Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1995 (3.3)
Pages 34-37, 82

Behind Soviet Aeronauts
Interview with General Karim Karimov

by Betty Blair

(Excerpts of this article have been translated into Azeri Latin in this issue).

Born on November 14, 1917, Karim Karimov grew up in Baku and has been involved in Soviet aeronautics from its inception after World War II. During his career, he rose to the highest position as Chairman of the State Commission, and supervised every stage of development and operation of both manned space complexes as well as unmanned interplanetary stations for the entire former Soviet Union.

Until 1987, even Azerbaijanis did not know that the man holding the Number One position in aerospace was an Azerbaijani. At televised space launchings, cameras always focused on the cosmonauts and not the person to whom they reported their readiness to carry out the mission. As Karimov was a "secreted general", he was always hidden from the camera's view; only his voice was broadcast.

General Karimov, now retired and serving as a consultant to the Mir shuttle, has recently published his first book, "The Way to Space: The Notes of the Chairman of the State Commission," (in Russian) in which he describes the entire birth and development of the aerospace industry of the former Soviet Union. The English version is scheduled to follow next year.
Here, published in English for the first time, are some of the memorable events which shaped General Karimov's career which he shared with Azerbaijan International's Executive Editor, Betty Blair, this past June in Baku.

How did the Soviet Union get involved with aerospace? What were the early beginnings?

The birth of rockets dates back to the end of World War II around 1945. Prior to that time, research of outer space had been forbidden as it was considered a waste of time. In fact, Stalin had had chief scientists, Nikolai Tupolev and Sergei Korolyov, arrested in 1938 and imprisoned for six years.

But then Stalin changed his mind when he heard that the Germans had produced rockets (surface-to-surface missiles) that were used in bombing London. Churchill, himself, informed Stalin. That's when he began to realize the potential for such technology and released his scientists to rush to Germany to study these rockets. Germany had attacked England from a distance of 300 kilometers-an unprecedented feat in the history of military warfare up to that time.

Left: End of a Good Mission. The "anonymous" (secreted) Chairman of the (Aeronautics) Commission, Karimov (right) was involved with all ceremonies when the cosmonauts were launched into space. TV cameras never showed Karimov. Photo was especially prepared for him. Mid 80s. Courtesy: Karim Karimov.

Americans were also interested in studying German rocket phenomena. In fact, they beat us there. Intelligence teams from the U.S. followed their front-line troops, moving across Germany. This enabled them to amass considerable data, design drawings, as well as actual missiles. But more importantly, the Americans gained access to some of the best minds of the technical staff of Peenemünde where the launchings had taken place. They took these scientists, including Wernher von Braun, back to America to assist in rocketry development.

Korolyov, after being released from prison, was the first Soviet scientist to be sent to Germany. I was part of the team that joined him a few months later to study FAU II rockets. We returned with various supply parts from which we managed to reconstruct ten rockets and launch seven.

It must have been exciting to have been involved with this emerging science from the very beginning.

We didn't really understand the essence of what we were doing. We had no idea what would evolve. Our task was simply to create rockets. The further they could reach, the better. Our first efforts in 1950 were directly patterned after the German R-2 Rockets, the only exception was that ours had twice the range. Ours could travel 600 kilometers. Two years later, we produced rockets with the capability of 1500 kilometers. That's when it became clear that an inter-continental range of 10,000 kilometers was only a matter of time.

Did you ever believe there would come a day when the Soviet Union and the United States would be cooperating together on space projects?

Back in the 1950s and 60s, there was such intense competition between us. Space flights are not play toys; every single aspect of their journeys is highly calculated. Consequently, the space race became symbolic of the intellect of each nation; advanced technology signaled national superiority -at least, that's how it was perceived by both sides.

Left: The "heavyweights" of Soviet Aeronautics: L-R, Current Chief of Russian Space Agency, Koptev Yuri Nikolayevich; Beregovoy Georgi Timofeyevich, current Deputy of Center for Preparation of Cosmonauts; Karimov; Mr. Afanasiev, Minister of Common Machinery Building. Karimov and Afanasiev are both retired now. Photo: mid-80s. Courtesy: Karimov.

Americans didn't believe us when we first launched Sputnik (October 4, 1957), which was the first inter-continental satellite to circle the Earth. It made a complete cycle every 96 minutes. But the world soon realized our success wasn't just propaganda. The first day, nobody paid attention. But the next day, all the newspapers wrote about it.

After the Americans began taking interest in this accomplishment, then our own media started paying attention. Coverage, prior to that time, had been minimal-more like an obituary. Nobody valued our achievement or recognized its significance. Nobody understood what we had succeeded in doing. It was really Sputnik that would usher in the Space Age. A year later, in October 1958, the U.S. was to announce the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

You were involved with the first manned spacecrafts, weren't you?

Actually, the idea of sending a human being into space originated with Korolyov. At first it seemed like a fantasy, so unbelievable. His ideas were based on experiments which had been conducted with dogs in space. Eventually, Korolyov gained the support of the government and we began building "Vostok" with the idea of sending a man into space and returning him back safely to earth.

I'll never forget the morning when we launched our first manned spacecraft-April 12, 1961. It was a beautiful day at Baykonur Launching Center in Lenninsk near the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. Cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin, and his backup, Gherman Titov, had slept very comfortably the night before-in fact, much better than we had. We knew because, unknown to them, we had monitored their sleep via sensors under their beds. Liftoff was at 9:07 a.m. and less than two hours later at 10:55 a.m., the spacecraft had already circled the earth and landed. It was an incredible moment in history.

What about the technology of joining spacecraft in orbit-how did the idea develop?

The basis for the recent joining of the Soviet (now Russian) spacecraft, "Mir", and the American spacecraft, "Atlantis", dates back to October 30, 1967, when we succeeded in docking two satellites, Kosmos 186 and Kosmos 188, together in space. This achievement signified that we could begin building orbital stations that could make profound research about the Earth, space and other planets of the solar system.

Left: Inside the Spacelab Science Module, crew members of US Atlantis and Russian Mir space craft pose for the traditional inflight portrait.(June 27-July 7, 1995. Azerbaijan space scientists were involved in designing components for the Mir. Photo NASA.

Once again, Korolyov was deeply involved in the process. He proposed that a separate chamber be built in spacecraft. Previous ships didn't have such compartments. This chamber would enable the ships to be autonomous for a greater length of time. And if an emergency arose, it could serve as a locked chamber. Unfortunately, Korolyov died in January 1966, three years before we succeeded in docking manned spacecraft.

His death was a terrible loss. It made me feel incredibly lonely. I had relied on him immensely as he was the Number One man in the industry up until that time. On every space mission, there is always incredible anxiety and pressure that something could go wrong and the mission end in failure and tragedy. With his passing, the entire responsibility fell upon me.

What stands out in your mind as significant determining points in your career in aerospace?

One of the first events occurred in 1960. My younger brother was flying back to Moscow from Vienna, on his first trip abroad. His plane crashed while landing at the Sheremetyevo Airport. Everyone on board was killed. It was such a tragic shock and so I asked my chief for a few days off to go to my brother's funeral. You have to remember we used to work seven days a week.

That's why on that fateful day, October 24, I wasn't at the Polygon to meet the high ranking State Commissioner, Field Marshal, Mitrofan Nedelin. It turns out that as they were conducting some final tests prior to launching, Nedelin refused to go down to the bunker and stood by to watch the procedure continue. But something malfunctioned, causing the rocket ignite and explode. Everyone standing around was instantly killed. Under normal circumstances, I would have been standing right beside Marshal Nedelin. It was such a mysterious twist of fate-that my brother's death, in essence, saved mine.

As far as space missions are concerned, the first tragedy occurred in 1966, when we sent up Vladimir Komarov in Soyuz I. Everything appeared normal at first, but it wasn't long before we started running into serious difficulty. By the time he started his descent, we were in trouble. The main parachute which was supposed to open at seven kilometers before landing got tangled and wouldn't open. There was nothing to break the ship's high velocity as it slammed into earth. Of course, many people believed that if Korolyov had still been alive, the accident would never have occurred.

There was talk about holding us personally accountable for his death. The chief constructor of the parachute, indeed, did lose his job, but since Brezhnev understood the nature of these projects, he didn't fire either me or Minister Afanasyev.

But it was overwhelmingly difficult to attend Komarov's funeral in Red Square. He had been one of our most experienced cosmonauts. Emotionally, I was under extreme pressure because this was the first time one of our cosmonauts had died. And yes, the West did know all about it; they even made a film about our loss.

But there's still another tragedy that I can never forget that deeply influenced our work. The year was 1971. The orbital station (Soyuz 10 and Soyuz 11) had docked and the crew, Dobrovolsky, Volkov, and Patseyev, had managed to conduct research for 24 days. When the spaceships disconnected from each other, all seemed normal. We didn't worry much when we lost connection with the crew as these thing sometimes happen and the craft was coming down without difficulty. The flight landed as expected. However, when we opened the hatch, we were shocked to find all three cosmonauts dead.

We later learned that the flight had proceeded normally until it reached a certain point in the descent. That's when the respiratory valve seems to have opened too early causing the life-sustaining air inside the ship to escape and creating sharp differences between the pressure in the atmosphere and the blood pressure of the cosmonauts. Because the men were operating in cramped quarters, they had not been wearing space suits and had no protection when the air leaked out. They had died within minutes before being able to correct the situation.

Tell me about the beginnings of work for docking in space?

In 1967, I conducted the experiment to join the two "Soyuz" spaceships. (Kosmos 186 and Kosmos 188) in orbit. The union involved electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems. We had been able to bring ships very close to each other before, but we had never actually joined them. Our success proved that an orbital station was possible.

When I reported our success to Brezhnev, he thanked us and an hour later, the Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers called me to say I had just been awarded the title of Lieutenant General. I had received the rank of General the first time when we launched Yuri Gagarin into space.

How many cosmonauts have you launched?

I haven't counted. But I was in that position 25 years and I launched all of them during that period. I almost didn't have a personal life. I used to work Saturdays and Sundays. I couldn't fall ill. I didn't have the right to get sick.

Despite all this, I'd have to admit I'm satisfied with my life except for the fact that I lost my wife very early on. She was only 50 when she died and, afterwards, I never remarried. I had met her at school; we had studied together.

Why was it that you were never shown on TV when these launching ceremonies took place?

First of all, I was a "secret" general. Previously, I had been in the sphere of strategic rockets (hydrogen bombs). Later, after being transferred to aeronautics (we had given that division the non-descript name of "Ministry of General Machinery"), they continued the tradition of keeping me secreted.

My name was first mentioned publicly in the newspaper, "Pravda", on August 7, 1987. After that, everybody started interviewing me. That was during Gorbachev's "Glasnost" and "Perestroika". Prior to that, I was known as the "nameless" or "anonymous" Chairman of the Commission.

Did Westerners know who you were?

I'm not sure that they did prior to 1987. But now they do, of course. Maybe they knew me but never said anything possibly because they knew they weren't supposed to know. A number of American journalists came to see me, and interviewed me but I'm not aware that they ever wrote anything.

Tell me about your new book.

It's called "The Way to Space: The Notes of the Chairman of the State Commission." Frankly speaking, much of the information that was made public was produced as propaganda. But after 1988, it became possible to write about me as I had been in the position to have participated in all the space flights. It was then that I was asked to write about what actually happened behind the scenes-many events had not been made known. People were curious about space missions so I offered to write about my activities and to document everything that I had experienced.

The book is very technical. In fact, it's my first published work. I wanted to write about each space flight with all its shortcomings as well as its benefits. Not a single flight went smoothly. The descriptions in the book are based on reports that I made to the State Commission. If anyone wants to discover any information about the dates, time of flights, their landings, it's all there. I tried not to hide anything. There had been rumors that Gagarin was not the first cosmonaut to go into space, but that wasn't true. I write about these kinds of things.

Now that you've retired, how do you spend your time?

I continued to hold the chairmanship of the Commission up until 1990 when I retired. These days I live on a farm and am busy with building and repairing. Since I have tools, I do everything myself. I get up at 6 o'clock, do morning exercises. I love to swim. Professionally, I continue to consult from time to time on projects such as Shuttle Mir. I've had incredible experiences in my life time, most of which I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

Some Notable Firsts in Space Made by Soviet Aeronautics

First Satellite
Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Circled the earth every 96 minutes.

First Man in Space
Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961. Orbited the earth and landed in less than 2 hours

First Woman in Space
Valentina Tereshkova on June 16, 1963. for three days.

First Three Man Crew
Komarov, Yegorov and Feoktistov on October 12, 1964. The seating arrangement was so cramped the cosmonauts didn't wear pressure suits.

First Spacewalk
Belyayev and Leonov on March 18, 1965

First Spaceflight Fatality
Vladimir Komarov on Soyuz 1 launched on April 23, 1967 (Yuri Gagarin was backup). His parachute did not open upon descent.

First Automatic Docking - Forerunner of Space Orbiting Stations
Kosmos 186 with Kosmos 188 on October 1967

First Manned Space Station
Salyut 1 launched April 19, 1971

First International Crew - Czechoslovakia
|Soyuz 28, launched on March 2, 1978

First Partial Crew Exchange
Soyuz T-14 launched September 17, 1985

First Test Flight of a Space Shuttle
VKK-1 Buran launched on November 15, 1988

From Azerbaijan International (3.3) Autumn 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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