Fifty years ago this month, Vladimir Syromyatnikov, then a 23-year-old Russian engineer fresh out of college, walked into a top-secret Soviet space design bureau where he became one of the most important engineers of Russia's space program. Then he accomplished something even rarer: his handiwork found its way into the U.S. and European space programs as well.
Syromyatnikov is best known for his work in designing docking mechanisms for manned spacecraft. The mechanisms do a number of tricky things, including sealing two spacecraft together tightly enough to prevent precious air from leaking away, yet allowing the vehicles to separate in an instant if necessary. Syromyatnikov's designs are still used by spacecraft visiting the International Space Station (ISS).
The design bureau Syromyatnikov walked into in 1956 was headed by Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, and Syromyatnikov was put to work modifying German-designed rocket motor tilt actuators, used on V-2 rockets, to steer a Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed "Semyorka" ("Old model seven"). The Semyorka would become the booster that put Sputnik and later Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Upgraded versions are still in service, sending satellites and cosmonauts into orbit.
Syromyatnikov's arrival at Korolev's design bureau in Moscow--now known as S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corp. Energia--was actually a twist of fate. Syromyatnikov graduated with an engineering degree from Bauman Moscow State Technical University with excellent grades but no particular desire to go into the space business. His senior thesis had dealt with algorithms for aiming a tank-mounted antiaircraft gun. A special commission matched graduates with jobs at various institutes across the Soviet Union, and Syromyatnikov wound up being attached to a new factory in Siberia. He refused the assignment, but by then all the local jobs had been filled. Fortunately, a friend of his father's stepped in--Lev Grishin, the deputy chairman of the State Committee for Defense Technology. Grishin was impressed with the young engineer's academic achievements and put the paperwork through to assign Syromyatnikov to Korolev's bureau. "It was a lucky accident," Syromyatnikov told me when I interviewed him for IEEE Spectrum in Moscow and Houston recently.
Although Syromyatnikov says he is proud to have worked on the Semyorka booster, he was soon transferred to the section building docking mechanisms. The ability for spacecraft to dock was quickly recognized as vital to space exploration by both the U.S. and the Soviet programs, and Syromyatnikov came to head up the Soviet effort to build such mechanisms.
Eight years of flying Russian spacecraft with docking mechanisms designed by Syromyatnikov and his co-workers paved the way for the historic docking of a Russian Soyuz and a U.S. Apollo spacecraft in 1975. Later, for the Shuttle-Mir space station missions of the early 1990s and then for the ISS, Syromyatnikov again found himself right in the middle of things. "I was placed directly into the very real interface between [American] astronautics and [Russian] cosmonautics," he says. "These unique circumstances permitted me to interact with my international colleagues.
"These were not just short-term contacts from time to time but quite often prolonged periods of joint work that made it possible to penetrate rather deeply into important details and some subtle things of these programs."