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."
The Russian word for "cheese" is "syr," and Syromyatnikov laughingly refers to himself as the "Big Cheese," although he is actually fairly small in stature. I asked the "Cheese" how his university training had prepared him for his space career. Because his formal education had readied him for an engineering specialty he would never use, Syromyatnikov explains that he became something of a perpetual student. "My education has never stopped," he says. Quickly adding it up in his mind, he estimates: "In my life it's been about 25 years, all my official studying."
That includes early school, university, English language classes, plus two theses, one for a candidate degree (in 1968) and one for a doctorate (in 1979). For those degrees, Syromyatnikov points out, "I met the full requirements, not like the bigwigs," referring to the frequent Soviet practice of granting team managers the same degrees earned by their teams just for adding their names to the published papers.
For nearly 40 years, manned spacecraft have relied on Russian engineer Vladimir Syromyatnikov's mechanisms to link up in space safely.
These days he is studying less, but he remains busy as a full-time employee of Energia. "I am still responsible for all docking systems," he says, including those on Soyuz spacecraft, the ISS (the space shuttle also uses a version of his design), the European-built robot supply ship planned for launch next year, and a replacement vehicle for the aging Soyuz design.
He is also the general director of a future-oriented group called the Space Regatta Consortium. Organized to develop solar sails for an international robot race to the moon, the consortium now develops nontraditional hardware for space vehicles, such as inflatable solar collectors, which are intended to improve on rigid photovoltaic panels, and electrodynamic tethers that may help satellites and space stations maintain their orbits. Last year Syromyatnikov published the English-language version of the first volume of his autobiography, 100 Stories About Docking (Universitetskaya Kniga, Moscow).
Although the content of each workday may vary, his work patterns are fairly consistent. "I start my work early in the morning, usually at 5 o'clock, sometimes 4 o'clock," he says, "I do things like my book--I worked on it nine years--plus I've written a professional book on docking systems and edited a book on flight safety. I've also translated and edited some books from English.
"It's very early to bed and very early to rise," he continues. "Every morning I do my physical exercises for 20 minutes to a half hour--and I work all weekends."
One of Syromyatnikov's favorite slogans is, "The best rest is to work until lunchtime." He explains: "So then you feel the day was not lost--and in the hours that are left you can do different activities, less critical tasks."
Syromyatnikov still considers himself first and foremost a designer. "I understand how to design," he says. "You should feel, maybe by intuition, what lies ahead in the process, what should be done, not just design alone, not just the original sketches, but the whole thing."
He says he's different from most specialized Russian aerospace engineers. "I differ a lot, because I did not stop with the conceptual design. I proceeded to the development and testing, the total design," he says.
It's the same approach Syromyatnikov urges on students. "You may be designers, you may be operators," he tells them, but you'll be better if you also understand the other steps.
"I advise young people to try to do some small thing from scratch, take it through all phases of engineering activities," he explains. "Then you'll be a much better operator, a much better controller, a much better engineer. I am convinced of this myself, and I try to convince young people to do it."
It's not just retrospection, either. His desk, he says, is covered with plans for a wide variety of new space hardware, and he is still following through on his most recent designs.
About the Author
Before becoming a writer and consultant, James Oberg worked for NASA mission control for 22 years. Based in Houston, he wrote about the commander of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, in Colorado, for the June 2005 issue of IEEE Spectrum.
James Oberg is a retired "rocket scientist" in Texas, after a 20+ year career in NASA Mission Control and subsequently an on-air space consultant for ABC News and then NBC News. The author of a dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the past, present, and potential future of space exploration, he has reported from space launch and operations centers across the United States and Russia and North Korea.