Computing in the Soviet Space Program














Boris Emel'ianovich Vasilenko,

Chief Engineer and first deputy General

Director of the Kiev Radio Factory

in 1976-1995

Kiev Radio Factory: The First Serially Produced Onboard  Computer

by Boris Vasilenko

from Boris Malinovsky, History of Computer Science and Technology in Ukraine

Translated from the Russian by Slava Gerovitch

Malinovsky: In 1971 for the first time in the former USSR a carrier rocket with an onboard computer was tested in flight. This rocket was built at the Southern Machinery Construction Plant, and the computer was developed at the Khar'kov research-and-production association Khartron. This successful launch dispelled any remaining mistrust toward digital computer technology. The need for serial production of onboard computers arose. This task was entrusted to the Kiev Radio Factory. And this was no accident. Boris Emel'ianovich Vasilenko, first deputy General Director of the factory and a laureate of the USSR State Award, tells this story:

Vasilenko: The fact that the production association Kiev Radio Factory had been involved in the design and production of digital computer technology since the 1950s to a large extent predetermined its future development and attracted the attention of many chief designers of military technology. Our factory was organized in 1953 on the basis on a railroad repair shop. In the mid-1950s there formed a group of young specialists who were passionate computer enthusiasts. At that time our factory was launching the production of a radar system for locating mortars by calculating the point of origin of their shell trajectories. The central component of this system was an analog calculation-solving device weighing over a ton, which was transported on a tank. It was planned to switch to digital processing of trajectory measurement data in the future. The factory needed specialists for this task, and it acquired engineering college graduates from Kiev and other cities, including the Taganrog Radiotechnical Institute, which since 1956 had trained engineers specializing in mathematical calculation-solving devices and instruments. In 1957 the first group of students received practical training at the factory, and the following year, after defending their senior theses, they were offered positions at the factory. I was a member of this group. It was at that time when the idea of constructing a small digital computer was formed.

Malinovsky: The production of computer technology was organized at the factory in close connection with its main production line, and one must not separate the two. The main production included mainly guidance systems for combat missile complexes, space stations and spacecraft. Former directors of the factory (Viktor Fedorovich Slavgorodskii, Boris Pavlovich Iastrebov, Dmitrii Gavrilovich Topchii), chief engineers (Nikolai Andreevich Lukavenko, Edgar Filippovich Kostolomov, Boris Emel'ianovich Vasilenko), and chief designers (Igor' Vasil'evich Bortovoi, Anatolii Ivanovich Gudimenko, Petr Ivanovich Podoplelov) made tremendous contributions to the organization of production of these systems. The period of over 20 years in the 1970s-1980s, when Topchii, Vasilenko, and Gudimenko led the factory, was especially productive.

Vasilenko: Topchii had a special gift: he was able to recognize the main problem in any complex issue, to formulate this problem, and to organize collective efforts to solve it. Time and again we found that he was right. The spectrum of his interests ranged from concrete technical solutions for a specific product to strategic questions concerning our organization, such as housing construction for workers, the development of agricultural production, and other equally important issues. Being short-spoken, he briefly formulated the problem and proposed a solution. In some respects he reminded me of Sergei Korolev. Sergei Aleksandrovich Afanas'ev, the Minister of General Machinery Construction of the USSR, used to say: "Topchii is staunch and thorough."

In the 1970s the turn toward new basic elements - integrated circuits - began. Dmitrii Gavrilovich arranged with Kiev University (he was then a member of the Academic Council at the University) to set up a special laboratory for basic elements at our organization. Hiring for this laboratory was done only by recommendation from the University. In a short period of time he helped the laboratory to obtain modern testing equipment, and the laboratory soon engaged in extensive research and joint testing with basic elements producers. The laboratory developed and introduced a set of methods of non-destructive quality control, and received recognition at the Ministry of Electronic Industry. As a result, we obtained a powerful tool for improving the quality and reliability of basic elements; we obtained the possibility to exert influence on elements suppliers, and this had an immediate effect on the reliability of rocket complexes. Today this laboratory became an independent organization, and it continues its work to supply highly reliable basic elements for the space industry of Ukraine.

The production association Kiev Radio Factory included a design bureau - a powerful group of engineers capable of solving the most difficult scientific and production problems. The bureau helped many organizations - the developers of complex systems - to carry out the design and manufacturing of new rocket and space technologies successfully and on time. For a long time - from 1967 to 1988 - the bureau was headed by Anatolii Ivanovich Gudimenko, a talented engineer, a holder of the candidate degree in engineering, and a laureate of the Lenin Award.

In the Soviet years the rocket-space industry of Ukraine specialized in the construction of combat strategic missile complexes of all types, whether based in silos, on rail, or at sea. The production association Kiev Radio Factory was assigned the development and batch production of control systems for many of these complexes, from the well-known "first product" (the R-12 rocket) to the most advanced strategic rocket R-36M2 (in foreign classification the SS-18; in the West it was nicknamed "the Satan"). Control systems were usually developed at the research-and-production association Khartron, and delivered to the Southern Machinery Construction Plant. The creative cooperation between these organizations and the Yuzhnoe Design Bureau resulted in the creation of a powerful technological complex, which successfully carried out all assignments. For a long time these organizations were headed by outstanding leaders - Mikhail Kuz'mich Yangel, Vladimir Fedorovich Utkin, Aleksandr Maksimovich Makarov, and Vladimir Grigor'evich Sergeev. All four were twice awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labor, and laureates of the Lenin Award and the State Award of the Soviet Union and Ukraine. They had huge responsibility for the assigned projects and also for their workers - almost a 100,000 collective - and a huge army of suppliers from various branches of industry.

The first calculating devices were developed under the conditions of very high pace of work and strict technical requirements. Transistor-magnetic cells were used as the basic elements of these calculating devices, which carried out calculations for a number of units - the apparatus for automatic launching of a rocket along the given trajectory, the devices of regulation of apparent speed, and the programming and temporal control device - which controlled the engines and ensured the delivery of the rocket to the destination point. In
all these systems the stabilization of the rocket was carried out by a special device - an automatic analog stabilization device. Only with the transition to onboard computers all control algorithms were implemented in the digital format.

Malinovsky: In 1963-64, the design bureau of Kiev Radio Factory worked on digital procedural equipment for the control system of the 8K67 carrier rocket, and later this project served as the foundation for the development of the control system for the third stage of the Cyclone rocket carrier. The latter system had such features as the binary/quinary code for automatic error detection, two-channel redundancy instead of the traditional triplication of equipment, support for continuous operation during a 2.5-hour rocket flight without any special comfortable conditions. At that time (in 1968) there were no onboard computers capable of working continuously for such a long time in such difficult conditions. The onboard computers that were being designed for combat missile complexes were expected to function only 10-15 minutes. The construction of onboard equipment at Kiev Radio Factory made it possible to create ground computing complexes with high degree of automation in error detection, in pre-launch preparation, and in the launching of a rocket. In the period from 1986 to 1996 alone there were over 100 launches of the Cyclone rocket. In 1980 a group of specialists from Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev, and Khar'kov received the USSR State Award for the development of this highly reliable complex. This group included B.E. Vasilenko and deputy chief designer of the production association Kiev Radio Factory A.N. Pulemetov.

On August 31, 1995. the Cyclone carrier rocket launched into orbit the Ukrainian spacecraft Sich-1 for observation of the Earth. With the launch of this spacecraft, Ukraine joined the group of nations engaged in space exploration.

The production association Kiev Radio Factory aimed its further development toward the production of equipment for space exploration. In 1966 it started the production of a unique onboard complex named Igla for search, mutual orientation, approach and docking of space vechicles. This complex carried out the first ever automatic docking of piloted and pilotless spacecraft and space stations. There have 150 Igla units produced in total. In 1985 the Igla was succeeded by the Kurs, a more advanced and reliable system, which is working now on the Mir-Soyuz-Progress complex.

The control systems for the piloted space stations Salyut-2, Salyut-3, and Salyut-5, and for the automatic spacecraft Cosmos-1870 and Almaz-1 were also manufactured at Kiev Radio Factory. 

From left: Boris Vasilenko, cosmonaut Gherman Titov, and deputy director of the Baikonur cosmodrome A.M. Voitenko at the Kiev Radio Factory in the 1970s

Vasilenko: In 10-12 years after the development of the first calculating devices in rocket industry they were succeeded by onboard computers based on integrated circuits. The first serially produced onboard computer on integrated circuits for the 15A14 rocket complex was released by Kiev Radio Factory in 1973. It was the time when this country mastered new basic elements, integrated circuits. The development of integrated circuits in the USSR Ministry of Electronic Industry was extremely difficult and troublesome. The capacity of factories in Voronezh and Zaporozhye was insufficient; the reliability of circuits initially was low; there were tons of other problems, such as the problem with static electricity.

The development of this computer, designed by Khartron, and the organization of its serial production (up to one hundred units per year) required unprecedented efforts from all participants. The name of the first machine - 15L579 (the "customer index") - stuck in memory forever.

To be fair, one must note that the development and production of the 15L579 onboard computer and the control system (designed at Khartron) for the 15A30 rocket (designed at the Moscow Central Design Bureau of Machinery Construction; chief designer Vladimir Chelomei) was simultaneously carried out at the Khar'kov production association Monolith, where Oleg Nikolaevich Baklanov worked for a long time, first as chief engineer and later as general director. The latent competition between the two firms, Kiev Radio Factory and Monolith, cooperation in production and mutual support facilitated the successful development of this new technology.

The development and production of onboard computers for rocket and space systems in Ukraine was also carried out by the Khar'kov firms Kommunar and Elektroapparatura, based on designs of the Moscow institute led by Nikolai Alekseevich Pilyugin. In 1973, I participated in a meeting at the Central Party Committee where the problem of quality and reliability of integrated circuits was discussed. At that meeting, Pilyugin formulated the practical tasks for bringing the reliability of basic elements to a high level. His institute played a leading role in this regard, and we listened to him and learned from his highly respectable organization.

The Ukraine Party leader V.V. Shcherbitskii (left) and Yu.N. Yel'chenko at Kiev Radio Factory

Vasilenko: Pilyugin's institute developed a number of control systems for rocket and space complexes using onboard computers, including those for the Zenith space rocket complex (this complex was designed and developed at the Yuzhnoe Design Bureau and at the Southern Machinery Construction Plant). The control system for the Zenith carrier rocket is currently manufactured by the Kommunar production association. This rocket plays a central role in the international commercial project called Sea Launch, in which Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and Norway participate. 

Malinovsky: Boris Emel'janovich Vasilenko has not mentioned his own role in the organization of on-time serial production of onboard computers. At that time he was director of a laboratory at the Design Bureau of Kiev Radio Factory. This laboratory was bearing the burden of preparations for serial production. In 1973 he became deputy director of the Design Bureau in charge of this production. His description of the principles of design and construction of onboard computers became the handbook for young specialists coming to the factory.

In the 1980s Khartron carried out one of its largest projects - the control system for the Energia heavy-lift carrier rocket; while Kiev Radio Factory created a powerful production base and manufactured experimental and regular sets of control system equipment. The selfless work of specialists from these two organizations and the high reliability of this control system ensured the success of the launches of the Energia carrier rocket with the Skif spacecraft (on 5/15/1987) and with the Buran spacecraft (on 7/15/1988).

By the early 1980s the production capacity and the scientific and technical potential of the factory were sufficiently large, which permitted the simultaneous production of several new, unique complexes: the control system for the SS-18 missile, the Kurs docking system, the Salyut-5B onboard computer for the Mir space station, several parts of the control system for the Energia carrier rocket, the control system for a sea-based rocket complex, and a navigation system for a railroad-based rocket complex.

Vasilenko: Sometimes one can hear the opinion that in the past it was easy and simple to do our work. This is not true: there was indeed the opportunity to work, but problems and difficulties were enormous, even though people knew and wrote little about this because of the secrecy of this information.

Those were years of the intense work, years of research, victories and failures, years of implementation of daring technical projects. For example, the creation of a missile complex with the 15A18M missile ("the Satan") was carried out in a very short time. Its control system was a modernized version of the control system from a previous missile, but it required the design of totally new devices, including an onboard digital computer.

The chronology of the 15A18M missile development is as follows:

  • March 1986: the beginning of flight tests;
  • March 1988: the end of these tests
  • August 1988: the missile complex is accepted as a combat weapon. 

It is not widely known that in early 1987 substantial changes in the design of the control system became necessary in order to use basic elements of higher quality. At that time, missiles were already undergoing test flights.

In spring and summer a series of meetings was organized with the participation of ministers, the leadership of the Strategic Missile Forces, and the directors of design and production organizations involved in this project. These meetings resulted in the decision to launch the development and production of a new control system in the shortest period of time simultaneously at two firms: the experimental production plant of the research-and-production association Khartron and the production association Kiev Radio Factory. To coordinate these activities a special operational technical group was set up. This group was unusual in one respect: for that period, the heads of two military organizations and designers were subordinated to the chief engineer of a production firm.

In late September 1987 the group began its work. They worked seven days a week. Every day at 6 pm, including Saturday and Sunday, a session was held to analyze the state of development and production, to hear reports from the developers, department heads, supply department representatives, military representatives, and others. No formal records were kept; everyone wrote down one's tasks and gave a report by the deadline. The same pace of work was also taken up by the developers at the experimental production plant of Khartron.

It was collective "brainstorming." This practice proved totally justified: the formalities were reduced to minimum, the quality work did not suffer, and the documentation for serial production was ready on time. By the end of 1987 Southern Machinery Construction Plant already produced the first complete sets of new equipment. All the required tests were passed by the deadline.

The next step was in 1975-76: the development and organization of serial production of the control system for the 3M37 sea-based missile complex. It led to the development of new technologies and to the construction of a production facility working under vacuum hygienic conditions (the so-called "hermetic zone" shops). At the basis of this system lay the onboard computer called TsVM-7 or S-4010. This machine was installed both on the missile and on board the ship, where it helped carry out procedural checks of various systems of the missiles installed on submarines, and also the preparations and the actual launch of missiles according to the given program (a single launch or a consecutive launch of several missiles).

The work on other complexes, including one for the Mir space station, was not less intense. The creation of this station was distinguished by the use of most recent achievements of domestic science and engineering, especially, of instrument making. Even now, after ten years of operation, this complex strikes one with its perfection and innovations. It was not an accident that American experts put forward the requirement to use elements, systems, and units already tested on Mir as a condition for the creation of a new international space station Alpha. Among these units were the Kurs system for approach and docking, the Salyut-5B onboard computer complex, the S-3 optical electronic system of precise orientation of the Kiev Arsenal factory, devices and systems of the Khar'kov firms Monolith, Kommunar, and Elektroapparatura, and of other Ukrainian enterprises.

The story of the Salyut-5 onboard computer was not simple. The Mir station was launched into orbit in February 1986 with the Argon-12S onboard computer designed by an organization from Moscow. This machine carried out minimal tasks related to the control of the station itself; it was not suited for the expansion of the space complex with new functional modules. At that time the Salyut-5 computer was passing ground tests at the organization that designed it and also at a serial production factory. There was a moment when its fate was decided at a session of the board of the Ministry of the General Machinery Construction. A group of specialists from the research-and-production association Energia and from some ministries argued in favor of continuing the use of the Argon machine, since it was already an innovation in space station equipment. The Salyut-5 machine, however, surpassed all known domestically produced onboard computers by its technical parameters, and it could support any configurations of station and problem-solving in the future.

Gennadii Yakovlevich Gus'kov, the chief designer and director of the ELAS institute (of the Ministry of Electronic Industry), and a group of the institute's specialists - the developers of the Salyut-5 - were invited to this session, and Gus'kov spoke. The minister S.A. Afanas'ev called me to the stand too and asked a direct question: Are you confident the machine will work? The answer was affirmative. The support by the general designer of the research-and-production association Energia Yurii Pavlovich Semenov and by Energia control system specialists led by Vladimir Nikolaevich Branets ensured the final success.

Time has passed, and cosmonauts replaced the Argon-12S machine with the Salyut-5 delivered on board the station by the Progress cargo ship. The small onboard computer weighing 22 kg controlled the movements of a giant 240-ton object.

The Salyut-5 computer found applications in other space vehicles as well. Remarkably, after all these years nobody has been able to create a more powerful and reliable onboard computer that would be serially produced for use in spacecraft.

Today young people have come to the leadership of our production association. Huge amount of work is needed to adapt production to the new economic regime. We are convinced, however, that the existing traditions of our production association, the technological capacity of production, the beginnings of conversion and other programs, plus the support for domestic manufacturers, would help a revival of this enterprise in the interest of the entire economy and people of Ukraine.

site last updated 16 December 2002 by Slava Gerovitch