Buran was ahead of time: an interview with Professor of MAI to “Scientific Russia”

13 December 2018

Buran was ahead of time: an interview with Professor of MAI to “Scientific Russia”

Oleg Mikhailovich Alifanov, Head of Department 601 "Space systems and rocket science", Professor of Moscow Aviation Institute, told the “Scientific Russia” media resource about the history of the Aerospace Institute of MAI and the role of the university in the development of the national space industry.

Oleg Mikhailovich, we are at the oldest department of the Aerospace Institute, with which the aerospace education in MAI once began. How it was?

- It all began in 1959, almost 60 years ago. It was then that our department appeared, which was called "Design and construction of aircraft”. And nine years later, in 1968, a faculty was organized to train engineers for the rocket and space industry. At the time when this structure was created, the secrecy conditions of this subject were in force. What was meant by the phrase "aircraft" - it was not entirely clear. It was created at the aircraft building department, where I studied since 1958. And here in the third year a competition was announced: whoever will study with high marks for a year will continue to study in this new department. Our student group tried, and we were among the first students. I graduated fr om MAI in 1964, becoming a graduate of this department, where I later worked all my life - including the Head of the department since 1990 and 25 years since 1987, as Dean. And our Aerospace Institute this year celebrated a half-century anniversary.

But now your department is called differently?

- Now - "Space systems and rocket science", which fully reflects its focus. Recently, the Aerospace Faculty has received the status of the Aerospace Institute as part of MAI.

It is interesting that one of the initiators of the department was Sergey Korolev, who considered this area very important. And his closest associate, later successor in the position of chief designer and head of the design bureau Vasily Mishin, headed the department and led its activities for more than 30 years.

I must say, Sergei Korolev himself graduated fr om Bauman Moscow State Technical University. Bauman, and his scientific supervisor was great Soviet aircraft designer Andrey Tupolev. Years later, as you know, Korolev was repressed, found himself in far Gulag camps, was brought to a critical health condition, in fact was dying. His mother fought for him, wrote letters to Lavrentiy Beria, Stepan Grizodubov and Boris Gromov to make efforts to get him out of there, but it did not work.

Andrey Tupolev at that time was also convicted, but he worked in the so-called "sharashka"(design bureau of closed type for convicted scientists), in Lefortovo. And together with him there was Sergey Eger, his first deputy for the design part in the bureau. He told me a story that, according to him, helped to rescue Korolev fr om prison in Kolyma. You can assume that this is first-hand information.

So, Andrey Tupolev was delivered to Beria, who orders him to urgently engage in a front-line bomber project similar to one of American planes (in my opinion, Eger the four-engine bomber Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was mentioned). Tupolev replied: “Why should I do like the Americans? I can make my own aircraft.”- “No, now there is no time, you need to repeat such plane.” Then Tupolev said: "I will not do it, because I have no one with whom." - “What do you mean? Why not with whom? ”- “Because all specialists are imprisoned.” Tupolev was a man who could afford to say that.

In general, Beria said: "Come on, write a list of all you need for this job." Tupolev called Eger and asked him to compile this list. Got something about 20 people. Tupolev looked, said: "Yes, everything is correct." I thought a little: “Now, I will add one more,” and wrote “Korol”. Then he thought a little and corrected – “Korolev”. “Initials”, - he said, - “I do not remember. He was my graduate student. Very good, sharp guy, he would be useful here.” This list helped to save Sergey Korolev, the founder of Russian space program and designer of first Soviet spacecraft.

 Awesome story!

- Yes, Eger was convinced that it was this that played the main role in order for Korolev to be released. Although, it must be said, he was still considered to be convicted, and as such was later transferred to Omsk, to the design bureau, known as the “Tupolev Sharashka”.

As you know, the world is small - it so happened that my father, Mikhail Alifanov, worked with him in Omsk, who in 1941 with his family (I was only six months) was evacuated to Omsk, just to the Tupolev Design Bureau and the plant. The father, of course, did not know then with whom had a chance to work. And only after the death of Sergey Korolev was told on TV about his role in practical astronautics, when my father suddenly said: “But I knew him.” I was surprised: “Fr om where?” He replied: "I was the deputy head of the metalworking department, and Korolev was the deputy head of the preparatory production department."

He remembered how the meetings were held when he was brought there: two “candles”, so called convoy soldiers, stood outside the door, and then he was again taken away. “But,” - he said, - “he made a somewhat strange impression. It was 1942, third year of the II World War, and Korolev, during a smoke break, suddenly began to talk about Mars, about future space missions.” They thought that the conclusion somehow influenced the psycho, but it turned out that even in difficult wartime and in such working conditions, Korolev’s dream about space manifested itself. Here's how in life everything sometimes resonates.

Yes, it is amazing. So, you graduated fr om MAI and came to this department. What did you begin to do?

When I was on the third or fourth year of study, I was attracted by reusable space technology, namely, orbital aircraft. We had a student club, where we first chose an aerodynamic theme, some general parameters, calculated the descent trajectory, determined which other tasks needed to be solved. And then I took this topic as the main theme of my graduation thesis. It was dedicated specifically to reusable space aircraft. Then I called it a “winged descent vehicle”. So this topic is very close to me since then. 


Here, by the way, one more amazing detail. Sergey Korolev, as I said, supported our department and even sent to work his main deputies at the department for part-time work, without separation fr om the main production. Vasily Mishin, his right hand, first deputy, headed the department for many years. Deputy Korolev on missile designs Sergey Okhapkin gave us lectures on this topic. Anatoly Abramov - launch complexes. Mikhail Melnikov - engines. The leading specialists of the OKB-1 (First Design Bureau) also read ballistics, the dynamics of the structures. For many, this was an unexpected decision. Some of them later said that when Korolev called them in this issue, they were lost: “How can I lecture? I am overburdened so that I do not have a minute of free time. And in general, I do not know how to lecture, and I will not.” - "You will," – said them Korolev. 

And then all these wonderful people and outstanding specialists were involved in the educational process and gave many years to the training of engineering personnel for the rocket and space industry. And, frankly, such a level of teaching, such enthusiasm and responsibility, as in those times, I do not recall. Particularly stood out, of course, Mishin, who read a two-semester design course. He chose Saturday for lecturing and always came on that day. Sometimes, when he went on a business trip to Baikonur or Kapustin Yar, someone from OKB- 1 sent specialist for his replacement. And so, basically, he read the entire course himself. And all the other experts from the OKB-1 too.

Oleg Mikhailovich, you founded a new scientific direction, the scientific school "Modeling, identification and diagnostics of heat and mass transfer processes in rocket and space technology and energy-intensive technologies." The status of the school was recognized by the Grant Board under the President of the Russian Federation in 2003 and was subsequently confirmed in 2006, 2008, 2010. What is this science school? 

- It began when, by the way, we were entrusted by the Royal Organization to carry out work related to the thermal regimes of the descent vehicles. First of all, research on how thermal protection works, how to determine its main characteristics. For this, it was necessary to create gas-dynamic plasma installations for experimental modeling of the conditions of heating materials at entry into the atmosphere. It was necessary to determine the heat fluxes to the surface of the sample, and the task was to do it in a non-stationary mode. Heat loads vary in time, which corresponds to the situation during descent into the atmosphere. The ship is inhibited, somewhere they have a peak, then they decrease.

And the heat flux is a physical quantity that cannot be directly measured. One can only determine its consequence, and the consequence is temperature. For example, let's say a sample is on the stand, we can measure only the temperature, and then not on the surface, but inside, because the surface is destroyed by high temperatures.

If you make, for example, a heat flow sensor, wh ere the temperature inside the sensing element is measured, then its operation time was very short, literally two or three seconds, and then it starts to collapse - the jet temperature was up to seven thousand degrees. But it is possible, using these temperature measurements, to approach the heated surface from inside the sensitive element and determine the desired values ​​of the heat flux. This is the so-called inverse problem. By measuring the effect, we determine the cause. In the mathematical sense, this formulation of the inverse problem is incorrect (unstable). But as a result of the development of special mathematical methods, we succeeded in this, and a new scientific direction began to develop - identification and diagnostics of heat exchange processes by solving inverse problems.

The same with the thermophysical properties of materials. Suppose you need to determine the coefficient of thermal conductivity depending on the temperature, and it is for the conditions in which this material will work. This can also be done by solving the inverse problem based on measurements of the temperature inside the sample. We have developed this approach for the simultaneous experimental determination of a certain set of thermophysical parameters — thermal conductivity, heat capacity, internal heat source, degree of blackness of the material surface, and so on. The theory and methods developed by us for solving inverse problems of heat transfer and thermal physics are now quite widely used in the works of other authors both in our country and abroad.

For what kind of projects was it useful?

 - At first, we processed such data for the nose cone of the N-1 launch vehicle and the Soyuz descent vehicle based on flight test results. At first, not everything was clear with heat protection; it was overweight, just in case the reserves ratios were too large. You know, by the way, how was the first satellite launched? Then, after all, the head parts of the R-7 rocket did not reach the ground, they collapsed in flight — thermal protection burned through. And therefore a group of researchers was created under the leadership of academician Georgiy Petrov, as soon as possible to deal with this problem. A rocket, however, was already existed, it was intended for the next flight test. And then Sergey Korolev, who was always thinking about space exploration, decided to use this rocket to launch the first artificial satellite of the Earth. There was no pathos about this. Vasiliy Mishin said: "We made the first satellite, we launched it, and when I came to work the next day, they brought me a pile of clippings from our and foreign press, wh ere it was called a breakthrough into space, the beginning of the space age, and so on.


But so it was?

- So it was, but not for them. They simply worked, created a rocket shield of our country. By the way, in our department worked the designer of this first satellite, Mikhail Tikhonravov, very famous person who started in the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion with Korolev. He delivered magnificent lectures, in fact was the ideological leader of the student space design bureau (SSDB), and under his leadership a number of interesting projects were made. Then he died, unfortunately. And the SSDB of MAI worked and launched the world's first student artificial satellite of the Earth. That was in 1978, when universities did not launch satellites. And we did not launch the next satellite along with the main space object, like the first one. He was taken to the Salyut-7 orbital station, and from there graduate of our department, cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev, brought him into space. This was also the first time in the history of astronautics, when one artificial body was launched from another. Then, several small scientific satellites were created and launched at the department. Last year, along with the main spacecraft Canopus, nanosatellite Iskra-MAI-85 was also put into orbit.

Oleg Mikhailovich, this year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the launch of the unique domestic reusable space shuttle "Buran", in the development of which you also took direct part. Tell us how it was.

 - Yes, it is, but more than 1,000 organizations, more than a million people, took part in the development of Buran. We had a piece of work. It all started with the deputy Gleb Lozino-Lozinsky, the general director of the NPO “Molniya” Lev Voinov. Under his jurisdiction, as a deputy, were thermal issues, thermal protection. It was one of the central problems, because at that time nobody could do reusable heat protection. And we have shown that it is possible to quite successfully use an inverse problem apparatus for this purpose to identify heat exchange conditions and the thermal characteristics of thermal protection materials. Then in MAI, at our department with the support of NPO "Molniya" a research laboratory was organized, it was called "Thermal diagnostics of the material."

We gathered our young graduates there, gambling, provocative, ready to work day and night, and indeed, in the end we managed to make our contribution to the solution of a number of issues related to research and working out reusable tile thermal protection. The Bor-4 demonstrators, which were being prepared in parallel with the development of Buran, involved a diagnostic thermal system developed in the laboratory. These devices were designed specifically for the development of thermal regimes of an orbital aircraft under real descent conditions in the atmosphere. On them were the same heat-shielding tiles, which were then on the "Buran".

Our proposal to install special, so-called heat-measuring heat-shielding tiles, equipped with micro-temperature sensors, was adopted. The technology of their manufacture from standard material TZMK-10 was developed and outwardly they did not differ from standard tiles. Such experimental equipment and the apparatus for solving inverse problems developed by us made it possible to obtain interesting and useful results for practice, corresponding to the natural regimes of the Buran's hypersonic flight in the atmosphere. In particular, for the first time for such devices, it was possible to restore a temporary change in the density of the heat flux to the surface of the Bor-4 apparatus along the entire descent trajectory at the sites of installation of “heat-measuring” tiles.

That is, also a fundamental scientific problem.

- Yes, we not only measured the heat fluxes, but also restored the thermophysical properties of TZMK-10 in real conditions of heating the tiles, and also wanted to understand what heat transfer takes place in the gaps between the tiles. All this was done together with the NPO "Molniya", Gromov Flight Research Institute and the All-Union Institute of Refractory Materials. But we were the ideologues of this work. All four launches of Bor-4 vehicles were our heat-measuring tiles, which were a key source for obtaining initial quantitative data for further processing using algorithms for solving heat exchange inverse problems and obtaining unique results that confirmed the validity of the design solutions for the thermal protection of the Buran orbital plane". By the way, we were very pleased and honored to receive from NPO “Molniya”, signed by Gleb Lozino-Lozinsky, an implementation act, which confirmed the high efficiency of our work, the results of which allowed the company to save a single Bor-4 launch.

Probably, it was very appreciable money?

- It made a strong impression on me then, and I still remember this figure - 25 million rubles. Those Soviet rubles. A lot of money.

How do you scientifically evaluate the Buran project?

- From a scientific point of view, this is a great achievement. Despite the fact that by that time the American Shuttles had been flying for a long time, many issues had to be solved by themselves. “Buran” is not at all a repetition of the American project, as some people think. If we talk about the same heat-shielding tile, it was a unique domestic development. Before that, it was only known that the Americans had ceramic, that it was based on quartz, and then they had to think how to do it themselves.

I heard that sand for quartz was brought from Brazil in tons, and then they found something suitable in our country.

- Yes, our geologists have found the purest quartz sand in Central Asia, and on the basis of it our technology was developed. When subsequently analyzed all the characteristics of heat-shielding materials TZMK, it turned out that the developed technology of their manufacture, implemented in NPO "Technology", firstly, is cheaper than the US, and secondly, gives better results, smaller variations of thermal parameters from tile to tile, and provides high reliability. This was confirmed at the first, but unfortunately, the last flight of the Buran.

We are talking only about the thermal protection system, and in fact many other unique technologies were created during the development of this project.

- Yes, new materials have appeared, and not only heat-shielding. New steels, alloys based on titanium, aluminum, and others. A completely unique system of complete digital control was developed at that time. By the way, the first cellular telephone system was also developed and implemented.

After all, Buran flew in automatic mode. As far as I know, he sat down so softly that even the parachutes did not immediately fire off.

- Yes, it was an amazing fit, everyone remembers it. There was a gusting, heavy wind. An unexpected approach to observing this historical event, the plane made an incomprehensible maneuver at first glance, and only then landed safely - only two or three meters away from the central zone. It just worked its digital automatic landing system correctly and as a result, Buran lowered its speed to an acceptable level and landed safely. That is, as he was instructed, and executed.

Oleg Mikhailovich, why is such a wonderful, unique project had been released only once? 

- There were several reasons. Firstly, space objects as its payload of such a scale - up to one hundred and five tons, were not in sufficient quantity for any regular use. The Americans made their shuttle to fly regularly into space, bring satellites and other objects there, "repair" expensive spacecraft, and, if necessary, return something to Earth. Say, pick up some valuable satellite, fix it and start it again.

In this way, they repaired the Hubble several times.

- Absolutely. But there were very few tasks that would require impressive capabilities of our Buran. He flew, as you know, only once in 1988. Historical, if I may say so, time was not the best for such a huge project. As in the case of the Shuttle, it was supposed to significantly reduce the cost of removing one kilogram of cargo into Earth’s orbit due to multiple use. But these expectations were not fulfilled. By the way, this factor was the main reason that the Americans closed this project. 

Perestroika began.

- Perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the “Buran” was primarily created as a military object in response to the potential use of the Shuttle for military purposes. After the destruction of the Soviet Union, the country's leadership decided to disarm and “make friends” forever with our recent opponents. It is clear that this did not work and should not have happened. But the reasons came together economic and political, and the project "Buran" was minimized.

So, the money and efforts of many people have been wasted, how do you think?

- Of course, not in vain. Such large-scale projects provide a useful way out and the introduction of the developed technologies in a variety of industries. Unfortunately, then we somehow did not know how to do this, to manage this process. Unlike the Americans. Suffice it to recall their very expensive and successfully implemented lunar project "Saturn-Apollo." In the 1960s, a record amount was spent on its implementation, almost $ 25 billion. But they managed to repeatedly recoup this money, first of all, due to, as they say, spin-offs, in our conversion - introduction of the developed technologies into other aerospace projects and industries. The same was true for the Space Shuttle project. Of course, this was and is being done in our country, but, unfortunately, not so effectively. A lot of new technologies created at that time, metal and non-metallic materials, production equipment are waiting for their introduction. After all, about 650 new efficient technological processes and more than 80 new materials were developed. It is a storehouse for a wide variety of applications.

Where exactly are the technologies and materials that have been developed for Buran used? 

- Of course, they are used in space and aviation technology, in many technological processes, such as, for example, electron beam welding, cost-effective soldering with silver-free solders, precision casting, etc. These processes appeared during the creation of "Buran". Then, of course, they were introduced in other industries, but, as I said, it is still not enough. As for the materials that appeared during the creation of Buran, these are high-temperature materials, in particular, high-alloy heat-resistant steels, especially heat-resistant ceramics and heat-insulating materials, including flexible, high-temperature antioxidant coatings, various types of sealants, adhesives, lubricants, etc. etc. And all this has found and will still find its useful application in a wide variety of industries.

Oleg Mikhailovich, we began with the fact that your thesis work was a reusable spacecraft. Do you think reusable space technology will make the future of mankind? 

- I think that here we must approach reasonably. Somewhere it will, of course, be required, but somewhere not. If we are talking about Buran, let's not forget that this is a very expensive project. We must always think about profitability. By the way, Vasiliy Mishin was against this project precisely because of its economic expediency. Mishin believed that the time was not suitable for such projects.

That is, "Buran" was ahead of time?

- Yes. However, this does not mean that such projects have no prospects. Reusable aerospace technology, of course, will be implemented, but taking into account practical feasibility. By the way, when they were making the “Energia” rocket, the machine, the “Energia-M”, was also conceived of a smaller dimension. Perhaps this is a matter of the future. Work on reusable rockets is being held also in our country. They will certainly find their application. But maybe it will be done a little differently. For example, if we talk about "Energia", there it was supposed to save in the future both the upper stages and even the central part of the rocket itself with the help of parachutes.

By the way, in our department in the 70s, and in the 80s, projects of reusable rockets were developed with the possibility of returning the booster blocks to the base from which the launch vehicle was launched. These studies were headed by Vasiliy Mishin. Moreover, he had another amazing project with a fundamentally different approach to the creation of airplanes - first, transport, and later passenger. The approach is based on combining the concepts of aviation and rocket technology, in particular, it is proposed to use a vertical start and replace aerodynamic controls with control jet engines. The calculations showed that with such an approach one can get a noticeable simplification of the design, the best weight perfection of the aircraft and a noticeable decrease in the cost of their production. This is the “swan song” of Vasiliy Mishin - he finished this work before his death, in 2001. He was then 84 years old. He predicted precisely this development of aviation.

I know that S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia is currently creating the “Federation” project, which also provides for reusability. 

- Yes, it is a reusable device, but it is not winged. It has a so-called segmental-conical shape. This is a capsular type of apparatus, which is controlled due to the fact that its center of mass is displaced relative to the longitudinal axis, resulting in the descent, the so-called balancing angle of attack and lifting force, the direction of which can be controlled by changing the angle of heel of the apparatus using control rocket engines. Accordingly, it is possible to implement control over the range, in the lateral direction, and provide sufficiently comfortable conditions for the crew in terms of overloads.

Oleg Mikhailovich, I know that you do great work with young people, educating them in the spirit of interest in the space theme. Tell us about it.

- Indeed, at Moscow Aviation Institute (National Research University), including the Aerospace Institute, serious work is being done with schoolchildren and prospective students. These are regular monthly and sometimes more often meetings with pupils, their parents, and school teachers. They are told about space achievements, plans and prospects for further space exploration, educational programs in the field of rocket and space technology, which are implemented in various departments, organized excursions to the department. Round tables are being held wh ere the problems of space exploration and training for enterprises and organizations of Roscosmos are discussed. Very soon, a Technopark will be opened for school youth in MAI, wh ere children will be able to try their hand at various projects.

Every year, in April MAI organizes the International Youth Scientific Conference “Gagarin Readings”, timed to Cosmonautics Day, this is a large-scale event with hundreds of reports and presentations wh ere students, graduates and schoolchildren present their papers, hold the discussion, well-known scientists on cosmonautics hold speeches . Also, another major public event is held annually - the International Conference "Aviation and Cosmonautics", wh ere there are youth sections. All this is very important for attracting young people to aerospace science and technology.

In addition, the Space State Corporation Roscosmos has a Coordinating Scientific and Technical Council, which makes decisions about the feasibility of various scientific experiments and activities on the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS). This is a multipurpose space research complex, in fact, a huge research laboratory in outer space. The council has a section “Space Education”, which is responsible for educational activities on the Russian segment of the ISS, including those aimed at attracting schoolchildren and university students to cosmonautics, increasing their knowledge of rocket and space technology and training personnel for enterprises and organizations of the Roscosmos. I am charged with guiding the work of this section. A number of interesting research and educational projects with the direct participation of university students and schoolchildren are being implemented through it and are now being implemented.

I note that the ISS is a very effective platform, as you said, for the space education of young people. I will cite an interesting extract from a report prepared jointly by five space agencies participating in this huge international project. The report was presented at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto in 2014. The International Space Station (ISS) has the unique ability to capture the imagination of both students and teachers around the world.

Since 2000, the presence of people on board the ISS has provided an opportunity for numerous educational activities aimed at attracting the interest and motivation of young people to the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). More than 43 million students worldwide participated in educational activities based on the capabilities of the ISS. Among such unique projects is the MAI-75 project, prepared and conducted over the years by the Moscow Aviation Institute on the Russian segment of the station with a large number of participants from the student and school audiences. In essence, their creative access to space in real time was organized when conducting audio and video contacts with crew members and practicing innovative photo and video technology of both the station and the Earth using a communication channel at amateur radio frequencies, which significantly increased the number of participants in conducting such space experiments in Russia and around the world. By the way, since then a number of scientific and educational experiments have been conducted on the ISS.

It is impressive.

- And this is extremely important. The farther, the more comes the understanding that the training of personnel that meet modern requirements, need to be paid much more attention. Recently, the Russian Academy of Sciences held the Space Council, dedicated to the future large-scale program of the Moon exploration. Summing up, Dmitry Rogozin highlighted two main points. First, starting any project, and it was about a large-scale program for the exploration of the Moon, it is always necessary to determine practical feasibility. There were projects in our history, when we took up the work, did not think over everything completely, did not consider what it would cost, whether it would pay off and whether it was necessary. (I think that the Energia-Buran program is, to some extent, an illustration of this thesis). 

The next point that still needs special attention is effective training. The last remark of the Director General of Roscosmos is addressed, first and foremost, to aerospace universities. And it is very important that universities have close business, scientific and educational ties with those organizations for which they train engineering and scientific personnel. It is important that enterprises and organizations of Roskosmos attract universities to carry out their projects. This applies especially to federal and national research universities that have the right to create their own educational standards and curricula. And so it is necessary to focus attention on attracting young people as much as possible, working in close contact with enterprises, responding to their requests, and offering their own solutions to scientific and technical problems. I believe that while the industry is not using enough university scientific potential in its projects.

Oleg Mikhailovich, you saw those times when all the boys wanted to fly into space, then you survived the times when no one needed space suddenly. Now it seems that interest in this topic is being revived. Do you notice it?

- I notice, in particular, by the example of MAI. In recent years, the quality of prospective students at the entrance to the university has increased markedly. Moreover, MAI conducts a broad campaign of cooperation with enterprises – to us come targeted people, who will then return to these enterprises. Accordingly, come students with whom it is interesting to work.

Are they hot-eyed?

- Yes, they study with great enthusiasm. Quite recently, we held a regular international conference “Aviation and Cosmonautics”, in the framework of which the youth conference also worked. So, the good news is that from the young people, from the students, from graduate students, there were a lot of reports of good level. They are interested in technology, they study well, and this makes me very happy.

"Scientific Russia"
Natalia Leskova

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