Yuri Kondratyuk

From Academic Kids


Yuri Vasilievich Kondratyuk (June 21 1897 - 1942) was the pseudonym adopted by Oleksandr Ignatyevich Shargei, a pioneer of astronautics and spaceflight. He was a theoretician and a visionary who, in the early twentieth century, foresaw ways of reaching the Moon.

Kondratyuk was born in Poltava, Ukraine. His father, Ignatiy Benediktovich Shargei, studied Physics and Mathematics at Kiev University. Kondratyuk's mother, Ludmila Lvovna Schlippenbach taught French at a Kiev high school, and must already have been pregnant when she married in January 1897 (Ignatiy, a Jew, was baptised shortly prior to this). Because of her unusual surname, it is often suggested that Ludmila must have been a descendant of Wolmar Anton von Schlippenbach, a general who took part in Charles XII of Sweden's failed invasion of Russia. Ludmila was devoted to social activism and was imprisoned on several occasions for participating in demonstrations. During her last stay in a Kiev prison, shortly before Kondratyuk was born, she was diagnosed as suffering from a psychological disorder. As a result of this, Ignatiy divorced her when Kondratyuk was still very young, and the boy was raised by his paternal grandmother.

From an early age, Kondratyuk was fascinated by his father's books on physics and mathematics and demonstrated great abilities in these areas. When he was old enough to attend high school, he was admitted straight into the third form of a prestigious high school, where he graduated with a gold medal for proficiency a few years later.

From there, he enrolled at the Peter the Great Polytechnic in Petrograd to study engineering, but before long was drafted into the army as a junior officer at the outbreak of World War I. During his time of military service, he filled four notebooks with his ideas of interplanetary flight. These included suggesting the use of a modular spacecraft to reach the Moon, leaving the propulsion section of the vehicle in orbit while a smaller lander journeyed to the surface and back (the strategy eventually adopted independently by the engineers of the Apollo program). He included detailed calculations of a trajectory to take a spacecraft from Earth orbit to lunar orbit and back to Earth orbit, a trajectory now known as "Kondratyuk's route" or "Kondratyuk's loop".

Kondratyuk left the army following the Russian revolution and tried to make a life stoking boilers in his native Poltava. During this time of extreme poverty, he finally came into contact with the ideas of like-minded people and in 1924, became a founding member of the Society for Studies of Interplanetary Travel, with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Friedrich Zander and was able to begin exchanging ideas. The following year, he made an unsuccessful attempt to escape to Poland but was stopped and turned back by border guards. Ordinarily, he would probably have been shot, but the guards recognised the early symptoms of typhus in him and perhaps decided to spare themselves a bullet.

He was nursed back to health by a neighbour, and on the advice of friends, realised that it was in his best interests to flee Poltava. As a former officer of the Tsarist army, he was at risk of arrest as an enemy of the people. His friends managed to obtain false identification papers for him, in the name of Yuri Vasilievich Kondratyuk, born in Lutsk in 1900 (who in reality had died of tuberculosis in 1921). With this new identity, he left for Siberia, where he settled in Novosibirsk. Working as a mechanic, he completed the manuscript of a book that he titled "The Conquest of Interplanetary Space", dealing with rocket motion and issues concerning the habitation of space. He also suggested using a gravitational slingshot trajectory to accelerate a spacecraft. While the book was enthusiastically received by fellow enthusiasts in Moscow, no publisher would touch such a fanciful work. Eventually, Kondratyuk paid a Novosibirsk printer to produce 2,000 copies of the 72-page work, and even then had to do much of the typesetting and operating the press himself, both to save costs but also because the equations in the book posed problems for the printer.

Applying his engineering genius to more local problems, Kondratyuk designed a huge grain elevator (quickly nicknamed "Mastodon") that was built without a single nail since metal was in such short supply in Siberia. Unfortunately, this ingenuity would work against him when in 1930 he was investigated as a saboteur by the NKVD. The lack of nails in the structure was used as evidence that he had planned it to collapse. Convicted of anti-Soviet activity, Kondratyuk was sentenced to three years in a gulag, but because of his evident talents he was sent to a sharashka (research facility prison) rather than a labour camp. There, he was first put to work evaluating foreign coal-mining machinery for the Kusbass region, and quickly impressed the camp supervisor with his ingenuity. At the supervisor's request, in November 1931 a review board changed Kondratyuk's status from "prisoner" to "deported", and sent him to work on Siberian grain projects.

Kondratyuk learned of a competition to design a large wind power generator for the Crimea, sponsored by Sergo Ordzhonikidze, then People's Commissar for Heavy Industry. With fellow deportee engineers Pyotr Gorchakov and Nikolai Nikitin, Kondratyuk submitted a design for a 165 metre (500 ft) high concrete tower supporting a four-bladed propeller with a span of 80 metres (240 ft) and capable of generating up to 12,000 kW. In November 1932, Ordzhonikidze selected this design as the winner and invited the team to meet with him in Moscow before sending them to Kharkov to finalise the design and have it built. While in Moscow, Kondratyuk had the opportunity to meet Sergei Korolev, then head of the GIRD (rocket research group). Korolev offered Kondratyuk a position on his staff, but Kondratyuk declined, fearing that the scrutiny he would come under from security would reveal his true identity.

Kondratyuk, Gorchakov, and Nikitin worked on the wind power project for the next four years until Ordzhonikidze's "mysterious" death in 1937. Overnight, the project was deemed to be too expensive and dangerous and was shut down, the tower only half-built. Nikitin would later use what he had learned on this project when he designed the Ostankino Tower in the 1960s. Meanwhile, the men went to work on designing smaller wind turbines (in the 150-200 kW range) to power farms. During this time, Kondratyuk learned of the arrest of Korolev on charges of treason for wasting time on designing spacecraft. He immediately decided to divest himself of his own copious notes on the subject. The former neighbour in Novosibirsk who had nursed him back to health after his episode of typhus agreed to take his notebooks and eventually took these to the United States when she escaped there with her daughter following World War II. He also sent a copy of his published work to the Tsiolkovsky museum in Kaluga.

Kondratyuk joined the Soviet army as a volunteer in June 1941 and died soon afterwards. The exact circumstances of his death are not known. His unit was involved in heavy fighting against the German army in October 1941, and October 3 is sometimes given as the date of his demise. Evidence collected in the 1990s suggests that he disappeared in the January or February of 1942 while repairing a communications cable at night near Zasetski. Because no body was ever recovered, conspiracy theories circulate that he escaped from the Soviet Union and eventually made his way to the United States and worked on the space programme there under yet another identity. There is no evidence to support these claims.

A science centre and college in Novosibirsk are dedicated to him, and a crater on the Moon and an asteroid have been named after him as well. The Ukraine has issued postage stamps and coins bearing his image. When Neil Armstrong visited the Soviet Union after his historic flight, he collected a handful of soil from outside Kondratyuk's house in Novosibirsk to acknowledge his contribution to spaceflight.


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