VASILIY PAVLOVICH MISHIN
Although Mishin’s leadership of the TsKBEM was criticised in the aftermath of the Soyuz 11 tragedy, he retained his position owing to support by Sergey Afanasyev, the Minister of General Machine Building, and Andrey Kirilenko, who was a close colleague of Brezhnyev in the Politburo. Mishin’s relationship with Ustinov is very interesting. At first sight it may appear that he was always backed by Ustinov (for how else could he have remained in post despite the deaths of four cosmonauts, the fiasco of the L1 circumlunar programme, the repeated failures of the N1 rocket for
the N1-L3 lunar programme and the loss of two DOS stations before they could be visited) the relationship between the two men was actually much more complex. For instance, when asked in an interview with the eminent space journalist Vladimir Gubaryev about Ustinov’s nomination to lead the Soviet rocket programme, Mishin said: “I am not sure that it was the best choice! It is hard to say whether he brought more harm or good.’’
During the eight years that Mishin ran the main Soviet space institution, he was a controversial figure. He was unfortunate in gaining leadership at a time that NASA accelerated its space programme and won the ‘race’ to be the first to land a man on the Moon. To understand how the Soviet Union lost this race it is necessary to analyse Mishin’s leadership in the context of the roles of Afanasyev and Ustinov, and indeed of the input of Brezhnyev and Kosygin. However, in technical terms, the failures of Mishin’s years in charge of the TsKBEM were, in large part, the result of decisions made by this organisation, initially by Korolev and later by himself.
In terms of Earth orbital flights, Mishin’s period will be remembered for a series of failures, two of which concluded tragically for the crews – the only such losses to date in the programme. Even so, he retained the support of Afanasyev and Ustinov. He was replaced only after the cancellation of the N1-L3, the organisation of which was largely directed by Afanasyev and Ustinov!
The year 1971 marked a low point for the Soviet space programme, with the third launch of the giant N1 lunar rocket ending in failure, the Soyuz 11 tragedy and the deaths of three of the leading rocketry specialists: Aleksey Isayev, Georgiy Babakin and Mikhail Yangel. The disasters continued in 1972 with the loss of DOS-2 and the final N1, and into 1973 with the loss of DOS-3. Although the design of the N1 was criticised by the leading designers at some of the other organisations (and indeed by some of the people in OKB-1/TsKBEM), Mishin continued to work on it, confident that it would soon become operational and enable cosmonauts to walk on the Moon. But the L3 concept was also criticised – if the manner in which the Americans had gone about landing on the Moon was extremely risky, the way that Mishin planned to do it seemed highly likely to result in the loss of the cosmonaut who attempted to execute it.
Mishin often did things in his own way. When dealing with issues about which he really ought to have consulted with his deputies, he made decisions on his own. An excellent example was his ‘contract’ with Chelomey – which marked the beginning of his downfall. Also, owing to his abrupt manner, his intolerance of criticism, and his frequent heavy drinking (sometimes at the TsUP during missions) the number of people whose respect he lost progressively grew. When he lost the support of some of his close colleagues, including Bushuyev and Chertok, this divided the TsKBEM into two factions, one wishing to push on with what was now really no more than a dream of a lunar programme and the other considering the DOS programme (which Mishin wished to discard) as the basis for a strong space programme. When Mishin ignored this ‘mutiny’ by his closest colleagues, the Kremlin stepped in and made its
“The gene of renunciation.” During his 8 years in charge of the TsKBEM, Vasiliy Mishin (third from the left), with the support of Minister Sergey Afanasyev (fourth from the left), worked with the objective of reaching the Moon. After his dismissal in 1974, Mishin (right photo) worked as a professor of space rocket technology at the Moscow Aviation Institute.
dissatisfaction clear, and in 1974 he was replaced by his old rival Valentin Glushko. To Ustinov, Mishin said: “I understand everything, except the reason for choosing Glushko.” Although Glushko’s management had its critics, he successfully turned the TsKBEM into an empire on a scale that Mishin could never have achieved.
Mishin was appointed as a professor of space rocket technology at his alma mater, the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI). In fact, since 1958 he had been lecturing at Lomonosov University in Moscow, and he continued to do this in parallel with MAI. One of his students was Valentin Lebedyev, who joined the TsKBEM, trained as a cosmonaut, and flew as the flight engineer of Soyuz 13, which was the last mission to be flown during Mishin’s term as Chief Designer. While a professor at the MAI, Mishin was able to supervise nine master’s theses and eight doctorates. Those who knew him in these years say he showed two different personalities. At times he was rough, explosive, intolerant and brusque, just as he had been when Chief Designer while speaking his mind in dealing with politicians and generals. But the second personality on display at the MAI was much more pleasant. As a teacher, he transmitted to generations of students his rich experience in the design of rockets. He directed the Department for the Design and Construction of Flying Vehicles at the MAI (later Department 601, Space Systems and Rocket Design) until 1990, and in 2002 its laboratory was given Mishin’s name. He co-authored a number of study-books that are still in use today. In addition, he directed a students’ design bureau where, among other projects, the first Soviet nonhermetic satellite was constructed.
In the second half of the 1980s, after Mikhail Gorbachov had become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mishin gave interviews and published several works designed to vindicate his still controversial contribution to cosmonautics. Although the CIA had been aware since the 1960s that a man named
Mishin was a key figure in the design of Soviet rockets, it was not until now that his identity was allowed to become public. In Why Didn’t We Fly to the Moon? which was published in December 1990, he described, for the first time, the Soviet lunar programme in detail. Always sharp and direct in his manner, he wrote:
They accused me of not defeating the Americans. But everyone knew right from the beginning that the Americans would win. Our leaders did not listen. After the Americans had done it, we said that we were ready to do it better, but they would not let us try.
In conclusion, he wrote:
Often the question arises: If Korolev had not died, what would have come of our space programme? It is my view that not even he, with all his authority, persistency and predisposition for achieving goals, could have dealt with all the processes that have caught all areas of activity in our society. It would have been difficult for him to work without directives, . . . which followed an incomprehensible politics even during his lifetime. Without doubt, he would have achieved something. We could have had a landing on the Moon, … but sadly not within the deadlines that were imposed on us for prestige over the USA. Too much time had been wasted, and so much money was needed, but the directives did not provide it.
I do not wish readers to think that I am trying to avoid my responsibility as Chief Designer for some of the mistakes that were made in the course of the lunar programme – some by myself. He that does not do anything, does not make errors! We, the successors of Korolev, did everything that we could, but it was not enough.
Aleksey Leonov has strongly criticised Mishin for wasting the money available to the lunar programmes. Leonov firmly believes that in 1968 the Soviets could have beaten the Americans to a circumlunar flight. In fact, Leonov was to command the first L1 crew and, if the N1 rocket had worked and the N1-L3 programme had gone ahead, he would have been the first cosmonaut to attempt to land on the Moon. It is likely that Leonov’s hostility towards Mishin originated with the cancellation of the L1 programme without even attempting a manned mission, and was then worsened by Mishin’s order for Leonov’s crew to stand down and let Dobrovolskiy’s crew fly the Soyuz 11 mission.
Although Mishin persistently denied being directly responsible for the failures of the Soviet manned space programme in the years 1966 to 1973, when asked why he had been so antagonistic to the DOS programme he confessed: “I only understood it later on. In those years, I was not aware that I was making a mistake. The point is that 80 per cent of the tasks that were beneficial to the national economy could have been done by unmanned spacecraft.’’
Few people at the TsKBEM felt sorrow at Mishin’s dismissal as Chief Designer.
In writing his memoirs, Boris Chertok did not feel it appropriate to explain anything about Mishin’s subsequent career.
After leaving the TsKBEM, Mishin left its work behind. Only twice did he cross the doorstep of NPO Energiya. His only real support was his family: his wife Nina Andreyevna, with whom he spent 63 years, and his daughters Yelena (who worked for Korolev and for her father for 40 years), Kira and Vera.
Vasiliy Mishin died on 10 October 2001, aged 84, and was buried five days later in Trekurovskoye Cemetery in Moscow. During a ceremony on 18 January 2007 to mark the 90th anniversary of his birth, his eldest daughter, Yelena, said: “As time goes by, all the things which remind me of my father and link me to him become dearer to me. He did not have relatives in high positions or strong contacts with the top man. He had only his wife and three daughters. . . . Yes, he always said what he thought. He never stepped back from anyone. He was wise, intellectual and a man of honour. It has been said that every scientist must have a gene of renunciation. . . my father had such a gene.’’