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Tikhonravov, Mikhail Klavdievich

(July 29, 1900 - March 3, 1974)

Tikhonravov graduated from Zhukovsky Air Force Academy in 1925. One of the pioneers of the Soviet space program, Tikhonravov led a group of workers within the earliest Soviet rocket research group, GIRD, from 1932. In 1934, he becomes a head of a department at the Rocket Research Institute, RNII. In mid-1940, Tikhonravov led the earliest studies in the Soviet Union on the problems of multistage missiles and orbiting spacecraft. (76)

Mikhail Tikhonravov was born on July 29 (July 16 old style) 1900 in the city of Vladimir in the family of teachers. He graduated from the classical Russian gymnasium in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) learning among other subjects Latin, Classical Greek and theology. (In the future, he would often surprise his colleagues with his knowledge of ancient mythology.)

Despite his "non-proletarian" background, which became a source of problems for many in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Tikhonravov volunteered for the Red Army. In 1919, Tikhonravov was active within newly formed Youth Communist Union. As one of few members of the Union with a completed high-school degree, Tikhonravov was sent to the first Air Force Engineering Institute of the Soviet Russia. In 1922, the Institute is re-organized into Zhukovsky Air Fleet Academy.

During his third year at Zhukovsky Academy, Tikhonravov along with V. S. Pyshnov and S. V. Ilyushin (future famous aircraft designer) organized a glider club under auspices of the Military Scientific Society. Within the club, students developed their own glider designs, which would be built at the academy workshops. Tikhonravov's glider dubbed AVF-1 "Arap" was built first. It was the only glider of the Academy, which passed the 1st All-Union glider tests in the fall of 1923 in Koktebel, Crimea. In 1924, Tikhonravov became a member of the Technical Committee overseeing glider testing. In Koktebel, the home of Soviet glider enthusiasts, in 1927, Tikhonravov met Sergei Korolev, who was also starting his career on the wings of gliders. They became friends and colleagues for decades to come and... made history in process.

Also, at the Academy, Tikhonravov was apparently exposed to the idea of space flight for the first time. (126) Lectures by Professor V. P. Vetchinkin introduced him to the works of Tsiolkovsky. According to another source, his interest in space flight was sparked by a visit to world's first exhibition of technology for interplanetary travel, which was held in Moscow in April 1927. (453)

Upon graduation in 1925, (76) Tikhonravov spent a year as an intern at the light bomber wing. In the meantime, the Soviet Russia lacked highly qualified aviation specialists, prompting the government to direct many of Zhukovsky Academy graduates into aviation industry, while giving them status of a reserve of the Air Force. This policy launched careers of many future legends of the Soviet aviation, including S. V. Ilyushin, A. I. Mikoyan and A. S. Yakovlev.

Tikhonravov was sent to Plant No. 1 (renamed Plant No. 25 by 1927) led by N. N. Polikarpov, known in the industry as "king of fighters." Tikhonravov worked for the aviation industry for five years, taking a number of leading positions during the development of the 2I-N1 (DI-1) aircraft. He had to witness several accidents, leading to the loss of lives of test pilots. During 1930, Tikhonravov worked for Central Design Bureau, TsKB. (126)

In 1933, Tikhonravov married O. K. Parovina, an employee of the Central Aero- and Hydro-dynamics Institute, TsAGI. She would later join Tikhonravov at GIRD and RNII, remaining his consultant and friend till the end of his life.


Russian historians speculated that early-on in his career, Tikhonravov saw his work in aviation industry as "routine," comparing to the possibilities opening up with the ascent of rocketry. In 1932, despite good career prospects within aviation industry, Tikhonravov joined a newly created Moscow Group for Study of Jet Propulsion, GIRD. As one of the most qualified members of the organization, he took charge of Brigade No. 2, responsible for the development of Engine 03 to be installed onboard of a rocket plane. The engine would employ a pump to feed liquid oxygen and kerosene. The same team would be responsible for Rocket 05 with engine GDLORM-50, burning nitrogen and oxygen.

Under general supervision of Korolev, Tikhonravov's team built the first Soviet luquid-propellant Rocket 09, which flew on August 17, 1933. Upon merger of Moscow-based GIRD with Leningrad-based GDL and resulting creation of Rocket Research Institute, RNII in 1933, (later renamed NII-3) (126) Tikhonravov was appointed a chief of Department No. 2 in 1934. (2) Half a year later, Tikhonravov left the position, concentrating on the research work: he studied the theory of rocket flight, participated in conferences on the exploration of the stratosphere and various activities aimed to popularize rocket technology. (126)

Although liquid-oxygen rockets have remained main focus of Tikhonravov's interest at RNII, he studied various mixtures and properties of rocket propellants, stability of solid propellants and so on.

In February 1934, Tikhonravov along with the chief of RNII Kleimenov made a trip to Kaluga to meet Tsiolkovsky. Eventually, the research into the legacy of Tsiolkovsky and into the history of rocketry and space technology would add another dimension to Tikhonravov's multifaceted work.

In 1937-1938, Tikhonravov witnessed Stalin's big terror, which swept through NII-3 taking lives of its top leadership and sending Korolev and Glushko to prison for years.

During World War II, Tikhonravov worked on increasing accuracy of the Soviet Katyusha rockets, which were developed at the institute. He also dealt with aerodynamics and stability problems of the 302P rocket-powered fighter, which was under development at NII-3 from the second half of 1942. After the project was ultimately killed due to lack of workable propulsion system, Tikhonravov lived through uncertainty at NII-3, as crippled organization tried to reform itself.

Tikhonravov finally saw a new direction for his work in 1944, as the information had emerged about the German A-4 (V-2) rocket. After early search for the remnants of the V-2 rocket in Poland had confirmed astounding capabilities of the German secret weapon, Tikhonravov wasted no time sketching his own high-altitude vehicle, powered by an engine with the thrust of 30 tons, and, capable carrying a pilot. He already foresaw not simply high-altitude launches into the atmosphere, but manned missions to the edge of space.

Known as the VR-190 project (from Russian "Vysotnaya Raketa" or "high-altitude rocket," the V-2-based one-stage rocket would be capable of carrying a pilot to the altitude of 190 kilometers. The pilot would then parachute to Earth.

In March 1946, Tikhonravov proposed the development of VR-190 to M. V. Khrunichev, the Minister of Aviation Industry. Despite a formal approval of the design and, supposedly, positive attitude of Stalin himself, major technical challenges stalled the project. With the formation of specialized rocket industry in May 1946, aviation establishment offered Tikhonravov and a number of other NII-1 (NII-3) specialists to transfer a newly created NII-4 institute in Bolshevo, near Moscow.

Pioneering space

In december 1946, Tikhonravov, as one of few experienced rocket engineers, was appointed Deputy Chief of NII-4. His job description included management of research departments dealing with various aspects of liquid-propulsion ballistic missiles, such as flight control, propulsion, propellant, theory of flight, structures. At NII-4, Tikhonravov embarked on his pioneering decade-long studies of multistage missiles and orbital space flight. It was crucial in preparing the decision to develop the first artificial satellite and ultimately to build and launch the simplest satellite.

On Nov. 1, 1956, Tikhonravov transferred to Korolev's OKB-1, where he worked for spacecraft development department of the organization.

For his work on the satellite project, Tikhonravov, among other participants was awarded Lenin's Prize.

In the following years, Tikhonravov continued supporting Korolev's key projects in space. For his role in preparing Gagarin's mission, Tikhonravov was awarded a Hero of Socialist Labor.

Later he participated in the development of the Martian expedition project within OKB-1 and also advocated a mission toward the asteroid belt. Despite skepticism of his contemporaries, he believed that asteroids would provide human civilization with materials and resources for a new phase of space exploration.

Along with his primary work at OKB-1, Tikhonravov thought students at Moscow Aviation Institute, MAI, a major supplier of young talent for the Soviet rocket and space industry. (126) He is also credit with the foundation of the scientific school on space armaments within Ministry of Defense. (76)

He was also known to be an amateur painter.

Tikhonravov died on March 4, 1974. He was buried at Novodevichie Cemetery, next to the graves of many test pilots and major figures of aviation and space. (126)

Tikhonravov's honors and degrees (2):

Colonel of the Soviet Army (retired from the armed forces in 1960) (76)

Lenin's Prize: 1957

Doctor of Technical Sciences: 1958

Hero of Socialist Labor: 1961

Professor of Moscow Aviation Institute: 1962

Corresponding Member of the International Academy of Astronautics: 1968

Esteemed Figure of Science and Technology of Russian Federation: 1970

Two Oders of Lenin, Two Orders of Red Banner, Order of Patriotic War 2nd Grade;

Selected writings by Mikhail Tikhonravov (126):

Air Flow and the Flight of a Glider, Tekhnika i Snabzhenie Krasnoi Armii, No. 122, 1924

Some Statistical and Aerodynamic Properties of Birds, Voiyna i Tekhnika, No. 257, 1926

Loads on the Glider, Samolet, No. 4, 1930

Gliders, Moscow, Samoletostroenie 1931

Flight of Insects, Samolet, No. 12, 1934

Aviation Tanks, Moscow 1934

The application of rocket flying apparatus for the exploration of the stratosphere (1934-1938);

Application of Rockets for the Exploration of the Stratosphere (1934-1938);

Stability of the Vertical Rocket Flight (two articles published on the subject during 1935-1938 are considered a classical work on the theory of stability of rockets without a flight control system.);

Rocket Technology, Moscow 1935

Systems of Power Supply and Lubrication of Aviation Engines for Aircraft, 1936

Ways of Using Ray Energy for Space Flight, 1936. (Essentially a science fiction work for its time, which indicates Tikhonnravov's fundamental interest in the problems of space flight.)

Flight of Birds and Machines with Waving Wings, 1936, reprinted in 1949

Works by Tsiolkovsky and Modern Rocket Development, Moscow 1939, (First serious analysis of the Tsiolkovsky's legacy.)

Reaching Asteroids, Ideas of Tsiolkovsky and Modern Age, Moscow 1979


Mikhail Tikhonravov


Mikhail Tikhonravov


Left to right: A.A. Kosmodemyansky, B. N. Vorobiev, M. K Tikhonravov, S. P. Korolev at the celebration of Tsiolkovsky's 90th birthday on Sept. 17, 1947. Credit: RKK Energia. (241)

Sputnik team

A reunion of the Sputnik project veterans in 1970. First row (sitting): V. N. Galkovsky, G. Yu. Maksimov, L. N. Soldatova, M. K. Tikhonravov, I. M. Yatsunsky. Second row (standing): G. M. Moskalenko, O. V. Gurko, I. K. Bazhinov. Click to enlarge. Credit: RKK Energia