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Object D: the first Soviet satellite project

The Object D was conceived as a multi-functional science laboratory with an ambitious array of instruments onboard. It was expected to measure the density and ion composition of the Earth's atmosphere and its magnetic field, and to study solar radiation and cosmic rays. The first satellite also promised a wealth of engineering data, which could later help in the development of attitude- and thermal control systems for future spacecraft, as well as information on the interaction of satellites with the upper atmosphere.



Soviet government approves the first satellite project

A decree of the Soviet of Ministers, No. 149-88ss, formally authorizing the development of an artificial satellite was approved on Jan. 30, 1956. The document called for the development of a satellite without an attitude control system during a period from 1957 to 1958. The satellite was code-named Object D. (Designations "A", "B" and "V" based on letters at the beginning of the Russian alphabet were reserved for various configurations of warheads proposed for the R-7 ballistic missile, which would be modified for the satellite launch.)

The spacecraft's mass was limited to between 1,000 and 1,400 kilograms to match the capabilities of the R-7. The total mass of scientific equipment onboard the satellite could reach up to 200 or 300 kilograms and the launch was planned in 1957. (248, 52, 126) Unlike the wording in an early draft of that government decree, the launch in the first half of 1957 was no longer specified.

The document delegated responsibilities for various aspects of the project to following institutions:

Area of responsibility Organization Responsible officials
General scientific management of the project; supplying scientific payload for the spacecraft Academy of Sciences of USSR Nesmeyanov, Topchiev, M. Keldysh
Satellite bus development OKB-1 under Ministry of Defense Industry D. Ustinov, Vetoshkin
Flight control system, radio and telemetry systems Ministry of Radio Industry Kalmykov, Vladimirsky
Gyroscopes Ministry of Shipbuilding -
Ground processing, transport, fueling and launch hardware Ministry of Machine building Smelyakov, Parshin
Launch operations Ministry of Defense G. Zhukov
Tracking means Ministry of Aviation Industry Dementiev
Management and coordination of work on Object D Special Committee of the Soviet of Ministers Ryabikov

The decree assigned the Soviet Academy of Sciences the task of using Object D for studying the following disciplines:

  • Geophysics - the studies of gravitational and magnetic fields, the shape of the Earth, ionosphere research and its influence on the spread of radio waves and structure of the upper atmosphere;
  • Physics - the studies of space radiation and observation of the effects of the relativity theory;
  • Biology - studies of long duration presence of live organisms onboard artificial satellites;
  • Astronomy - studies of the Sun, hazards from meteors and the photography of the Earth surface;

The document authorized the use of hardware and components developed for "other articles," (likely meaning nuclear warheads) in the Object D project in order to save time and resources, as long as it would not interfere with the work on the original vehicles.

In addition to the full-scale development and manufacturing of Object D, the same decree also authorized preliminary studies into Object OD, where "O" stood for "orientiruemy" meaning capable of controlling its attitude. Technical requirements for the OD vehicle were to be jointly formulated by the Ministry of Defense Industry, the Ministry of Defense and the Academy of Sciences. This project formed the foundation for the development of a vehicle which could be returned from orbit, thus paving the way to the first manned spacecraft.

The January 30 decree also retained the previous plan to develop a small satellite for low-cost scientific research -- Object MPS, during a period from 1956 to 1958. The document requested proposals for the program to be submitted to the Soviet of Ministers within two months. (509)

Khrushchev's blessing

On February 27, 1956, just days after exposing the bloody legacy of Stalin's crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev made a long-delayed visit to Korolev's OKB-1 in Podlipki, near Moscow. With awe and amazement, but still without the full realization of its historic significance, the Soviet leader and his entourage saw the coming of the Space Age in the form of a full-scale mockup of the enormous R-7 rocket. When Korolev reminded Khrushchev that with this new giant rocket, America would no longer remain unreachable for the Soviet nuclear weapons, the Soviet leader "simply beamed." It was the perfect moment for Korolev to introduce a satellite. Khrushchev's son Sergei described the moment in his memoirs:

"I would like you to know about still another project." As he noticed that that his visitors were about to leave, Korolev added quickly: "It will only become feasible with the birth of the R-7. I wrote a report about it to the Central Committee and have had a positive response."

"Sergei Pavlovich (Korolev) led us to a stand occupying a modest place in a corner, near the door. A model of some kind of apparatus lay on the stand. It looked unusual to put it mildly. A flying machine should have a smooth surface, flowing shapes and clean-cut angles. But this one had some type of rods protruding on all sides and paneling by projections."

Korolev began his exposition far back, with Tsiolkovsky. He recalled the latter's dream of escaping the bonds of Earth.

"And now we can achieve that," exclaimed Korolev rather emotionally. But he checked himself at once and continued in a businesslike tone to explain that if a flying apparatus attained a certain speed it would not return to the Earth, but would turn into a small planet or something like the moon and begin revolving around the Earth. (87)

Korolev then went through the usual routine about Americans racing feverishly toward their own satellite launch and the importance for the Soviet Union of being first at that and the relative easiness and low price of achieving the victory in this race. As usual, to Khrushchev and his cohorts, the military goals of the rocket dwarfed the idea of the satellite, in its significance. Yet, Khrushchev gave Korolev his blessing. (87)

The first technical requirements for the satellite were issued in February 1956 (247) and on June 14, Korolev finalized a list of modifications needed to be implemented to the R-7 rocket in order for it to carry Object D into orbit.

Design of Object D

The preliminary design of the Object-D satellite was completed in July 1956. Apparently, at the time, the operational life span of the spacecraft was not expected to exceed 7 or 10 days, even though it was to stay in orbit from 2 to 12 weeks. The main limitation on the "life" of scientific instruments was imposed by the capabilities of the ground control network and the bulky, power-hungry telemetry system borrowed from the R-7 rocket. Chemical batteries aboard Object D were designed to provide power for three weeks. (270)

According to the original design, a pair of spring-loaded booms with a length of 12 and 15 meters would deploy antenna reflectors on the satellite, immediately after its separation from the launch vehicle. They were designed to help tracking the spacecraft in orbit. At the time, the mass of the satellite was estimated at 570 kilograms, with 200 or 300 kilograms available as a reserve. As many as three versions of the satellite were drafted for various contingencies. (84)

The exterior body of the spacecraft would be made of aluminum alloy, while two internal magnesium frames would carry service systems and internal instruments. (2)

The spacecraft would have a full complement of hardware for its interaction with ground control. It included avionics to generate and transmit telemetry, a Fakel receiver and transmitter, providing tracking signals to the Binokl-D radar stations on the ground, a transmitter for the Irtysh-D trajectory measurement stations and hardware for the MRV-2M command system. (270) It would enable ground control to turn on and off scientific instruments and service systems aboard the satellite.

At its base, the satellite featured a belt of 16 blinds powered by four electric drives and covering a snake-like radiator. The blinds would open and close depending on readings from onboard temperature sensors. Additional thermal control could be achieved by varying rates of cooling gas flow. (2)

Four small solar panels were installed on top of the satellite, another four on its sides and one was attached to the aft bulkhead.


Object D at a glance:

Body length (without payload fairing) 3,160 millimeters (509);
Full length (folded with payload fairing) 3,570 millimeters (2)
Body diameter 1,740 millimeters (509); 2.8 meters (84)
Internal volume 2.2 meters (84)
Spacecraft mass 1,250 kilograms (509)
Payload mass 900 kilograms, including 520 kilograms for power sources (509); 570 kilograms (84)
Projected data transmission period 20 days (509)
Projected radio transmission period 40-45 days (509)

Further planning

On September 14, 1956, Keldysh invited Korolev to a meeting of the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences discussing the satellite program. The report made by Keldysh revealed a number of milestones in the future space exploration program:

  • Radio transmitter in orbit
  • Orbital flight of a dog
  • A mission to photograph far side of the Moon

Keldysh also promised to provide specifications for the scientific instruments of the satellite, which had originally been scheduled to be ready in August 1956. The early development timeline also called for the Academy of Sciences to deliver mockups of scientific instruments for installation on the prototype of the satellite in October 1956. Now, Keldysh promised to deliver all prototypes in November 1956, despite clear signs of the program's lagging pace. (18)

Reorganizing for space

Early work on Object D coincided with the internal reorganization of Korolev's OKB-1 during August and September 1956. Among other structural changes, Department 9 responsible for satellite development was formed within the design bureau. (71)

Korolev made sure that Mikhail Tikhonravov, the chief "ideologist" of the satellite project and his personal friend, played a key role in the upcoming development of the spacecraft. On Oct. 3, 1956, Korolev requested Ustinov to transfer Tikhonravov to OKB-1 to work at Department 9. On Dec. 27, 1956, the same request went to Marshall of Artillery Mitrofan Nedelin. (247, 248) It was eventually approved. Department 9 was led by S. S. Kryukov with Tikhonravov as a scientific consultant. According to Korolev's biographer Yaroslav Golovanov, Tikhonravov was working at OKB-1 as of Nov. 1, 1956. (18) Tikhonravov took charge of the preliminary design of the future satellite.

At the end of September 1957, Korolev delivered a report on the state of the satellite project to the Scientific and Technical Council of the NII-88 research institute, which just formally separated from his OKB-1 design bureau to serve as an outside expertise center for the rocket industry. In his address to NII-88, Korolev proposed three specialized scientific satellites instead of a single vehicle. NII-88 reportedly endorsed the plan, marking a roadmap toward the expansion of the Soviet satellite project. (18)

Article, illustrations and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 16, 2018

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: May 15, 2018

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Object D later known as Sputnik-3. Note differences on two sides of the spacecraft. Copyright © 2001-2011 Anatoly Zak


Sputnik-3, view from the back. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Scale model of Sputnik-3. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2007 Anatoly Zak


Internal hardware of Sputnik-3. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak

Magnetic field instrument

A test version of the avionics box and the attitude sensor for an instrument designed to measure the distribution of the Earth's magnetic field onboard the Third Artificial Satellite. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

spacecraft science