History of the Rocket Research Institute, RNII

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The GIRD-X rocket was launched on Nov. 25, 1933. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

The Jet Propulsion Research Institute, RNII, was officially created on September 21, 1933, in Moscow by Decree Number 113 of the Revolutionary Military Soviet, (signed by Tukhachevskiy) as a result of a merger between Gas Dynamics Laboratory, GDL, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and the Moscow-based Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion, MosGIRD. (2) On October 1, 1933, the GDL officially became a Leningrad branch, LO, of the RNII. (113)

On October 31, 1933, the Soviet of Labor and Defense issued Decree No. 104, placing the RNII under a jurisdiction of the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry, NKTP. (120) At the beginning of January 1934, the entire personnel of the GDL relocated from Leningrad to Moscow.

Ivan Kleimenov, the former chief at the GDL, was assigned to lead the RNII. For a short period of time, Sergei Korolev worked as deputy chief of RNII but, due to personality conflicts between him and the new chief Ivan Kleimenov and a chief engineer, Georgi Langemak, Korolev was reassigned to lead a department within RNII. In the post-Soviet period, archival records revealed a report to Kleimenov signed by Korolev on January 17, 1934, which contained harsh (and apparently unfounded) criticism of the production shop at the institute. Korolev demanded to fire entire management of the shop, however, it resulted in Kleimenov's request to the Central Committee of the Communist Party to fire Korolev! (84)

The matter was settled with Langemak replacing Korolev as a deputy chief in January 1934. (126) Three years later, in the wave of Stalin's terror sweeping across the Soviet Union, this relatively minor administrative change made a difference between life and death for Korolev. However, the same move also guaranteed a death sentence for Langemak.

Leading engineers at RNII also comprised a Scientific Technical Council, NTS, which led the institute's activities. The NTS included Langemak, as a chairman, as well as Valentin Glushko, Vechaslav Dudakov, Sergei Korolev, Yuri Pobedonostsev and Mikhail Tikhonravov. On June 23, 1935, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was elected as an honorary member of the council. (81)


At the end of 1936, the jurisdiction over RNII was transferred from Narkomat of Heavy Industry to a spin-off ministry named Narkomat of Defense Industry. The institute was renamed NII-3. (241) The same year, the work on ballistic and cruise missiles, which employ liquid-fuel propulsion, was consolidated in a single department led by Korolev. (81)

By 1937, the reign of terror unleashed by Stalin and his associates reached its apogee. Although there wasn't a single individual in the nation who could feel safe from persecution, the Soviet intelligentsia with any apparent or assumed links to the old revolutionary Bolshevik elite became one of the primary targets of Stalin's purges. Not surprisingly, this made the RNII leadership, a perfect victim of Stalin's henchmen.

On June 13, 1937, Soviet citizens were stunned by the news that Marshall Tukhachevsky, a towering figure in the Bolshevik party, had been arrested and executed as an "enemy of the people." Tukhachevsky was an original patron of the NII-3 and arrests within the institute followed. The institute's director and his deputy were executed, while leading engineers Valentin Glushko and Sergei Korolev were given long prison terms.

Andrei Kostikov, who according to Russian historians might have inspired the arrests in the NII-3 to advance his own career, took over the directorship at the institute. (83) Under Kostikov's watch, the NII-3 finalized the development of unguided short-range missiles, which became known during World War II as Katyusha rockets. In the following years, the official Soviet historians' portrayal of Kostikov as a "father" of the legendary weapon, led to a great deal of discontent among the veterans of the Soviet rocket industry. However, not until Mikhail Gorbachev reversed pro-Stalinist policies of the Soviet government at the end of the 1980s, was uncensored assessment of history made possible.

In October 1941, in the face of German advance toward Moscow, the RNII was evacuated to the Ural region. (128)

On July 15, 1942, State Defense Committee, GKO, issued Decree No. 2046, reorganizing NII-3 into the State Institute of Reactive Technology, or GIRT. Jurisdiction over the institute was transferred from Narkomat of Munitions, NKB, to the Soviet of People's Commissars, SNK. (83) Under SNK, the institute was assigned the ill-fated task of developing a rocket-powered interceptor, known as Vehicle 302.

In February 1944, State Defense Committee, GKO, reorganized the institute again into the Scientific and Research Institute of Jet Aviation No. 1, or NII-1, under the jurisdiction of the People's Commissariat of Aviation Industry, NKAP. (120) Another source says the transfer was made in the Spring of 1944. (126)

In July 1944, the autorities in Moscow learned about the existence of a German secret weapon -- the A-4 ballistic missile. From that time, the investigation of German technology became a primary task of the institute.

Lines of research at RNII

The consolidation of several smaller research organizations within the RNII brought a diverse variety of projects as well as different personalities under a single roof. The RNII continued the development of solid-fueled missiles initiated in the GDL and it absorbed the research in the field of liquid-propellant rocketry inherited from GIRD, including the development of a rocket-powered glider and winged missiles.

Solid-propellant missiles, Katyusha

The development of powder-propellant missiles, originated at GDL, had remained a key objective of the RNII. During 1933-1940, the institute worked on several variations of such missiles, designed for ground-to-air, ground-to-surface and ground-to-ground combat. The RS-82 and RS-132 missiles, developed at the GDL, were upgraded for the use by military aircraft. The chemical composition of powder fuel used in the missiles was also improved. (81)

The I-15, I-16 and I-153 fighter planes, as well as the R-5 reconnaissance plane and the Il-2 close air support plane were designed to carry the RS-82 missiles, while, heavier RS-132 missiles could be carried by bombers. (81)

During the summer of 1939, Soviet fighter planes fired RS-82 missiles at Japanese planes during the Soviet-Japanese war in the Far East, reportedly succeeding in intercepting two enemy planes in the first encounter. (113)

After 1938, the RNII also developed mobile ground-based salvo launch system for the ground forces, which would be able to fire RS-132 missiles.

The BM-13 salvo launch system with M-13 missiles was developed during 1939-1940. It was adopted into the armaments in 1941 and took part in World War II. Known as Katyusha rockets, the system was used for the first time on July 14, 1941, for an attack against a railroad junction near the town of Orsha -- where German troops advancing toward Moscow were concentrating. (82) Mass production of solid-propellant missiles was organized during World War II at the Ust-Katav Wagon-building Plant.

According to post-Soviet memoirs, a total 12 million missiles of the RS-type were delivered to the Soviet Army during World War II. (113)

Due to relatively low accuracy of the missiles, the military establishment considered the new weapon as a potential carrier of chemical charges. For this purpose, the RNII, (renamed NII-3 in 1936), developed RKhS-132* missiles with a caliber of 132 millimeters, as well as its launch system based on the ZiS truck, each equipped with 24 launching tracks. (83)

Cruise missiles

After his removal as a deputy director at RNII, Sergei Korolev took charge of the department developing winged missiles.

Vehicle 06/1

Soon after creation of the RNII, Korolev's team "rolled out" "Vehicle 06," conceived by E. S. Shetinkov back at the GIRD organization. In combination with Engine "09," the rocket was designated as 06/1. The vehicle was equipped with a triangular wing and had no flight control system. A 20-meter long wooden ramp was built for the launch of the vehicle. The first test firing took place at the beginning of 1934, revealing a number of problems and the launch attempt was made on May 5, 1934. The vehicle was able to climb over a distance of around 100 meters.

In order to improve the attitude control of the rocket in flight, for the next launch, the 06/1 was equipped with a primitive flight control system. However, another test launch on May 23, 1934 was a failure, making it clear that the development of a new flight control system would be required. By September 1934, based on experience with the 06/1, Korolev completed a preliminary design of several cruise missiles, designated 06/2, 06/3 and 06/4. (84)

Vehicle 216

A preliminary design of Vehicle 06/3 became a base for the Vehicle 216, a 81-kilogram winged missile, equipped with a flight control system. In addition to the flight control system borrowed from the 06/1, which steered the horizontal stabilizer of the rocket in accordance with a preprogrammed sequence, Vehicle 216 rocket could also be controlled with eilerons.

The first launch attempt took place on May 9, 1936. After leaving its launch ramp, the rocket climbed to an altitude of 600 meters and exploded at a distance of about 1.5 kilometers. It also deviated 1.4 kilometers from the intended flight path. These unencouraging results prompted engineers to start extensive experimental work with mockups of the rocket, in an effort to better understand its gliding characteristics. A new launch was attempted at the end of October 1936, however it failed despite upgrades in the flight control system and in the design of the launching catapult. The project was apparently abandoned at the beginning of 1937, however, the work plan for that year scheduled a research project called "Automated stability of reactive vehicles." (84)

Vehicle 212

The next step in advancing cruise missile technology was Vehicle 212, based on Korolev's 06/IV design. The new rocket was equipped with a three-axis stabilization system and a parachute. The preliminary design of the rocket was approved on July 26, 1936, and a final design -- on August 2, 1936.

On November 17, 1936, two full scale mockups of the 212 rocket were tested on the catapult. In both cases, a sled of the catapult hit the rocket at takeoff. The vehicle was back in the lab during all of 1937. On May 29, 1938, another bench test of the rocket ended with an explosion and Korolev's injury. After the arrests of Korolev and Glushko in the midst of Stalin's purges, Vehicle 212 took to the air in 1939. (54, 82) In both attempts, the rocket took off successfully, however it inevitably deviated from its intended path in flight. (84) The project was then abandoned.

Vehicle 301

In 1937, Korolev's team attempted to modify Vehicle 212 into an aircraft-launched missile, capable of hitting "primarily" aerial targets as well as those on the ground. The original plan called for development of a guidance system, which would allow radio control of the missile from the carrier aircraft. In the fall of 1936, another missile -- 216 -- was used as a test bed for a prototype of the radio control. In the experiment, a radio command sent to the rocket released a smoke cloud in flight. However, the work did not progress any further. (84)

Technical specifications for RNII's cruise missiles (84):

Launch mass, kg
Length, meters
Wing span, meters
Wing area, square meters
Engine thrust, kg
Flight range, meters

The rocket-powered glider RP-318

At the beginning of 1936 Korolev developed a concept for a manned glider, which would be powered by a rocket engine burning up to 400 seconds. Early plans considered both liquid and solid-fuel rocket engines in the role of the primary propulsion system. The vehicle was expected to achieve a speed of 300 meters per second at an altitude of 3 kilometers and climb up to a maximum altitude of 25 kilometers. Two people, wearing pressure suits, would pilot the craft.

A heavy transport plane would tow the rocket glider from takeoff and up to an altitude of 8-10 kilometers. Alternatively, solid-rocket motors could be used for takeoff.

As a first step toward the implementation of the project, Korolev proposed to install Glushko's ORM-65 engine on the SK-9 glider. Korolev had completed the development of the SK-9 glider a year earlier. The resulting configuration was designated RP-318-1, (or RP-218-1).

On June 16, 1936, the technical concil of the RNII considered a preliminary design of the rocket glider, designated 218. The project proposed four configurations of the glider with progressively improving characteristics. Zhukovsky Air Force Academy gave a positive review of the project.

On December 16, 1937, the RNII conducted the first test firing of the propulsion system for the glider and between December 25, 1937 and February 5, 1938 a total of 20 tests took place. On May 26, 1938, Korolev signed off on the field test of the glider. However a month later, he was arrested.

On July 14, 1938, the RNII management ordered the mothballing of the RP-318-1 glider, and the project remained stalled until December 1938. In the wake of the purges at the RNII, a competing team of engineers took over the RP-318-1 project. Glushko's ORM-65 engine was replaced with the RDA-1-150 engine developed by L. S. Dushkin. Tests of the glider with the new engine started in February 1939. By October of the same year, a total of 100 test firings and four "tugged" flights had been conducted.

On February 28, 1940, the RP-318-1 glider, piloted by V. P. Fedorov, conducted its first powered flight. (84) As a result of these experiments, on June 12, 1940, the Defense Committee under the Soviet of People Commissars issued a decree authorizing the development of a rocket-powered aircraft. (126)

On August 1, 1941, hardly a month after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government issued Decree Number 348, assigning a design bureau Number 293 led by Viktor Bolkhovitinov, with the development of a manned rocket-powered interceptor. Aleksander Bereznyak and Alexei Isaev took charge of the program at the bureau.

The same year, Bolkhovitinov requested the NII-3 to develop a rocket engine for a fighter plane. (126) However, upon evacuation of the bureau to the town of Bilimbai, Bolkhovitinov's collective had to take over the development of the engine for the plane.

The BI-1 experimental fighter plane, developed by the Bolkhovitinov team and equipped with liquid-fuel rocket engine conducted its first flight in May 1942.

Glushko's work

Beginning with his work at GDL and until his arrest by Stalin's henchmen in 1938, Glushko oversaw the development of more than 70 types of engines within the ORM family, from the ORM to the ORM-70, as well as ORM-101, and ORM-102. (2) During the same period, the thrust of the engines grew from 20 kilograms to around 320 kilograms in the last models. (54)

The ORM-50 engine was intended for the rocket known as "05", developed by Mikhail Tikhonravov at GIRD.

By 1936, the Glushko team had completed development of the ORM-65 engine, which was intended for a rocket-powered glider, designated RP-318-1, and the 212 cruise missile, both developed by Korolev's team. The engine allowed automated ignition, thrust variation and it could withstand up to 50 firings. (82)

Tikhonravov's work

By the time of his move to Moscow from Leningrad in 1934, Glushko had already made nitric acid and kerosene his "propellant of choice." Nevertheless, Mikhail Tikhonravov, who came to RNII from GIRD, continued attempts to develop a rocket engine burning kerosene mixed with liquid oxygen. (120) Tikhonravov joined RNII's predecessor, GIRD, in 1932.

In the summer of 1935, the 07 rocket, designed by Tikhonravov and equipped with the 02 engine reached an altitude of 3,000 meters.

On April 24, 1936, the 3-meter-long Aviavnito rocket, powered by a 300-kilogram engine, made a test flight. On August 15, the same rocket reached an altitude of 2,400 meters. (54)

On August 13, 1937, a 97-kilogram Aviavnito rocket (previously known as 05) designed by Tikhonravov and equiped with an engine burning a mix of alcohol and liquid oxygen reached an altitude of 3,000 meters. (126)

Next chapter: Soviet rocketry after World War II



Full-size replicas of rockets developed by engineers from GIRD (left to right): Aviavnito 07, GIRD-09. The GIRD-X rocket. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


The GIRD-09 (Version 13) and GIRD-X rockets. Copyright © 2009, 2001 Anatoly Zak

A "cutaway" replica of Tikhonravov's engine "09" (shown upside down) for the GIRD-9 and 06 rockets. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A "cutaway" replica of the engine "10" for the GIRD-X rocket. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A cruise missile designated Vehicle ("Ob'ekt") 212. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A "cutaway" replica of the ORM-65 engine (displayed in upside down position, as it was tested). Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A scale model of the experimental VR-3 rocket, equipped with a ramjet engine. The rocket was tested in May 1939. (82) Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A mobile Katyusha launcher. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

A 65-kilogram M-8-8 launcher, developed by 1942, could fire eight 82-millimeter-caliber missiles within 4-5 seconds, hitting targets within five-kilometer range. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

RS missiles used by the Soviet Army during World War II. Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak

Film recorder

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