A bit more Chertok. How often do you read a Soviet account of the Cuban missile crisis?
In October 1962, Boris Chertok was, as very often, down at Baikonur site 1 frantically preparing spaceships. Very often, the spacecraft and the launcher would arrive at the vehicle integration facility (MIK) in a semifinished state and the processes of check-out and of just finishing the job were not really separate. They had just had a failed launch, Korolev had gone back to OKB-1, while Chertok stayed on to prepare the next lot of rockets. Launches in the Mars-Venus scientific programme, the Voskhod manned programme, the flight development tests of the R-9 rocket, and the Zenit reconnaissance programme were on the agenda.
Chertok and colleagues were aware of the installation of the R-12 and R-14 IRBMs and the SA-2 air defence system in Cuba; unlike a lot of Korolevians, Chertok had worked on projects outside OKB-1 and knew the people involved.
Ironically, while he was mostly working on the Zenit recce satellite, he had to endure sarcasm from the military personnel at Baikonur who claimed that Wrangel’s design bureau was working for them, delivering the IRBMs, while OKB-1 just worked for TASS by shooting dogs and men into orbit and flags at the Moon. Although the very first Zenit had already been such a success that the Joint GRU intelligence analysts insisted on more flights even before the tests were finished, the Zenits were far too secret to talk about.
Chertok and his colleagues saw them as a personal triumph – once the optical parameters were set by the mass and dimensional limits of the rocket, the quality of the photographic film being a given, the image resolution was directly determined by the pointing accuracy and stability of the control system, which also had to point the solar panels at the Sun and the radio antenna at the Soviet Union.
Censorship meant that not much got out about the developing crisis. Chertok wasn’t important enough to have access to White TASS, the uncensored, classified translations of Western news coverage circulated to VIPs. So, one day in October he drove to the MIK and found that rather than being waved through the gate by the usual policeman who long since recognised him, he was subject to an aggressive vehicle search by armed KGB personnel.
Inside the test site, things got worse. Although the R-7A version of the Semyorka was now an operational ICBM, very few launch sites existed and Baikonur Site 1 was one of them. However, this doesn’t seem to have been taken all that seriously. In practice, this meant that an R-7A stack was parked in the MIK under wraps, next to whatever they were working on, and generally ignored. Chertok doesn’t say whether its 2.4 megaton nuclear warhead was mounted or whether this had to come from a storage site.
This day was different from all other days. The standby nuke was half out of the building, the first time anyone had seen it move. The hunt was on for anyone who could help dismantle the Mars probe on the launch pad and roll out the nuke.
Chertok met the military head of the launch site. The conversation is too good to spoil, although it hinged on the combination of exploring Mars and destroying civilisation; he learned the details, helped out in the panic process of dismantling the Semyorka on the pad and preparing its evil twin, and then joined his colleagues at Korolev’s cottage for their bomb party. He got to prepare the zakuski, joining late as he did.
Due to the German-inspired combination of LOX, alcohol, and kerosene, the maximum holdover time for an R-7A was only a few hours, and it took hours to fuel them. Had the RAF Vulcans hurtled in from the north, Baikonur was toast. This was very much a use-it-or-lose-it system.
After a while, much vodka, contradictory radio broadcasts, eventually someone drove up in a giant cloud of dust and brought the news that the end of the world had been postponed.