How on-board computers for the most powerful rockets were developed. | History of Computing in Ukraine

How on-board computers for the most powerful rockets were developed.

Rockets and spaceships produced in the USSR needed computer-based control systems. At first they were analogue, but then digital on-board computers were introduced. This was accomplished thanks to the effort of many scientific and production teams. They created a number of on-board control computers, including one for the most powerful Soviet rocket, nicknamed “Satan” in the West, as well as for “Buran”, the first Soviet reusable spaceship.


Boris Y. Vasilenko

Vladimir G. Sergeev

The use of computer technologies in the rocket and space industry began with the collaboration between the Southern Machine-building Plant (Russian: YMZ) and the Kyiv Institute of Cybernetics at the Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences. Surprisingly, the initial joint project was completely unrelated to rockets. In the mid-60s, YMZ asked the Kyiv Institute to help computerize data collection and processing, during rocket engine testing on a unique testing stand. At the time, the Kyiv Plant of Computing and Control Machines had just begun producing the first Soviet control machines of the “Dnepr” type, developed by the Computing Centreat the Ukrainian SSR Academy of Sciences. The Institute of Cybernetics also agreed to help, expecting to use the recently created “Dnepr” model too.

When the scientists arrived at the testing site, they saw an inverted glass-shaped tall concrete and steel bunker. Inside, the recently made rocket engine was secured on a special platform for testing. It was covered with various sensors describing the engine’s operation characteristics. There was another building next to the bunker, which contained various measuring devices connected to the sensors.

When “Dnepr” was brought to the site, it replaced the clutter of measuring devices all on its own. After engine tests, the machine would carry out the analysis and print the results in a matter of minutes, as opposed to the hours it took previously.

In the late 1960s, the Institute cooperated with a secret organization located near Moscow, with the aim of creating a unique computerized space imitation system; intended to test the “Buran” spaceship along with other space objects.

This time, the task was infinitely more difficult. Aside from test data collection and processing, the system had to control the artificial “sun” as well as the position of the tested object and other “space pieces”. The testing stand was located in another bunker, approximately 10 floors tall, with no ceilings. The computers, which were part of the simulation system, were installed on balcony-like structures in the tower. The Special Design Bureau also participated in the development, which took several years.

In 1971, the stand was used successfully to test a new YMZ-built rocket with an on-board computer, developed by the Scientific Production Association (SPA) “Khartron”. The successful test launch of the rocket put an end to the mistrust of computing technologies, which was common at the time. It became clear that it was time to begin mass production of the first on-board computers. “Kyiv Radio Plant” was involved in the production. The well-coordinated work of YMZ, SPA “Khartron” and Kyiv Radio Plant” gave birth to one-of-a-kind rocket and space systems.

The Dnipropetrovsk YMZ was originally an automobile plant. At the onset of the Cold War, however, it changed its specialty to rocket-building. The plant’s team created 4 generations of rocket complexes. For almost a quarter of a century, Aleksandr Maksimovich Makarov served as its director, until he was succeeded by Ukraine’s future President Leonid Danilovich Kuchma.

The plant had its own Design Bureau “Yuzhnoye” (English: Southern), first headed by chief designer M.K. Yangel, later by V.F. Utkin. The bureau’s team designed rocket engines for transcontinental ballistic missiles, space rockets and space vehicles.

The Kharkiv Scientific Production Association “Khartron” was created in 1959, and soon became a leading designer of control systems, on-board and ground computer systems, and complex electronics for various types of rockets and space vehicles created at the YMZ.

A.N. Shestopal was the first head of the division for on-board computer development created in 1962. During 1966-1992, A.I. Krivonosov headed this section. Vladimir Grigorievich Sergeev was the General Director and Head Designer for rocket complex control systems at the SPA “Khartron” during 1960-1986.

Khartron” was the first organization in the USSR to develop a new software development system, which included the so-called “computer launch”. The technology allowed the developers to simulate the flight using a special computer system with BESM-6 in order to test a system’s response to primary perturbing factors. This new invention also enabled full and effective control over flight missions.

Further improvement of control over transcontinental ballistic missiles required a drastic increase in the volume of data processed in real-time on board the missile. A new subdivision took on the task of formulating architecture and computing performance requirements for the on-board computers, as well as the development of software for them. The team had to come up with completely new design techniques and equipment, including simulation stands, an automated program production system, and others.

In 1968, “Khartron” tested the pilot model of an on-board computer, based on hybrid modules. Six months later, a three-channel variant based on a monolithic integrated circuit was made. In 1971, the USSR launched 15A14, its first rocket with a new on-board control computer. It had the following specifications: 16-bit, RAM volume 512-1024 words, ROM volume 16,000 words, operating speed 100,000 operations per second, microelectronic hardware base. This on-board computer worked for over 25 years. Its slightly modified version is still being used on standby combat duty.

During the following years, “Khartron” created 4 more generations of on-board computers with some of the best computing and performance specifications in the world, as well as an effective software development process. An original dynamic software correction system was another important new feature, which allowed for real-time modification on all working stages from pre-flight tests to operation on the orbit.

In 1984-1988, a new control system was created for the unique super-powerful SS18 rocket known in the West as “Satan”. All of the cutting-edge technical solutions found their way into this project, along with a number of fundamentally new ideas, like ensuring operational integrity after an in-flight nuclear explosion, high-precision individual warhead disengagement, “direct” guidance without preliminary flight mission preparation, long-distance targeting and so forth.

Controlling all these tasks was a new powerful on-board computing system using a self-destructible semiconductor ROM and electronic RAM.

The “Satan” rocket complex was the powerful core of the Soviet strategic rocket forces. Its high specifications were unrivaled at the time. This rocket remains on active duty even today, and is virtually impervious to any ballistic missile defenses, even a thermonuclear explosion. When one of these rockets was being scrapped, not even diamond cutters could penetrate its special “black” radiation-resistant coating. Some claim that it was precisely the creation of this rocket which precipitated the end of the arms race and signing of START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty).

Satan” was a two-step rocket weighing 210 metric tons and 34.3 meters long. Its combat specifications were its main distinctive feature. Its first design could deliver a thermonuclear 8-megaton charge to a target up to 16,000 kilometers away, or a heavy 25-megaton warhead to a target up to 11,200 kilometers away. In both cases, “Satan” could strike any point on the potential enemy’s territory. “Satan’s” charge was 77 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

One of the most difficult tasks for the “Khartron” team was the creation of an on-board multi-machine computing system for the “Energy” launch vehicle. The system had to be capable of solving all the most difficult stabilization tasks, perform engine lead-out and emergency protection (including in contingency events while controlling multiple propulsion systems), and provide cushioned landing for descent booster stages. Even today, “Energy” remains the only rocket and space system capable of using only liquid hydrogen for fuel in all stages, from load delivery to orbit.

The “Kyiv Radio Plant” was in charge of serial production of computers for the rocket and space industry. The most fruitful period in its operation was during the time when D.G. Topchiy, B.E. Vasilenko, and A.I. Gudmenko supervised its work.

The plant’s own design bureau staff assisted other teams tasked with creating complex systems to master and set up production of new rocket and space devices in the shortest possible time. The plant cooperated with Design Bureau “Yuzhnoye”, “Khartron”, Sverdlovsk Scientific Research Institute (SRI) of automatic equipment, SRI of precise instruments, Central Machine-Building Design Bureau, and Moscow SPA “Elas”.

Kyiv Radio Plant” converted and serialized control systems for a whole variety of rocket and space systems, from the simple R-12 rocket to R-36M2 (“Satan”), the most advanced strategic missile known to man.

In 1966, “Kyiv Radio Plant” began producing a unique on-board equipment system “Igla” (English: Needle), meant for search, relative orientation, rendezvous and docking of space objects. This was the system that facilitated the first ever docking between pilotless and pilot controlled spaceships and orbital station. In 1985, “Igla” was replaced by the more modern and reliable “Kurs” (English: Course).

During the 1980s, “Kyiv Radio Plant” produced experimental and serial control systems for the super-heavy “Energy” launch vehicle. Thanks to this project, in 1987 “Energy” successfully launched spaceship “Skif”, and a year later spaceship “Buran”, which still remains one of the only two successful re-usable space transportation systems. In 1988, it performed its first (and, sadly, the only) pilotless flight.

By the early 1980s, “Kyiv Radio Plant”, together with “Khartron”, worked on several unique computer systems: a control system for the “Satan” rocket; “Kurs” docking equipment and on-board computing system “Salut 5B” for the “Mir” space station; a number of modules for the “Energy” launch vehicle control system; a control system for the sea-based rocket complex, and a navigation system for the railway-based rocket complex.

Control systems created and serialized by “Kyiv Radio Plant” were developed by SPA “Khartron” and supplied to the Southern Machine-building Plant. The cooperation of these three organizations with “Yuzhnoye” Design Bureau led to the creation of one of the most powerful rocket and space industry centers in the former Soviet Union.