Chapter 1: Devil’s Venom
April 1, 1960
A Soviet colonel arrived at Plesetsk Cosmodrome just above the Arctic Circle in a large American K-car. He wore civilian clothes, smoked German cigarettes and stayed mostly in the shadows. The base manifest identified him by the enigmatic letters SP, but the ranking officer, Marshal Nedelin, addressed him simply as Chief. His real name was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the anonymous Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and he was here to witness what had become a very familiar sight in the Soviet Union these days – a rocket launch. The Chief stood behind the reinforced concrete bunker with the collar of his blue overcoat up and the brim of his brown fedora down, whether to protect himself from the frigid air or to conceal his features nobody really knew. Patiently and silently, he waited for the wingless monolith on the launch pad to fire up into the night.
“It is precisely this sort of delay which will cause us to fall behind the Americans,” Marshal Nedelin said abruptly and then swore. He pulled out his silver pocket watch, a sixty-year-old relic from Russia’s Tsarist past, and swore again. It wasn’t a very fierce curse or easily translatable, something about baby birds of questionable parentage and loose virtue. The Chief, who had worked among rocket mechanics, political prisoners and hotshot air force pilots most of his life, almost laughed. Fortunately, he caught himself in time. To laugh at a major general and a senior member of the Communist Party was political suicide, more certain than drawing a mustache on Premier Khrushchev’s portrait in Red Square.
“We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent, to rest upon the success of our past endeavors. You may have put Sputnik into space, Colonel, but last year, the Americans had two suborbital launches with live subjects.”
“Monkeys,” the Chief clarified but Nedelin did not hear him.
“And the Atlas Rocket – – ”
“Has not yet had a successful launch.”
“But it is only a matter of time.” Nedelin fumed, the Chief’s sanguine demeanor only serving to add fuel to the flames. “Mark my words, Colonel, the Americans are on the verge of sending a Mercury astronaut into space.”
The Chief assumed a grim expression. “Delays are necessary.”
“You have no idea what pressures I’m under. Premier Khrushchev – ”
“Premier Khrushchev suffers delays poorly,” the Chief interrupted, his words bordering on treason. “But he suffers failure not at all. Besides, it is not the R-16 that I am here to see.”
“No? Then what?”
“It is the test pilot,” the Chief said simply.
As if on cue, the preliminary launch warning sounded over the loudspeakers and a man in a bright orange flight suit emerged from the distant blockhouse. He was not an unusual man at first glance. He had a thin face, for a Russian, wavy brown hair and a faint scar on his otherwise attractive chin. He stood about even with the busy flight technicians who flanked him on either side carrying his life support equipment. But there was an air of confidence in his brown eyes that distinguished him from any other man on the tarmac. His was the look of the master bullfighter or the lion tamer entering the ring – the consummate professional. He was a man marked for death, yet there was no apparent fear at the prospect of riding a fireball into the stratosphere. He strode casually towards the awaiting rocket, and the milling engineers, soldiers and technicians parted in awe. He stopped before the gantry to give his final salute and only the Chief noticed as he made a very quick movement with his left hand to touch something under his collar. And then he was up the gantry elevator and into the capsule.
Korolev turned back to Nedelin. “I would like to talk to him . . . if he survives.” Nedelin was appalled by the Chief’s pessimistic attitude, but Korolev merely shrugged. “The R-16 is not my rocket. General Yangel has a new design team at NII-88, mostly Germans. They abandoned my R-7 Semyorka booster in favor of a modified V-2 rocket design.” Korolev had often wondered where Yangel had really found his design for the R-16. It was quite a departure from the V-2 rockets that they had captured from Germany after the war and unlike anything they had worked on together. Korolev couldn’t imagine that Yangel was smart enough to come up with a new idea on his own, at least not one that worked. So where did the R-16 come from? “It’s sleek, radical and revolutionary,” Korolev continued, “but highly unstable.” The Chief lifted his fedora and looked directly at Nedelin with his cold, gray eyes. “They’re using devil’s venom.”
Nedelin raised an eyebrow, but did not respond.
Devil’s venom, otherwise known as nitric acid hydrazine, was a propellant so volatile that it burned whatever it touched and ate the very metal that housed it. Many attempts had been made to safely harness the lethal rocket fuel, but sooner or later they all ended in disaster.
“You know those German engineers,” Korolev continued casually. “They’re all so convinced that their alternative fuels will provide more thrust. I prefer more conventional approaches, small improvements on tried and tested designs. I find we go through fewer test pilots that way. But I have been over-ruled on this one. It is out of my hands.”
Nedelin was tempted to argue with the vaunted Russian rocket scientist. After all, as Marshal of Artillery, it was his decision to turn the manned-flight program over to General Yangel. It wasn’t that he doubted the Chief Designer’s genius. After all, this was the man that had put Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into space. But Nedelin was an impatient man, nervous of his superiors, and especially the Americans. He was convinced that Wernher von Braun, Korolev’s opposite number in America, was about to send a man into space. Von Braun was on the verge of designing functional ICBM’s sixteen years ago. Who knows what he could have accomplished by now with the almost unlimited resources of the United States? Certainly more than the cautious and secretive Russian engineers like SP Korolev.
Marshal Nedelin was about to make a bold statement to this effect when white steam billowed from the R-16’s starter rockets and the final countdown began. Nedelin and the Chief slipped on their protective goggles and all conversation ceased. Nedelin wanted very much for Yangel’s rocket to succeed, not so much for the life of the brave test pilot, but to prove that the Chief Designer’s delays were unnecessary. Hadn’t the Soviet Union already had countless successful rocket launches? If they could put a dog in the nosecone of a rocket and launch it into space, surely they could do the same thing with a man. It did not concern him too much that they had not yet found a safe and reliable way to bring the dogs back alive. Such details were best left to lesser men.
The ground shook as the massive first stage engine ignited and condensation crystals cascaded down from the metallic cylindrical body in a shower of white. Billowing clouds of smoke filled the million-square-foot stadium as the R-16 rose slowly under its powerful rocket to a height of nearly a thousand feet. Nedelin opened his mouth to congratulate himself on his wisdom and foresight when the powerful rocket veered slowly to the horizontal and exploded in a brilliant fireball like the fireworks on May Day. Moments later, the stars above were obscured by an impenetrable wall of black smoke. The air was thick with the smell of burned rocket fuel.
Nedelin felt robbed of his opportunity to make his point and then suddenly remembered the Chief’s unfortunate test pilot. “I’m afraid, SP, that you have just lost another future cosmonaut,” Nedelin gloated.
The Chief rubbed his chin thoughtfully, but it was difficult to read the expression on his grim, intelligent face.
Georgi Petrov had been grumpy all morning. In fact, he’d been grumpy all week. He always got that way when he couldn’t fly. It was as if his mother’s God had made a colossal blunder on the day of his conception, putting the soul of an eagle in the body of a man. He fingered the eagle pendant that hung on a silver chain about his neck. It was the only thing that he had left from his parents and sometimes he imagined his mother’s soul was hidden somewhere inside it. He knew such thoughts weren’t proper for a good communist, but he only ever felt that way when he was grounded. So if Lenin’s ghost wanted Georgi to be a good atheist and sing the Soviet National Anthem, he had to let the eagle soar.
Late that afternoon, Georgi got his wish. Yuri reported in sick with the Russian flu (otherwise known as a vodka hangover), and Georgi was next in line to ride Yangel’s rocket. Officially, it was called the R-16, but Georgi knew it was modeled after secret German rocket designs. He never let politics get in the way of a fast ride, and so far, there was nothing faster than the R-16. With over 500,000 pounds of thrust, it had the potential to launch a man sixty miles above the earth to the very edge of space.
Perhaps Georgi would break a record today, have his name written in the history books. Perhaps there would be a ticker-tape parade awaiting him upon his return. Georgi thought he would cut a fine figure up on the podium in his new, red-striped officer’s uniform. He was not as tall as some of the American astronauts like John Glenn and Alan Shepard, but he was strong and brave. Surely no one would notice the little scar under his chin as the news cameras flashed and Premier Khrushchev presented him with his medal and declared him a Hero of the Soviet Union. Fame, fortune, dreams of a certain unattainable woman — these were the thoughts that swam ebulliently through his mind as he squeezed into his orange flight suit and stepped out onto the tarmac.
There was an unusually large crowd gathered for this flight and Georgi felt a surge of adrenalin as he strode out towards the awaiting R-16. Apparently, some rather important people had arrived at the Cosmodrome in the night and were now watching from the safety of the command bunker. Whatever the final outcome of this flight, Georgi would give them a good show. He stopped before the gantry and saluted in the general direction of the hidden VIPs. It was a gallant gesture, but Georgi figured the occasion called for it. He wondered if anyone inside the bunker appreciated it. Then he turned to ride the elevator to the top of the hundred-foot rocket. His left hand went unconsciously back to the eagle pendant that hung around his neck. It wasn’t his only talisman. In his other hand, he clutched a tuft of grass – a symbol of the desire of every Russian pilot for a safe return to mother earth. But like Marshal Nedelin who was watching from a safe distance in the command bunker, Georgi was not to have his desires fulfilled tonight.
Ten seconds into the flight and the eight ball was already cockeyed. The inertial guidance system had failed and the R-16 was seven degrees off ballistic trajectory. Georgi knew instantly that the first stage rocket was not producing constant thrust, thus causing the invisible phenomenon of harmonic oscillation. Dangerous vibrations were ripping unseen through the fuselage, weakening its structural integrity and threatening to flatten the hundred-foot ship like a tin can. Twelve seconds in and the section couplings failed. Fourteen seconds and the auxiliary fuel tanks ruptured, leaking highly volatile nitric acid hydrazine. Another few seconds and Georgi would be dead, blown to oblivion with all his dreams of glory left unfulfilled.
Georgi wasn’t about to let that happen.
This wasn’t his first emergency by any means. His mind was clear and his blood was cold. He had an escape plan. It wasn’t an approved plan, and probably wouldn’t even work, but it was a plan, and at the moment, that was all that counted. Georgi had toyed with the idea of sharing the escape contingency with Designer General Yangel in the pre-launch briefing, but had wisely reconsidered. The General would have been appalled by the blatant misuse of his brilliant technology just to save an insignificant pilot. Then his engineers would have locked the controls and Georgi would have been completely helpless. Even now he imagined the heartless engineers estimating his chances of survival at less than five percent.
Fighting the G-forces, Georgi released his restraints and punched out the third stage override. Instantly, he was thrust back into his seat by another powerful surge of acceleration as the third stage rockets fired. The R-16’s first stage megaton booster and second stage rocket separated from the nosecone and then exploded. Georgi felt rather than heard the explosion, the concussion nearly sending him into blackout. He fought it, struggling to orient himself as the damaged craft spun wildly out of control.
The R-16’s third stage payload was a top secret, spacecraft prototype called the Raketoplan. It was designed by Chelomei, one of Yangel’s most promising and eccentric engineers and theoretically capable of orbiting in space and landing on a runway like an airplane. Chelomei had sold his idea to the military long before his prototype had even been built simply by painting a glowing picture of the Raketoplan’s potential to shoot down enemy spy satellites and rule the world from orbit. However, the glorious Raketoplan wasn’t equipped with an ejector seat like the fighter jets that Georgi had flown over the Pacific. The engineers back at Chelomei’s bureau, OKB-52, were of the general opinion that an ejector seat mechanism was just too heavy. It was easier and cheaper to replace a dead pilot than to design an engine with an extra thousand pounds of thrust. But a parachute was light and Georgi never flew without one. It was useless above twenty-five thousand feet, but he wasn’t anywhere near that height at the moment. He wondered vaguely if he ever would be again.
Georgi found the escape hatch release and yanked hard. The circular titanium hatch exploded out and Georgi was thrown free of the cockpit. So much for setting a record tonight, he thought as the Raketoplan drifted away into the night. The winged capsule had an automatic parachute system itself, but it was notoriously unreliable. Georgi wondered if the sleek craft would survive the fall. At least he had given her a chance. Now he had to try and save himself.
In the almost complete darkness of the northern spring, it was impossible to tell how high up he really was. His immediate instinct was to pull the ripcord as soon as possible, but he knew that would be a fatal mistake. He was tumbling violently through the air and would most certainly tangle the chute. He would have to risk a few seconds of freefall to right himself. It was a maneuver that he had done only a few times before and never at this velocity.
His eyes stung from the smoke and his tongue tasted acid. He held out his arms like an eagle spreading its wings. The air rushed against his body like a hurricane. He felt as if his arms would be torn from their sockets. Gradually, his body slowed against the wind. He was still turning slow cartwheels in freefall, but he dared not wait another second. He pulled the ripcord. The chute opened. Georgi grunted as the harness constricted on his chest and took away his air. A few seconds later, he hit the snowy tundra five hundred miles north of Moscow.