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Lost origins of the Proton rocket

Although Proton is one of the most recognizable Russian rockets today, its early origins remain largely obscured. Like many other Russian space launchers, Proton was conceived as a military ballistic missile. Fortunately, it flew only to carry spacecraft into orbit, not warheads. Still, the military origin left its marks on the design of the rocket itself and on its launch facility.

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Before UR-500 there was the A-600

As with many other engineering achievements, Proton rocket might not have the exact birth date, however it is probably fair to put it at around 1960. Proton's origins are further complicated by the fact that the roots of the iconic vehicle can be traced to two organizations within the Soviet aviation industry.

At the time, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev unceremoniously pushed the nation's military priorities from the Air Force to strategic missiles, leaving many aircraft developers wondering about their future. Not surprisingly, many aviation firms looked toward the space program, which until that time had been an undisputed domain of the Armaments Ministry.

One of the first leaders within the Soviet aviation establishment who recognized the need to elbow himself a room into the prestigious rocket and space field was Vladimir Chelomei, the head of the OKB-52 design bureau which specialized in navy cruise missiles.

Soon after Sergei Korolev's OKB-1 triumphed with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Chelomei, began hatching his own designs for spacecraft and their launchers. By the beginning of April 1960, Chelomei's engineers had already drafted a series of launch vehicles with a liftoff mass ranging from 150 to 1,500 tons. Dubbed the "A" series, these multi-booster rockets would be able to carry payloads ranging from 4 to 96 tons. (210)

To avoid instutional rivalry with the Armaments Ministry, Chelomei moved quickly to find sub-contractors and suppliers of critical components for his space fleet within his "native" aviation industry. First of all, he needed powerful rocket engines. Fortunately for Chelomei, after Khrushchev's U-turn away from the Air Force, a number of aircraft engine developers had not exactly had their hands full and were willing to try the novel field of rocket propulsion. Nikolai Kuznetsov, the head of the OKB-276 design bureau in Kuibyshev, promised Chelomei a rocket engine burning a mix of liquid oxygen and kerosene. Sergei Tumansky apparently proposed even a larger rocket engine using the same propellants. Another prolific developer of aircraft engines, Arkhip Lylka, the head OKB-165 bureau, endeavored to try the development of an exotic, but promising rocket engine burning liquid hydrogen. It would be used on the upper stage of Chelomei's rockets. (113)

The first in line for development in Chelomei's launcher fleet -- the A-300 rocket -- would be equipped with 10 NK-9 engines developed by Kuznetsov. This rocket would deliver from 10 to 12 tons of payload to the low Earth orbit. (658)

Myasishev's rockets

Around the same time when Chelomei was drafting his first space launchers, the OKB-23 design bureau, led by a legendary aircraft designer Vladimir Myasishev, began work on a reusable space plane. It was conceived as a successor to the original Soviet manned spacecraft, the Vostok. However, ever increasing mass quickly took the futuristic vehicle beyond the capabilities of the R-7 rocket, which was originally expected to launch it. To resolve the problem, OKB-23 considered a much larger three-stage vehicle with a multi-booster first stage, which would double the payload of the R-7 rocket. (198) By the middle of 1960, Myasishev entered negotiations with Vladimir Chelomei on the possible joint development of a large launch vehicle. With the core of the development team in place, it was time to build a political support.

On May 10, 1960, Chelomei made a presentation to Khrushchev on a wide array of space projects and two days later the Soviet leader gave his blessing to Chelomei to prepare a draft of a government decree on his future space activities. On May 21, the Minister of Aviation Industry Petr Dementiev hosted a major meeting of his key leaders, including Chelomei and Myasishev, as well as an influential head of the Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh. The participants reviewed and largely approved Chelomei's plans, including a concept of the A-300 rocket. (658)

The sudden entrance of the aviation industry into space arena forced Korolev to scramble for a response. From the perspective of Korolev's OKB-1, Chelomei's moves were seen as an attempt at a total takeover of the future manned space program. In a letter sent to the Military Industrial Commission on May 30, 1960, Korolev protested Chelomei's attempts to relegate OKB-1 and his triumphant R-7 rocket to the role of second fiddle in Chelomei's space strategy. Korolev argued against the A-300 rocket, probably because it was in the same weight category as the R-7. However in the same letter, Korolev did agree that Chelomei's proposed 600-ton rocket might make sense. Perhaps to deny Chelomei the new launch infrastructure, Korolev proposed to evaluate whether A-600 could lift off from R-7's launch facilities, thus saving on the construction of new pads. Korolev attached his own draft of a government decree on the space program to the letter. In it, he ceded to Chelomei the development of A-600 and a space plane, among few other projects demanded by his emboldened rival. (84)

To the chagrin of Korolev, on June 4, Chelomei presented his plans at the meeting hosted by Deputy Chairman of the Soviet of Ministers Dmitry Ustinov. (At the gathering, Korolev still managed to dwarf even Chelomei's 600-ton rocket with his own ambition to build a 2,000-ton super launcher.)

In a letter dated June 16, 1960, Ivan Serbin, an official responsible for the defense industry at the Central Committee, outlined Chelomei's space ambitions which had been estimated to cost 5 billion rubles. It included a launch vehicle with a liftoff mass ranging from 600 to 700 tons, which would carry a 25-ton space plane. Under the proposed distribution of responsibilities, OKB-52 would be responsible for the winged orbiter, while Myasishev's OKB-23 would be responsible for the first and second stages of its launcher. Sukhoi's OKB-51 would design the third stage, according to the letter. The preliminary design for the project was scheduled to be completed in the third quarter of 1962. (509)

Go-ahead for Chelomei's space program

On June 23, 1960, the Soviet government issued a sweeping decree No. 714-295, approving initial work on Chelomei's two-stage, 600-ton rocket, among several other ambitious space-related projects. The document required the aviation industry to present a development schedule for the rocket with a completion of its preliminary design in the fourth quarter of 1961. (209, 509)

After consulting with his prospective contractors, on Aug. 3, 1960, Chelomei convened a large meeting of aviation industry leaders, to discus a joint effort to develop a space launcher. Myasishev's OKB-23 and Sukhoi's OKB-51 were offered to develop the first and second stages of the rocket. Leaders of both organizations expressed interest in the project and committed to produce a schedule for the preliminary design in a week. Also, within a month, contractors promised to submit their proposals for the A-600, whose components could also be used to build a rocket with a liftoff mass of 300 and 150 tons. Another summit to review the launcher project was scheduled for October 11.

In the meantime, political developments had overtaken the engineering work. In the fall of 1960, Chelomei managed to "swallow" Maysishev's OKB-23, absorbing this much larger organization into his OKB-52. Along with a top-notch team of engineers, Chelomei grabbed a vast but underutilized aircraft factory in the western Moscow suburb of Fili. Myasishev was sent to an honorable exile to serve as a head of the leading aviation industry research institute, TsAGI, while his OKB-23 design bureau became Branch No. 1 within Chelomei's growing industrial empire.

Chelomei's first deputy Viktor Bugaisky was appointed to lead the former Myasishev's team. (659) Pavel Ivensen was appointed a chief designer of the launch vehicle development. Vitaly Vyrodov became the leading engineer in the project. Not coincidently, Branch No. 1, with the most experienced collective of engineers and the best manufacturing base, got responsibility for the further work on launch vehicles. Engineers from former OKB-23 went on to develop all of Chelomei's ballistic missiles and space launchers, including UR-100, UR-200 and UR-500. (660)

Next chapter: Origin of the Proton rocket

A-series of rockets considered at OKB-52 circa 1960 (210)*:

Liftoff mass
Payload mass
A-150 (Kosmoplan launcher)
200 tons
4 tons
300 tons
8 tons
300 tons
12 tons
A-300-II (2)
300 tons
13 tons
299 tons
10 tons
2A-300 (two-booster cluster)
600 tons
16 tons
4A-300-I (four-booster cluster of A-300 rockets)
1,200 tons
40 tons
8A-300-II (eight-booster cluster of A-300-11 rockets)
2,400 tons
96 tons
600 tons
17 tons
600 tons
25 tons
ARD (Autonomous Rocket Engine vehicles)
450 tons
26 tons
ARD (2) (Autonomous Rocket Engine vehicles)
296 tons
25 tons
1,680 tons
85 tons
1,965 tons
85 tons

*The number in the designation of each model denotes the launch mass of the rocket in tons, starting a naming tradition for OKB-52. According to another source A-series included: A-300, A-300-1, A-300-2, A-2000 and A-1750 versions. (658)


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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: June 14, 2019

Page editor: James MacLaren; Last update: September 29, 2013

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Earliest origins of Proton: A sketch attributed to Vladimir Chelomei apparently shows several configurations of a heavy-lifting launch vehicle. Note a small sketch at the top of the drawing.


Vladimir Myasishev. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev


Vladimir Maysishev considered a three-stage launch vehicle for its space plane. Credit: Myasishev design bureau


Vladimir Chelomei (right) next to a scale model of unidentified rocket, possibly a stylized version of his UR-500 ICBM.


Pilyugin and Chelomei most likely in 1978.