Cruise missile is born in the midst of "Great terror"

On January 29, 1939, a small winged rocket took to the sky at a test range near Moscow. Code-named Vehicle 212, it brought Soviet rocket scientists closest to the development of an unmanned cruise missile. Vehicle 212 sported many elements of its future successors, first of all, a three-axis gyroscopic autopilot. The development of this rocket was also a backdrop for crucial debates among Soviet rocket pioneers and the missile's arrival on the launch pad coincided with the most horrific events in the Soviet history and in the life of Sergei Korolev, the founder of the Soviet space program.

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Vehicle 212 and its takeoff sled.

Origin of Project 212

Practically from its foundation in 1933, the USSR's top-secret Rocket Research Institute, RNII, started an unprecedented effort to develop an automated winged missile. Essentially, no such weapon existed at the time. Theoretical estimates showed that for a short flight range, the initial mass of a missile capable of gliding in the air could be lower than that of a purely ballistic vehicle. Engineers at RNII envisioned such a rocket intercepting enemy aircraft or attacking targets on the ground. Initially, both solid and liquid propellants were considered for the task. (682)

Early trials of an experimental Vehicle 216 in 1936, featuring a rudimentary autopilot designed to control elevator and ailerons, were largely unsuccessful and were eventually superceded by a newer project known as Vehicle 212.

By that time, RNII's Department No. 5 was led by Sergei Korolev, who had already worked on several projects of unguided winged missiles. Designs for the previous Korolev's rocket -- 06/IV -- became the basis for Vehicle 212. Korolev's associate Yevgeny Shetinkov became the leading engineer on the project. A veteran of Gas Dynamics Laboratory, GDL, Vechaslav Dudakov was probably responsible for the rocket-assisted takeoff system, which consisted of a rocket-powered sled designed to accelerate along a 60-meter takeoff ramp, (84) which Korolev's skeptical managers jokingly called Turksib, after a monumental Soviet railway construction project. (18)

Most importantly, the new rocket was to be equipped for the first time with a three-axis gyroscopic stabilization system, GPS-3 (from Gyroskopichesky Pribor Stabilizatsii), developed at Department No. 8 under the leadership of Sergei Pivovarov, a veteran of Korolev's 4th brigade at the Group for Studies of Reactive Motion, GIRD, in Moscow. This latest addition made Vehicle 212 a truly modern rocket.

Although Vehicle 212 was conceived as a weapon for delivering 30 kilograms of explosives to ground targets (71, 137), an experimental version of the rocket was to carry a parachute in its nose section.

Following the analysis of potential propulsion systems for the rocket, developers chose the ORM-65 engine originally proposed by Valentin Glushko for a possible anti-aircraft missile. With a projected mass of just 10 kilograms, the engine burned a mixture of kerosene and nitric acid and promised a thrust of 150 kilograms, becoming the most advanced Soviet rocket propulsion system of its time. (424) After burning for less than a minute and a half, it would enable the rocket to strike its target at least 50 kilometers away.

Still, the choice of the ORM-65 engine was apparently very controversial. The leadership at RNII favored Glushko's nitric acid engines over the alternative liquid oxygen propulsion systems developed by Mikhail Tikhonravov, Leonid Dushkin and Andrei Kostikov, all former members of the Moscow-based rocket research organization known as GIRD. The management at RNII rejected the use of cryogenic propellant on the battlefield as impractical. This fact might serve as evidence that the Soviet leadership did not know about the development of German ballistic missiles, which all used liquid oxygen.

As a result, a whole group of Muscovites, who advocated cryogenic engines, felt sidelined by the top management. (113) Surprisingly, Sergei Korolev, who also came to RNII from GIRD, apparently pragmatically sided with his managers and thus unknowingly planted seeds of a future catastrophe.


The first assignment for Vehicle 212 was issued on March 20, 1936, however during that year the Commissariat of Heavy Industry, NKTP, which oversaw the institute, apparently recommended to limit the missile's development. Still, the preliminary design was ready on July 26, and the working project by August 1.

Two mockups of the rocket were built and on November 17, engineers apparently made two attempts to test their launch using a catapult. However both times, the rocket was hit by its sled, leading to a recommendation to extend the launch ramp. Developers also prepared the testing of a full-scale mockup in a wind tunnel, however, apparently, it had never been carried out. (681)

Work in 1937

As a result of restructuring within RNII at the end of 1936, Korolev's department was re-designated as Group No. 3. Accordingly, designations of all winged vehicles developed by Korolev's team would now start with the number "3". (241)

The working plans of NII-3 for 1937 gave priority to Vehicle 312 (formerly 212), even though in parallel, development was to be conducted on a piloted rocket glider known as Vehicle 318-1, which in turn would serve as a precursor to a rocket-powered fighter aircraft designated Vehicle 318.

During 1937, many systems of Vehicle 212, first of all its engine, went through ground testing. In March, a total of 19 tests of the propulsion hydraulics were conducted, however the planned test program remained unfinished by the end of the year. (681)

In his annual report for 1937, Korolev blamed big delays in hardware production for stalling development of the rocket. According to Korolev, the delivery of four experimental versions of Vehicle 212 dragged from December 1936 until August 1937. Even when they did arrive, their condition was completely unsatisfactory, Korolev complained. His group had to fix and re-assemble the vehicles. In addition, Group No. 10 at NII-3 was late with the delivery of engines and Group No. 7 with the automatic stabilization mechanism, Korolev wrote.

Purges and murders

While the RNII engineers struggled with their unprecedented challenges in 1937, Stalin's "Great terror" reached its peak. One of the most prominent victims of this genocidal campaign was Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Stalin's potential political rival, who also happened to be the founder and patron of RNII. Naturally, following Tukhachevsky's arrest in May, purges spread down the lines of his political, professional and personal connections. The head of RNII Ivan Kleimenov and chief engineer Georgy Langemak were arrested on November 2, opening the door to persecution at the next level -- the top engineering brass. Few weeks before their execution in January 1937, Kleimenov and Langemak, without any doubt under severe torture, signed "admissions," which implicated Korolev and Glushko in conspiracy to sabotage the Soviet defense effort.

At the end of December, the secret police ordered the new management at RNII to remove Korolev and Glushko from all leading positions.

On Jan. 1, 1938, Korolev was demoted from his position in Group No. 3 to senior engineer. The group itself was re-designated No. 2 and Vechaslav Dudakov, who had previously disagreed with Korolev on the role of manned rocket planes, was appointed its head, thus becoming Korolev's boss. All vehicle designations again had to start with "2".

In addition to being ostracized for his links to the "enemies of the state," Korolev clashed with the new management of NII-3 on the direction of his engineering work. Some of his old colleagues, who had been sidelined during the "old regime" at RNII, now decided to use the situation to advance their careers.

However it would take almost a year of sociological torture and persecution at work before Korolev would finally be sent to GULAG.

From January to March 1938, Korolev struggled to renew his annual classified work clearance.

On March 23, 1938, Valentin Glushko was arrested, essentially, delivering a message to Korolev that he would be next.

Events of 1938

Korolev faced a perfect storm, when his political problems of Stalinist paranoia were compounded by the natural technical challenges of his cutting-edge engineering work. On May 13, 1938, an engine exploded during testing of Vehicle 212. A commission led by Mikhail Tikhonravov investigated the failure.

On May 27, near the city of Noginsk, Korolev along with four other people boarded a TB-3 bomber, which lifted off with a prototype of Vehicle 212, designated 201, suspended below. However during an attempt to drop the mockup rocket from the aircraft in mid-air, it unexpectedly stuck partially suspended on its launch rail. As the aircraft was approaching the runway, the mockup suddenly shifted back, fortunately not causing a crash at touchdown. Still, the incident was followed by another investigation, which added even more tension to the political climate around Korolev.

After the engine of Vehicle 212 was fixed following the failure on May 13, two successful tests were conducted on May 26 and May 28. However a new disaster struck a day later.

Right before the firing on May 29, Korolev's associate Arvid Pallo and his mechanics checked propellant lines and suspected that some of the interfaces were not tight enough. Pallo proposed Korolev to cancel the firing and redesign some seals. Korolev lost his temper and said angrily that he did not need any further assistance. As predicted, during the test, the pressure tore off one of the lines, which hit Korolev on the head. Bloodied and shaky he walked outside covering his head with a handkerchief, then fell and stood up again. Korolev's associate Dmitry Shytov saw him through an office window, ran outside and helped him to the medical office. When the medics arrived, Korolev asked them to drive him to the Botkin hospital where his wife Ksenia Vintsentini worked as a surgeon. She found him lying on the stretcher pale and motionless. As it transpired, Korolev had brain concussion, but by pure luck, his skull was not fractured. Arvid Pallo arrived to the hospital the next day and Korolev readily admitted ignoring his colleague's warning.

Korolev spent around three weeks in a hospital and after few days at home went to work, with his injuries still not fully healed. On the way to the institute, he stopped by his parents and told them that he did not know what to expect upon his return. His mother, who understood that he was in mortal danger, tried to convince him to leave his hellish job. However Korolev took fatalistic attitude, reminding her that he had nowhere to run and that all his life was at the institute and he was determined to defend his cause no matter what.

A few days later, on June 27, 1938, he was arrested by Stalin's secret police at his home in the middle of the night. As for millions of other Soviet citizens, trumped up charges against him included membership in an anti-Soviet organization, espionage and sabotage. And as millions of other Soviet citizens, he disappeared for years behind the invisible walls of the GULAG, but as very few others he would ultimately manage to survive...

(To be continued)

Flight testing after purges

After the arrests of Korolev and Glushko, the remaining staff at RNII continued the development of Vehicle 212. (54, 82) Aleksandr Dedov took the leading role in the project. (18) On Jan. 19, 1939, the decision was made to replace the troubled ORM-65 engine on Vehicle 212, due too many explosions caused by ignition problems. The rocket itself was to be renamed Obyekt 803. (84) The ORM-65 engine was dropped from the design of the rocket-powered glider 318-1 as well, which also remained unfinished after purges at the institute. The RDA-1-150 engine developed by Leonid Dushkin and based on the ORM-65 was married to the project instead.

However on January 29, 1939, Vehicle 212, still equipped with the ORM-65 No. 2 engine, took off normally from a launch ramp in Sofrino, but at an altitude of 250 meters the rocket's parachute deployed prematurely. According to Boris Raushenbakh, a leading specialist in the project, the rocket's flight-control system had enough time to demonstrate that it could keep the pioneering vehicle on course and compensate for the wind. (18)

A second attempt, was made on March 8, when the rocket took off successfully, however, it inevitably deviated from its intended flight path and lost stability. (84)

According to leading engineer of Vehicle 212, Yevgeny Shetinkov, the rocket could still learn to fly if given from 15 to 20 test launches, however the project was soon abandoned. (681)

Along with Stalin's purges, which left the rocket research institute in a considerable turmoil, problems with the autopilot of Vehicle 212, clearly the most challenging aspect of the project, probably led to its premature demise. (681) Soviet rocket scientists would jumps-start the development of winged rockets at the end of World War II, getting a whole new perspective on this exotic weaponry from German Fi-103 (V-1) and Hs-293 cruise missiles.

Next chapter: VR-3 rocket

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Chronology of Vehicle 212 development:

1936 March 20: The first assignment for the Vehicle 212 is issued.

1936 July 26: The preliminary design is completed.

1936 August 1: The working project is completed.

1936 Nov. 5: Official static tests of the ORM-65 engine after 17 preliminary tests.

1936 Nov. 17: First catapult tests with Vehicle 212 mockups.

1936 December: Vehicle No. 1 is delivered.

1937 February: Vehicle No. 2 is delivered.

1937 May: Marshall Tukhachevsky, patron of NII-3 (RNII) is arrested in the midst of Stalin purges.

1937 August: Vehicles No. 3 and No.4 are delivered.

1937 March: Tests of engine hydraulic system.

1938 Jan. 10-11: Former managers of RNII/NII-3 are executed in secret.

1938 March 23: Glushko is arrested by Stalin's secret police.

1938 May 13: Vehicle 212 explodes during an engine test.

1938 May 27: A prototype Vehicle 201 fails to be released from a TB-3 bomber for a gliding flight test.

1938 May 29: Korolev is injured by an explosion during bench testing of the 212 rocket.

1938 June 27: Korolev is arrested by Stalin's police.

1938 Sept. 27: Korolev is sentenced to 10 years during Stalin's terror.

1939 Jan. 19: RNII makes a decision to drop Glushko's ORM-65 engine from the Vehicle 212! (84)

1939 Jan. 29: First test launch. Parachute deploys prematurely.

1939 March 8: Second test launch. The rocket went out of control.


Known specifications of Vehicle 212 (681):

Launch mass
210 kilograms
Payload mass
30 kilograms
Propellant mass
30 kilograms
Propulsion system (ORM-65) trust
50-175 kilograms; 500-1,750 Newtons; 1,470 Newtons (120)
Propulsion system specific impulse
210-215 seconds
Propulsion system burn time
80 seconds
Combustion chamber pressure
25 atmospheres
ORM-65 engine mass
14.3 kilograms
Full length
3,160 millimeters
Wing span
3,060 millimeters
Body diameter
300 millimeters
Estimated flight range
80 kilometers
380 meters per second


Known testing statistics for the ORM-65 engine (683):

ORM-65 No. 1
ORM-65 No. 2
Total number of firings
Total burn time on the ground
30.7 minutes
Number of static test stand firings
Firings onboard Vehicle 212
Static firings on rocket glider RP-318-1

*Including two firings during actual launches of Vehicle 212

Page author: Anatoly Zak; last update: August 27, 2018

Page editor: Alain Chabot; last edit: January 29, 2014

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Yevgeny Shetinkov was a key engineer behind Vehicle 212.


Sergei Pivovarov led the development of the first three-axis gyroscopic autopilot for Vehicle 212.


Vehicle 212 was developed at RNII research institute in Moscow. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak



ORM-65 engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Vehicle 212 probably photographed at RNII in Moscow.


A possible early version of Vehicle 212 during pre-flight testing.



The first Vehicle 212 during testing, probably at the Sofrino test range, east of Moscow, during flight trials at the beginning of 1939. No photos of the rocket in flight had been seen.


A gyroscopic autopilot GPS-3 for Vehicle 212.


A scale model of Vehicle 212 on its takeoff sled. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

Film recorder

Motion camera Kinalyu No. 81510, which was used by RNII personnel in 1937. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

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