrete building without windows, shaped like a giant overturned glass. When an engine started inside, its powerful rumble was well audible from the outside, despite the thickness of the walls.

For two years Malinovsky's department (the researchers V.M. Egipko, V.B. Reutov, N.S. Stashkova, and others) and workers from the Measurements Laboratory of the Plant developed and debugged an automated system for rocket engine test measurements and data processing, and eventually it began to work. This had great significance for the Plant: the testing of engines was accelerated and simplified.

In the early 1970s a new task came. Malinovsky's department together with the Special design bureau of the Institute of Cybernetics began working on the space simulator for a test stand for the Buran spacecraft and other space vehicles. This time the system appeared even more complex: besides measurements, it was necessary to control the movement of an artificial "sun," the position of a tested object on the stand, and other devices simulating conditions existing in space. As usual, the work started with an acquaintance with the "object of automation." The stand was placed in a ferroconcrete building, approximately 10 floors high, in a forest location not far from Moscow. Inside the building there were no dividers, only some balcony-like bases on which equipment necessary for the simulation and carrying out the tests was placed. It took several years of intense work for the Special design bureau of the Institute of Cybernetics (to which this task was eventually assigned) to complete an automated system consisting of many computers. This work was finished under the leadership of A.A. Timashov.

When visiting organizations that produced rocket technology, one would be first struck by the very scale of their production. The first visit to the Southern Machinery Construction Plant left the same impression. The Plant's history is told in the book entitled Dneprovskii raketno-kosmicheskii tsentr by V. Pappo-Korystin, V. Platonov, and V. Pashchenko (published by the M.K. Iangel' Special Design Bureau Yuzhnoye, the Southern Machinery Construction Plant, 1994). As it turned out, this Plant was originally built to produce trucks. The construction began soon after Dnepropetrovsk was liberated from the German Fascist occupiers. The war was not over yet, and the automobile giant was born in incredibly difficult circumstances. In just five years it began producing an experimental batch of powerful DAZ trucks, which showed excellent operational characteristics.

The beginning of the Cold War abruptly changed the fortunes of this Plant: it switched to the production of rockets. In just one year (!) the first serially produced rockets were made and sent to the testing area at Kapustin Yar. These few words summarize an unprecedented amount and intensity of work of the Plant's workers and its leadership. This was how things were done in the first postwar decades, and this experience shaped the style and traditions of work at this huge Plant - the producer of four generations of rocket complexes, the bases of power of the former Soviet Union and the guarantors of a strategic parity with the US.

From left: the chief designer of the SS-18 missile S.I. Us, the Minister of General Machinery Construction S.A. Afanas'ev, unknown, and the chief designer of the Design Bureau Yuzhnoye S.N. Koniukhov.

The rocket complex Z-36M2 (or 15A18M, in foreign classification the SS-18, "the Satan"), which formed the basis of the strength of the Strategic Rocket Forces of the former Soviet Union and which had no peer in military rocketry anywhere in the world, became the final word in the history of the Cold War. The existence of this complex pushed the opposite sides toward signing a treaty placing limits on strategic weapons.

Together with the Southern Machinery Construction Plant, many other Ukrainian enterprises worked on the construction of rocket complexes: the Khar'kov research-and-production association Khartron, the production association Kiev Radio Factory, and the Khar'kov enterprises Monolit, Kommunar, and Elektroapparatura. Khartron developed control systems for rocket complexes, including onboard computers, while other enterprises were involved in their serial production. Since the late 1960s these organizations, in essence, formed a single industrial complex. They cooperated among themselves very efficiently and with utmost responsibility, which also contributed to the high pace of their work.

The first rocket complexes used analog computers; later some simplest digital computing devices were employed. However, the construction of advanced rocketry required powerful onboard computers.

site last updated 16 December 2002 by Slava Gerovitch