Here’s how I got to Kapustin Yar. I graduated from the academy with distinction so I got the right to choose my place of employment, but people of my nationality got special treatment. So I was not accepted at the place where I wanted to go, and I did not want the place where I was assigned. I wanted a science position, and so I was told that Kapustin Yar would be the place for that.
When we arrived General Voznyuk received us and said, “I know you were coerced to come here. But I promise you – eventually this will be a place where people will want to be assigned.” So we got settled there and lived well though the work was hard and unusual. I would leave on Monday at half past four in the morning and return on Saturday night. It was very far and I didn’t get to see my family much.
The climate was very difficult – very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. But the work was very interesting; everything was new to me. I met many interesting people there. There I met the engineers that were creating all this rocket technology including [Sergey] Korolev. Korolev is an extraordinary individual – both as an engineer and as a man. He was widely educated and knowledgeable in many fields. There was no was no larger authority in rocket science at that time.
Here’s how I met him. An officer that served under me worked in Korolev’s group as a technician and introduced us. Korolev started asking what my impression was of all this technology since I worked very closely with it. I said a few things, and then used the opportunity to ask him a question. I read in an American journal, which we received, that they launched the Atlas rocket which by the way is still in operation and was used in one of the stages of the Moon launch. So I ask him, “Sergei Pavlovich, I read about the Americans have the Atlas rocket. What do you think about it?” And he says, “Well, it’s a good rocket, sure. But we’re doing some interesting things ourselves. We’ll launch an artificial satellite in about a year and a half.” At that time it was hard to imagine that an artificial satellite was possible. He must have seen the doubt on my face and so he added, “Don’t smile like that, you’ll see!” That was in February 1956. In October 1957 the first satellite was launched. I never forgot that conversation.
My managers found out that I know Korolev, and when they needed something from him they would send me. On time they told me, “You need to ask Korolev to give us the ‘Soyuz 7’ rocket that was used for pre-flight testing in the factory. We will use it as a training rocket. You know Korolev so you should go and ask him.” And so I went. Maybe everything would’ve been figured out anyway, but it so happened that I convinced him to give us the rocket. They probably needed to get rid of it anyway, and so they gave it to us.
When it was time to actually pick it up I went again with a group. It turns out the factory workers removed all the most interesting stuff – the systems controlling the block equipment. So I’m standing on the factory floor arguing with the people who want to give us an useless rocket and Korolev happens to be walking by with a group of people. I guess he wanted to show that he talks to the common worker so he greets me. I seize the chance and say, “Sergey Pavlovich, you are giving us a training rocket, but the control panels that interest us the most are not there.” He says, “What do you mean?” He looked at his factory guys but didn’t say anything right there. Says, “I’ll look into it.” Then they sent us a rocket with everything we needed.