Gas Dynamics Laboratory

In the fall of 1917, the Communist Party, (then known as the Bolshevik Party), emerged victorious from a political struggle, which followed the collapse of the centuries-old monarchy in Russia. What started as an all but bloodless coup d'etat would prove to be only a prelude for a dark epoch of civil war, famine and tyranny.

Facing numerous enemies within and outside the country, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of Bolsheviks, called for the defense of the revolution at all costs. In the following years, Soviet leaders spared no efforts in modernizing the newly-formed Red Army.

GDL: Organizational history

On May 3, 1919, in the midst of Russia's civil war, Nikolai Tikhomirov (1859-1930), a chemical engineer sent a letter to Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, chief of administrative service of the Soviet of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom), in which he requested state support for the development of his invention -- rocket-propelled weapons, "so they could help to strengthen the Republic." (82) With the letter, Tikhomirov attached a positive review of his proposal signed by N. Zhukovskiy, a prominent aeronautical engineer, and a 1915 patent (Number 309) on his invention.

Tikhomirov had started studying problems of solid and liquid-fueled rockets as early as 1894, and in 1915 he patented "self-propelled aerial and water-surface mines." Between 1912 and 1917, the Navy Ministry studied Tikhomirov's proposals, until the chaos of the revolution interfered. (113)

After a series of reviews, the new Soviet authorities found Tikhomirov's ideas promising, and on March 1, 1921, the Soviet government established a "Laboratory for development of the invention of engineer N. I. Tikhomirov" in Moscow. Reportedly, S. Kamenev, the Chief Commander of the Armed Forces personally helped to resolve the matter. (113) Vladimir Artemiev, an artillery engineer with experience in rocketry, took the position of overseeing military applications and testing of the new technology. Tikhomirov's lab occupied a two-story house on Tikhvinskaya Street and included pyrotechnical and chemical rooms and a shop with 17 machine-tools.

In 1925, Tikhomirov's lab moved to the city of St. Petersburg, which was called Leningrad, during most of the Soviet period. (81) In 1928, Tikhomirov's lab was named Gas-Dynamic Laboratory or GDL, reportedly on a proposal from Tukhachevskiy, a prominent Soviet commander.

At the time, it was under jurisdiction of the Military Scientific and Research Committee of Revolutionary Military Council, Revvoensovet, the precursor of the Ministry of Defense.

In 1928, Georgi Langemak, a future leader of the early Soviet rocket research, joined the GDL. (82)

In July 1931, Mikhail Tukhachevsky transferred the jurisdiction over the GDL from the Military Scientific and Research Committee of the Revvoensovet to the Directorate of Military Inventions (UVI) within the Technical headquarters of the Chief of Armaments of the Red Army.

Tukhachevskiy took under his personal control the research at the GDL -- a move, which would later make the collective of the lab one of the first targets of Stalin's terror campaign against Soviet intelligentsia. Apparently, Tukhachevsky had a considerable personal interest in the development of the prospective technology. It is known that he made several visits to the lab during 1932 and 1933, and in the fall of 1933, Tukhachevsky personally viewed the testing of the solid-propellant missiles developed at the GDL. (113)

Since its founding in 1921, the staff of the lab had grown from an original 10 people to 23 in 1923, 77 in 1931, 120 in 1932 and 200 in 1933.

As of 1931, the GDL included seven departments located in Admiralty building in downtown St. Petersburg and in the Petropavlovskaya Fortress on an island in the Neva River.

On October 1, 1933, the GDL became a Leningrad branch (LO) of Jet Propulsion Research Institute (RNII) based in Moscow. At the beginning of January 1934, the personnel of the GDL relocated to Moscow, where the Glushko group continued the development of the ORM family of the liquid-propellant engines.

Powder missile research

Researchers at the GDL started their work with attempts at developing new compositions of smokeless powder, which would allow future missiles to compete with artillery. Tikhomirov also hoped to combine a missile with an artillery shell, creating a bazooka-type weapon.

To perfect the process of manufacturing smokeless powder, the GDL cooperated with the Leningrad-based Institute of Applied Chemistry. By 1924, developers had succeeded in producing compressed packs of smokeless powder, which would be ideal for use in battlefield missiles. During 1927-1928, mass production of the powder charges started at a "detonation shop" of the Krasnogvardeets plant and later at the navy powder and explosives lab at the port of the Vasilevskiy Island in St. Petersburg. (113)

On March 3, 1928, engineers from the GDL fired the first Soviet shell propelled by the smokeless powder. The missile had a range of about 1,300 meters. (82, 113) Tests took place at the Rzhevskiy Main Artillery Test Range, near the village of Toksovo, some 20 miles northwest of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). (In the post-Soviet era, human-rights groups produced evidence that Stalin's secret police used a secluded section of the Rzevskiy Test Range for mass executions.)

From 1930, the GDL tried to develop solid-fuel missiles with calibers ranging from 65 to 410 millimeters. The biggest version of the missile was expected to have a range of 8 kilometers with a launch mass of 500 kilograms. (2) During 1932, the RS-82 missiles (with a caliber of 82 millimeters) were fired from the I-4 fighter plane. (123) By 1933, the GDL had conducted official tests of nine types of ground- air- and sea-based missiles employing solid propellant.

Rocket-assisted takeoff

In 1927, GDL personnel also pioneered Soviet attempts to develop systems, intended to shorten the takeoff of military aircraft. The work concluded with the successful tests of the 8-ton TB-1 bomber with rocket-assisted takeoff. Thanks to the rocket accelerators, the takeoff distance was reduced by four. (2)

Liquid-fuel rocketry

In 1929, Tikhomirov interviewed a 21-year-old engineer named Valentin Glushko, a graduate of Leningrad University, who since May 15, 1929 had been officially on staff at the GDL. Upon joining the organization, Glushko took charge of the so-called "2nd Sector" (2nd Department) at the lab, which would initiate a new direction -- electric and liquid-fueled rocket engines. (113)

The ORM-1 engine

In 1930, Glushko started developing an experimental water-cooled ORM-1 engine, which was expected to produce a thrust of 20 kilograms for several seconds. Made of 93 components, it was to be the first Soviet liquid-propellant rocket engine. Glushko tried a mix of nitrogen tetroxide with benzene, nitrogen tetroxide with toluol as well as liquid oxygen and benzene. (125)

ORM series

During 1931, Glushko's collective conducted 46* test firings of the ORM (from "Experimental Rocket Motor" in Russian) engine, which used nitrogen tetroxide as a oxidizer. To select the fuel, Glushko tried benzol, benzene and toluol. The engine could develop 60 newtons of thrust and its combustion chamber had a volume of 140 cubic centimeters. (125)

The test site for the engine was built within the premises of the GDL, inside the Petropavlovskaya Fortress.

A total of 50 test firings of the ORM and ORM-1 engines were conducted during 1931, which revealed an array of problems, facing the developers. In an effort to develop a feasible rocket engine, which could be used, the Glushko team spent several years working on a number of experimental engines, all the way through ORM-47.

Engines ORM-4 through ORM-22 were tested during 1932, employing different propellants.

Engines ORM-23 to ORM-52 were tested during 1933. By the end of 1933, Glushko was convinced that a mix of nitric acid and kerosene would serve as the best propellant for liquid-propellant engines. (2) Decades later, this conviction would be fateful for the Soviet space program.


In 1933, Glushko developed the ORM-48 engine, which burned a mix of nitric acid and kerosene. The nozzle of the engine had dual walls with a system of channels in between, through which cooling water could circulate. (2)


In 1933, the GDL conducted "official" tests of the ORM-50 and ORM-52 engines with a thrust of 150 kilograms. The ORM-50 engine was intended for the rocket known as "05", developed by Mikhail Tikhonravov from GIRD.

RLA rockets

Glushko's ambitions did not end with the development of propulsion systems. In order to test the designs of rocket engines he developed, Glushko and his associates proposed their own "rocket-powered flying vehicles" or RLAs.

The small version of the rocket, designated RLA-1, RLA-2 and RLA-3, were expected to reach 2-4 kilometers of altitude, while a 400-kilogram two-body RLA-100 rocket could fly as high as 100 kilometers. (2)

Glushko hoped to use the ORM-52 engine to power 80-kilogram RLA-1-type rockets. The same engine was also intended for a navy torpedo and for the rocket-assisted takeoff of the I-4 fighter plane. One of the engines reportedly endured 29 tests, logging nine minutes of burn time.

RLA-1 and RLA-2 rockets were actually manufactured and on December 31, 1933, the Glushko team attempted to launch the RLA-1. Due to technical problems, the vehicle had never left the launch pad, and another launch attempt was planned in January 1934, however the GDL's relocation to Moscow, apparently, interrupted these plans. (113)

GDL departments as of 1931 (2, 113):

Head Location Field
G. E. Langemak
rocket powered shells (RS)
V. P. Glushko
liquid fuel and electrical rocket engines
V. I. Dudakov
Aircraft-launched solid-propellant missiles
I. I. Kulagin
Development of the powder-fuel charges for RS
N. A. Dorovlev
Rocket-propelled grenades/mines development
E. S. Petrov

After death of Tikhomirov in 1930, Boris Petropavlovskiy led the GDL, until his own death in 1933. By 1933, nine types of ground- air- and sea-based rockets had been developed in GDL (82) and taken into the armaments of the Red Army (113).

Heads of GDL:

  • Nikolai Tikhomirov -- 1921-1930
  • Boris Petropavlovskiy -- 1930-1931
  • Nikolai Il'in -- 1931-1932
  • Ivan Kleimenov -- 1932-1933

*According to other sources (113) -- 47 of the ORM engine were conducted. Another source says 100 (2) firings of the ORM-(type?) engines took place during 1931 and 1932.

Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: August 17, 2018

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The Petropavlovskaya Fortress in St. Petersburg became a home of the early Soviet research in the field of rocketry. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Russian work on electric (ion) engines started with Valentin Glushko's project of Gelioraketoplan in 1928-1929. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

The RS-82 missile. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The ORM-1 experimental rocket engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The ORM experimental rocket engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The ORM-9 experimental rocket engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The ORM-12 experimental rocket engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The ORM-50 rocket engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The ORM-52 rocket engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The RLA-1 experimental rocket powered by ORM-52 engine. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

The project of a two-body RLA-100 experimental rocket. Credit: GDL