Tank on the Moon (2007) - full transcript
While realizing that they probably would not beat the U.S. in the race to the moon, Soviet scientists devise a program to deliver a vehicle to land on and explore the lunar surface. Later, the technology and development of the device, under the directorship of Alexander Kemurdjian, would be used in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident of 1986.
the Russians used a remote
guidance system on Earth
to operate two small rovers,
which traveled nearly 31 miles
over the surface of the moon.
This feat was one of the greatest
in the history of the USSR.
Designed in utmost
secrecy in Soviet laboratories,
and eclipsed by the triumphant success
of the Apollo mission, the Lunokhod adventure
remains virtually unknown to the public.
The opening of the Soviet space archives
and the work of the Spirit
and Opportunity rovers on Mars
have cast a new light on
this tremendous odyssey.
Here is the story of this
mysterious lunar device
and the adventure of the
scientists who contributed
to the conquest of the moon.
April 26th, 1986, Soviet Union.
The most serious nuclear
accident of the 20th century
strikes the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
After three months, thousands of men
have received fatal doses of radiation.
To save human lives, a
strange automated bulldozer
is clearing pieces of radioactive debris
from the roof of reactor number three.
This remote control science-fiction device
was designed under urgent conditions.
To develop it, Moscow called on the engineers
who 15 years earlier
had driven the lunar rover
on the moon by remote control.
The Soviet called their
lunar rover the Lunokhod.
For many years, its story remained secret.
I would say that most people, not just
in the United States but in the world,
don't know of the Russian
accomplishments on the moon
with the automated lunar
sample return and the Lunokhods.
The Lunokhod, lunar vehicle in Russian,
is a child of the '60s, the
era when the USSR leaped
into to the competition
with the United States
in the race for space.
This was a time when
communism seemed triumphant,
when the first satellite was called Sputnik,
and the first man to orbit
the Earth was named Gagarin.
A period when the first
cosmonaut to make a spacewalk
was Soviet, when technology
was the battleground
of the Cold War.
On May 25th, 1961, President
Kennedy told Americans
that a US astronaut would walk on the moon
before the end of the decade.
Nikita Khrushchev immediately
took up the challenge.
The race for the moon was on.
The Kremlin told Sergei Korolev,
a survivor of the Gulags,
to prepare the counterattack.
This robust 50-year-old man was none other
than the father of the Sputnik program,
a scientist and a visionary.
The Americans were focusing on a single goal,
landing a man on the moon.
The Soviets had a secret goal,
to send up an automated lunar vehicle device
remote-controlled from Earth.
For Sergei Korolev, this was
the first step towards a dream,
setting up a permanent base on the moon.
The future lunar rover was called Lunokhod.
Korolev had to put together a team
that could invent and construct
this unprecedented device.
He contacted the Red Army.
The Transmash plant in Leningrad,
which specialized in the
construction of assault tanks,
furnished everything he needed,
space, technical knowhow, and brains.
The Transmash engineers were told
to design the chassis
for the future lunar rover.
They participated in the
Soviet Union's secret project,
the conquest of space.
A vehicle that could travel over
the still-unknown surface of the moon,
controlled in real time by a driver on Earth.
Among these engineers,
one man would soon become
the soul of the program,
My father was a tank designer by profession,
and he first worked at Transmash
as a specialist in heavy-tracked vehicles.
He was later appointed
director of research and design
for air-cushion crafts.
He began to acquire a reputation
as someone who could conceive of and create
the most unbelievable devices.
My father brought together a
team for the Lunokhod program.
For Alexander Kemurdzhian,
the project to construct the
Lunokhod was not a total shock,
because with his capacities
and technical expertise,
he was a hard man to surprise.
Nevertheless, he did look a bit taken aback.
For Alexander Kemurdzhian
and his team of engineers,
the Lunokhod program
presented a series of unprecedented problems.
How to design a remote-controlled vehicle,
operate it from a distance
of some 250,000 miles.
How to predict its reactions in an atmosphere
with one-sixth the
gravitational pull of the Earth.
In 1963, with computer
technology in its infancy,
this seemed to be an impossible challenge.
Major achievements of
the Lunokhod program were
one, it was extremely early, two,
that it did generate some meaningful science,
three, that it represented the solution
of some difficult engineering
and design problems
by some very smart people.
It's truly amazing, we as tank designers
were given the mission to construct
the Lunokhod lunar vehicle chassis.
Robotics was not yet a well-known science.
For Alexander Kemurdzhian
and his engineers at Transmash,
everything had to be
explored, invented, tested.
No idea, even the wildest, was ruled out.
These people had designed a whole range
of automated rovers
for planetary exploration,
and they had very clever mechanical designs
and testing all of these concepts.
The first rover prototypes
soon rolled out of the workshops.
Their designers were the only
ones who saw their wheels turn
or saw them take their first steps.
We were put in a room closed off
from prying eyes.
This is where we set up our drawing boards.
Access to our offices was forbidden.
Our work was classified as a military secret.
There was never any talk
about the Lunokhod at home.
I only learned that my father
had worked on the chassis
for the lunar vehicle after their device
had reached the moon.
On the periscope, what a beautiful view.
The Americans were making great progress.
After the success of the
Mercury and Gemini programs,
their astronauts started intensive training.
Kennedy on one side, Khrushchev on the other
put heavy pressure on their engineers.
The upcoming geopolitical battle
would play out in technology and in space.
We couldn't let the Americans have the moon.
It was the Cold War.
But there was a problem.
The moon was still a mystery.
No one knew what its surface was made of.
Was it hard or soft?
Would the rover sink into it like quicksand?
Faced with this enigma, Sergei Korolev
consulted the best
specialist in Soviet science
and then he announced his decision.
The surface of the moon is hard.
It was not possible to
design a remote-controlled
lunar vehicle able to travel over
a terrain of dust, sand, and rock.
We had to find a single
option and make a decision.
Once this decision was made,
we started thinking
about the first prototypes.
Then later, when we saw
samples of the lunar surface,
we know that Korolev's decision was correct.
Thanks to Korolev's bold decision,
the Lunokhod program could move into
the mechanical research phase.
Another decision immediately arose.
Should the rover have tracks or wheels?
Once again, the engineers turned to Korolev.
Korolev told us,
"I won't give you any advice.
"You're the specialists, you figure it out."
Alexander Kemurdzhian and his tank designers
initially favored a track-drive mechanism.
But was this really the right solution?
I quickly understood that it would be
extremely difficult to use tracks,
because the electrical energy required
to operate the motors
was only around 300 watts.
Can you imagine?
It's the energy of a light bulb.
It's very, very weak.
The energy of a light bulb
was supposed to power
the Lunokhod under the
extreme conditions on the moon.
Thus, if the tracks got stuck,
it would be the end.
With several wheels, it
could continue on unimpeded.
The Lunokhod chassis
took shape under the care
of the Leningrad engineers.
Here are the rover's
wheels, as large as a car's,
just under eight inches
wide and 20 inches high.
The tread, which had
to grip the lunar surface,
was a mesh fitted with crampons.
And yet another puzzle.
The vehicle had to weigh under 242 pounds.
More discussions, more theories, more tests,
and a new discovery with
a titanium-aluminum alloy
classified as military secret.
For us, creating a mechanical device
that could travel over a specific surface
wasn't really a problem.
The difficulty was in creating a device
that met all the technical requirements.
Their mechanical devices
were extremely clever,
and so they had much
more of a classical engineer's
approach to it.
Try it, build it, see it, test it.
Doesn't work, try it again.
Do it this way.
And if we only get 75%, that's okay.
Next time, we'll get 95%,
and then the time after that
we'll finally have full success.
They were much more willing to have
a systematic ongoing approach.
In 1964, just two years after
the initial sketches, the Transmash engineers
were able to test their first prototype.
Equipped with four drive wheels,
their strange robot
turtle took its first ride
with a periscope camera.
We placed a Japanese video camera on it,
and controlled the machine from a distance
using a television.
We then started thinking about
the remote control guidance system.
The engineers then had to anticipate
the rover's reactions on the moon.
For this, Transmash created a secret hangar
known as the Lunadrome.
From a cart, two engineers controlled
prototype on a lunar track
riddled with obstacles.
The device had eight drive wheels
with independent suspension.
It only required three to remain operational.
was faced with a new problem,
this one purely mechanical.
In the atmosphere, when
two metal parts are in contact,
a film of oxide forms at the friction points,
acting as a lubricant.
In a vacuum, the two
parts would mold together.
The answer, they designed
a new fluoridated oil
which did not evaporate in a vacuum.
The electrical motors were
encased in hermetic boxes.
But a major step remained,
to test these inventions
in a gravity-free environment.
Sergei Korolev offered to launch a satellite
just for us, so that we could
test our engine compartments
and the mechanics in a
In the end, we didn't
need a specific satellite
because we found room
in an existing satellite
already scheduled to launch.
After checking this technical step in space,
the Lunokhod was ready for full-scale tests.
In utmost secrecy, the Transmash engineers
transported their prototype
to Kamchatka Peninsula,
nine time zones away
from Leningrad in Moscow.
Why wouldn't the volcanic landscape
in the far-eastern region of Russia
be similar to the surface of the moon?
This experiment was an opportunity to test
the automated control
systems for the first time.
This penetrometer, for example,
which would measure the
density of the lunar surface.
It was not an absolute replica
of the lunar surface.
What were important were the characteristics
of this surface, its capacity to detect
the reactions of the motors and chassis.
The surface corresponded
to these requirements,
and this was the most important thing.
In 1965, Sergei Korolev
delegated the entire
production of the Lunokhod
to the Moscow-based Lavochkin Institute,
which specialized in space probes.
Executive director Georgi
Babakin supervised the design
of the lunar landing module.
The Lunokhod, a strange rolling tub,
was equipped with electronic
and scientific equipment.
From Moscow, Georgi Babakin could then issue
concerning the development
of the chassis and the autonomy of the motors
assembled in Leningrad.
Babakin's group sent these instructions.
"Make sure the Lunokhod goes down the ramp
"to the lunar surface and
drives at least a few meters.
"Everyone will then be grateful to you."
But we also knew that if
the Lunokhod only drove
a few dozen meters and
stopped, we wouldn't be spared.
At Cape Canaveral, the
Americans had conducted
multiple launches to finalize Saturn V
and the Apollo spacecraft.
They worked methodically, never deviating
from the single goal set by Kennedy.
The Soviet scientists were dispersed,
their hopes for landing a man on the moon
resting with a giant N1 rocket.
But with each launch, this hope never lasted
more than 50 seconds.
This was the mid-'60s.
The USSR was still in the
running for a moon race,
but for how long?
In January 1966, Sergei Korolev died
during a routine surgery.
The USSR gave a national funeral to the man
who masterminded the
country's first successes in space.
Korolev is buried at the base of the Kremlin.
With him, the Soviets
buried many of their hopes
for reaching the lunar
surface before the Americans.
Georgi Babakin had to rebuild
the confidence of his team.
The Lunokhod tests
started up again in full force.
They were now conducted
in Moscow and Leningrad,
often 24 hours a day.
We fixed up the offices
so that we could sleep there.
We brought in mattresses, sheets, blankets,
and called that part of the
plant the Charmash Hotel,
because we usually manufactured chars,
which means tanks, hence, the Charmash Hotel.
A new device appeared on the Lunokhod,
a lid the inventors nicknamed the frying pan,
which had a solar panel on the underside.
This was a crucial invention.
During the two weeks of the lunar day,
the unfolded lid would provide
energy to the drive wheels
and to the instruments
inside the compartment.
During the two weeks of the lunar night,
the lid would close to
protect the rover from the cold.
But with temperatures of
275 degrees Fahrenheit,
no one could be certain it would be enough.
Lunokhod design itself,
the thermal control system
with the radioactive heater and the lid
that shuts and opens, which
also serves as a solar collector
during the day, that thermal
design was very ingenious.
A polonium-210 radioactive power source,
which powered a generator, was fitted
to the back of the Lunokhod.
During the lunar night,
the heat shield closed
and the generator heated the gas
contained in the insulated
and pressurized compartment.
It looked like a big washtub on wheels.
Anyhow, that thermal
control system was pretty neat.
To withstand the
temperatures of the lunar day,
which could reach 320 degrees Fahrenheit,
the Lunokhod was protected
by a ventilation system.
A gas circulated in the compartment
when the electrical equipment
generated too much heat.
The heat was then discharged outside
by a thermal exchange unit.
At each stage, Babakin's
group ran meticulous tests
on these innovations.
Very soon, the small rover would be ready
to drive on the moon.
But the program still needed to find men
who could drive it from a
distance of 250,000 miles.
Once again, the program
directors turned to the Red Army.
By late-1966, 45 officers
had been selected secretly.
After a series of tests, only
14 candidates were selected.
They were stunned to learn that their mission
was to drive a lunar rover.
Vyacheslav Dovgan, filmed here in 1967,
was one of the 14 pilots.
He recalls this experience
which marked him for life.
Before us, they had tried to use aviators,
tractor drivers, car
drivers, and even cyclists.
They selected men who know
how to assess a situation rapidly
and who could memorize and reproduce
the situation immediately.
The future drivers underwent intense training
in the Lunadrome at the
Simferopol Space Command Center
They learned how to control
the vehicle using a joystick.
Focused on the monitors, the
officers repeated the maneuvers
they would perform once
the rover reached the moon
over and over again, clearing an obstacle,
climbing out of a hole,
anticipating, turning right,
moving forward, turning left,
backing up, emergency stops.
The Lunadrome was only 200 meters away.
We could have seen it,
but the curtains were closed.
This is why all the information came through
the control screen, exactly as if
it were happening on the moon.
There was a 30-second lapse
between a command issued on Earth
and its execution on the moon.
For these men, this timeline
was the most difficult problem
to overcome in learning
how to control the vehicle.
The vehicle operator
had the greatest
responsibility during the control
of this vehicle.
He could be nervous about making a mistake,
but obviously, this was not always the case.
Everything was fine if
you had correctly analyzed
the situation, the various parameters,
and taken the right decision.
Things should've been
perfect, but then suddenly,
you fall into a hole.
In this case, either the
or the motor stopped on its own,
and then you think you did something wrong.
Vyacheslav Dovgan and his colleagues
were well aware of the
importance of their mission.
In this battle engaged
with the United States,
the destiny of the USSR was in their hands.
And in a country where the
fear of the Gulags still existed,
the anxiety of failure was palpable.
In November 1968, a pilot crew was ready.
But a decisive run was playing out
on the other side of the Atlantic.
December 21st, 1968, the Saturn V rocket
was carrying three
American astronauts aboard.
For the first time, in the Apollo 8 capsule,
men were orbiting the moon.
On their side, the Soviets managed to place
two probes on the
surface of the coveted goal.
The success of Luna 9 and Luna 13
provided a wealth of
and crucial information
about the lunar surface.
But with the repeated
failures of the N1 rocket,
Russia no longer had any
hopes of reaching the moon
before the Americans.
Two men could still save
the honor of the Soviets,
Georgi Babakin, Alexander Kemurdzhian,
and their secret box, the Lunokhod.
Babakin's group was putting the final touches
on the rover in Moscow.
There were no more problems
with the compartment's
resilience and the separation of the elements
from the lunar landing platform.
All the scientific instruments were installed
and the components
operated perfectly in a void.
The ramps leading down
from the landing platform
The helical and whip antenna, which received
electromagnetic waves, responded
to more than 200 commands
for controlling the rover.
The Lunokhod, which was
carried in the hold of a rocket,
was the size of a small car.
1666 pounds, just over
seven feet long, five feet wide.
But it was a strange car
indeed and could drive in the void
of empty space, operated from the Earth.
At that time, even the Americans thought
that such a technological
exploit was impossible.
In early-1969, the
small rover was fitted into
its landing module, and
both were finally placed
in the upper section of the Proton rocket.
The Lunokhod was ready.
After a decade of feverish preparations,
the race to moon was
closing in on the final sprint.
On February 19th, 1969, the Proton rocket
was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome
with the Lunokhod aboard.
Success for the Russians was within reach.
That day, more than a
rocket went up in smoke,
more than a lunar rover prototype.
It was the hopes fueled
by a decade of hard work.
The Soviet engineers had
to undergo a final ordeal.
Watch the American triumph.
Four, three, two, one.
On that unforgettable day of July 21st, 1969,
Neil Armstrong dedicated the
American victory on the moon
to all of mankind.
The entire world was astonished
by the footsteps on the lunar surface.
But in Moscow and Leningrad,
scientists knew that history
would record another milestone,
the mark of the lunar rover wheels.
For Alexander Kemurdzhian, there would be
no respite for an entire year.
On November 10th, 1970,
Soviet pilots and technicians
were huddled in the control room
at the Simferopol Space Center.
Several thousand miles away in Baikonur,
the countdown had begun.
At 3:44 p.m., the Proton rocket took off.
A new Lunokhod was aboard.
At an altitude of 50 miles, the Proton rocket
reached the speed
required to orbit the Earth.
After several engine thrusts, it launched
the Luna 17 spacecraft,
which gradually climbed free
of the Earth's gravitational pull.
It took four-and-a-half
days to travel the distance
from the Earth to the moon.
The entire program was secret.
Only the estimated lunar landing date wasn't,
because many astronomers
were awaiting this event
But as soon as the
Lunokhod landed on the moon,
the secret behind the
project was fully revealed.
The lunar landing site
had been carefully selected.
After orbiting the moon for 48 hours,
Lunokhod 1 started its historic descent.
On November 17th, 1970,
Luna 17 made a soft landing
in the Sea of Rains and
settled on the lunar surface
at a four-degree angle.
I experienced this moment
as an amazing burst of emotion.
When the landing platform
touched down on the moon,
it was tremendous.
The flight engineer shouted,
"The Lunokhod has landed
on the surface of the Earth."
He quickly corrected himself, "the moon."
Everyone burst into applause.
The landing ramp was deployed.
The lunar surface stretched
ahead of the Lunokhod wheels.
But who would make the final decision
to start up the lunar rover and drive it down
these few feet?
The team, over its initial excitement,
had to analyze the parameters concerning
the vertical and horizontal
position of the Lunokhod
to avoid any possibility of a fall
as it rolled down the platform.
Three hours went by.
The first images of the surface
had reached the Simferopol
command post on Earth.
The entire team was utterly focused.
The tension was rising.
Suddenly, Genya Latypov announced,
"I see the moon's surface, it's flat.
"The surface is flat."
And the he added, "And it's beautiful."
The images show that the Lunokhod
was correctly positioned for its descent.
There were no obstacles on the lunar surface
in front of the titanium-and-aluminum wheels.
The order to proceed was given.
At that exact moment, Genya Latypov,
who was controlling the
vehicle, had a pulse of 140.
Genya had never reacted like that before.
Responding to orders transmitted
through 250,000 miles of empty space,
the Lunokhod descended to the surface.
16 months after Neil
Armstrong's historic step,
this was a moment of triumph
for the Soviet engineers.
The Lunokhod descended to the surface,
then moved forward 15 to 30 feet.
Then it stopped.
We could make out the
marks left on the lunar surface.
It was fantastic.
In Leningrad, Alexander Kemurdzhian
had just undergone serious surgery.
One of the fathers of the small rover
followed its first steps
from his hospital bed.
I was in the room with Kemurdzhian
and my eyes filled with tears.
It was a total triumph.
We'd put so much energy into it.
Personally, I'd not taken
a vacation in three years.
The Simferopol Space Center in Crimea
gave the order to deploy the helical antenna
and open the lid of the solar panel.
There were no Soviet cosmonauts on the moon,
but instead, a small, perfectly-crafted rover
which responded to orders
from the distant USSR.
Radio Moscow broadcasted the internationale.
For Leonid Brezhnev and the Kremlin leaders,
this success brought hopes for a revival.
Would the Lunokhod bolster
support for the Communist Party?
Not so sure.
The international press
praised the rover's success,
but the applause was above all for the genius
of the Russian scientists and engineers.
It was a unique vehicle.
The Americans hadn't even thought of it.
If we had launched it a little bit earlier,
maybe we would've felt somewhat better.
But that wasn't the point.
Doing automated rovers on the surface
was done by Lunokhods in the early-1970s,
was not repeated again
until the US finally did it
in 1996, '97, with the Mars Pathfinder.
Celebrations were underway
across all 11 time zones of the Soviet Union.
At Simferopol, the stress level
among the drivers was intense.
Riveted to their screen, they had to solve
any unexpected pitfalls on the lunar surface.
After 65 feet, the first
disappointment was severe.
The guidance cameras were placed too low.
The drivers had a view of a
person crawling on all fours.
It was impossible to
clearly see stones or craters.
The partially short-sighted Lunokhod
moved forward another 33 feet.
The team panicked.
It had disappeared into a crater.
The temperature inside the
Lunokhod rose dangerously high.
They had to cut off the power supply quickly.
This was not the planned procedure,
but they didn't wanna take
the risk of losing the vehicle.
We decided to cut off
all the safety mechanisms,
to turn the Lunokhod
more to the left, level out the motor,
close the lid of the solar panel,
and back out of the crater.
The Lunokhod responded perfectly
to the radio controls from Simferopol.
It shifted into reverse,
and the extraterrestrial
cybernetic animal obeyed
the pilot's commands.
Every nine hours, Dovgan and his colleagues
took shifts controlling the Lunokhod,
following its hesitant
movements on their displays.
They operated the joystick.
Forward, reverse, stop, rotate.
Two turning angles, 10 and 20 degrees.
Two possible speeds, one-half a mile
and 1.24 miles per hour.
A concentrate of mechanical
and electronic intelligence.
It was a miracle of dexterity.
Dovgan and his colleagues
had to constantly anticipate
the commands to be
transmitted, as the vehicle
was being piloted under
difficult technical conditions.
A fixed image from the moon
was displayed line by line,
and only remained visible for 10 seconds
before it was replaced by the following one.
The operator of the directional antenna
had a crucial role, as he had to make sure
that the antenna was always pointed
at a specific reception zone on Earth.
multiple scientific innovations.
Equipped with a spectrometer,
an X-ray telescope,
and cosmic ray detectors, it transmitted
a host of valuable information to Earth.
A ninth free wheel measured
the distances traveled.
With its penetrometer, the
vehicle could measure the density
of the lunar soil, just as
cosmonauts would've done.
After a few days, the rover
had almost established
a lunar routine.
Then, suddenly, a crisis.
Lunokhod had fallen into a crater.
For some unknown reason,
Genya gave an order to stop the vehicle,
but he shifted from
second gear to first gear.
The Lunokhod continued forward.
He thought it would get through the crater
without any problem.
The team shifted to crisis mode.
The steep wall surprised the driver,
with a temperature of 266 degrees Fahrenheit.
The wheels slipped, the men were exhausted.
After nine long hours of risky maneuvers,
the rover they believed was
lost finally made its way free.
After 14 Earth days, the
rover shut down to hibernate
and withstand temperatures
of -274 degree Fahrenheit
during the two-week-long lunar night.
As soon as the lunar night arrived,
we all took a good steam bath.
After, we started processing and analyzing
all the data recorded in the logbook.
We didn't budge until the scientific
and technical report were finished.
scheduled by its designers
to run for 90 days, continued
for nearly 11 months,
traveling nearly seven miles.
It successfully accomplished all the planned
scientific tasks, and transmitted
more than 20,000 images
of the lunar surface, 500
tests and complete analysis
of soil samples.
This was the greatest
achievement in Soviet astronautics.
The chassis could've operated
for a longer time, but the nuclear resources
for heating the internal components
of the Lunokhod were used up.
The Lunokhod stopped functioning.
As my father used to say, it
simply died a natural death.
Awarded the Order of Lenin
for the success of the Lunokhod,
remained an unknown figure
in the West.
But beyond the Iron
Curtain, his success had not
surprised French researchers,
who had been working
with the Soviet space
program for several years.
By late-1972, the Lavochkin Institute
had constructed a second Lunokhod.
The new vehicle carried
more scientific equipment
than its predecessor.
The navigation cameras were mounted higher
for a better view of the lunar surface.
The primary goal of this
mission was to determine,
using a French-made laser corner reflector,
the distance between the moon and the Earth
to within three meters.
A joint experiment was conducted
by Soviet and French specialists.
Laser ranging devices were
installed on the large telescope
in the Crimea Astrophysics Observatory,
which is important for the
study of the Earth's structure.
January 1973, a new success for the USSR.
Luna 21 soft-landed in the Sea of Serenity
with its payload, Lunokhod 2.
The aim of the Franco-Russian
laser ranging measurements
was to help predict volcanic
activity and earthquakes,
and to study continental drift.
On May 9th, 1973,
Lunokhod 2 set a new record,
traveling 23 miles.
Then, after four months, it stopped,
like the earlier model,
and shut down for eternity.
By operating two rovers on the moon,
the Soviet engineers did better than avoiding
a humiliating defeat for their country
at the hands of the United States.
They produced a success which was rehashed
by Soviet propaganda for years.
Yet these men remained in
the shadows for a very long time,
until history finally remembered them.
Everything was absolutely secret.
All the preparation and all the documentation
concerning the construction was secret.
Who accomplished all this
work in the Soviet Union?
It was all totally concealed.
Who was Korolev?
We only found out the day after his death.
Who was Babakin?
Everyone only knew the day after he too died.
That was life in the USSR.
It was the Cold War.
For more than 10 years, Alexander Kemurdzhian
had been one of the secret
But the experience of this brilliant man
and his team of engineers
would not remain unknown.
Chernobyl, spring of 1986.
Would Moscow be able
to handle the catastrophe
after the explosion of reactor number four?
The USSR sent its firemen,
helicopter pilots, soldiers,
and laborers into the
ruins of the power plant.
These men, known as
liquidators, risked their lives,
protective aprons to clear away
the highly-radioactive debris.
In the rubble of Chernobyl,
the authorities had to stop
an uncontrollable nuclear reaction
and clean the contaminated surfaces.
Leaders in the Kremlin remembered
the small remote-controlled rover.
Kemurdzhian was summoned urgently to Moscow.
He was given three months to construct
a remote-controlled vehicle that could clear
the deadly debris projected by the explosion
onto the roof of reactor number three.
The goal, to save human lives.
Alexander Kemurdzhian attended a meeting
with many managers from companies
linked to national defense.
They absolutely had to find solutions.
As soon as he returned, he
asked us, "How can we help them?
"What can we do?"
After the tremendous technological success
of the Lunokhod rovers,
Kemurdzhian and his colleagues
had not stopped their work.
They continued to develop and manufacture
all sorts of robots intended for use
on more distant planets.
With this amazing expertise,
the Transmash team
was able to develop a new
version of the Lunokhod,
a miniature vehicle called STR-1.
We started working much more intensely
than we had for the Lunokhod,
as the time constraints
were much shorter.
We had never seen anything like it.
Once the STR-1 was designed, within a week,
it was almost completely built.
The metal chassis of the STR-1
was right there in front of us.
The STR-1 was a fully-automated
The notched wheels were cut from solid blocks
of metal alloy, so that it could travel over
the broken tar roof of the power plant.
As with the Lunokhod, a
test track scattered with debris
was constructed to test the bulldozer,
equipped with a special
remote control guidance system.
In early July, the STR-1
was ready to be shipped
to its final destination, Chernobyl.
On July 15th, a helicopter
lowered the vehicle
to the still-intact roof
of reactor number three.
In this urgent race against the clock,
Transmash did not have time to provide
special training to drivers.
Kemurdzhian brought us all together and said,
"Friends, we are the only
ones who know the STR-1.
"To pilot it, we'll have to go ourselves."
The situation was extremely complex.
Certain components were
not yet fully operational.
We didn't know how the
machine would actually function.
Despite the deadly risks,
a first team of Transmash
engineers, led by Pavel Sologub,
operated the vehicle throughout
the entire month of August.
Mikhail Malenkov led the second team
and spent 30 days on the contaminated roof.
I agreed to go, enthusiastically.
I understood where I was going.
I took risks, but I knew what to do,
and where we could or couldn't go,
and what was feasible or not.
The STR-1 functioned efficiently,
but ran into guidance problems due to
the extremely high levels of radiation.
Kemurdzhian's robot saved many human lives,
although very people
today know who constructed
this strange arrival at Chernobyl.
In 1986, the name Kemurdzhian was unknown.
Readers of Western
scientific magazines had been,
to say the least, surprised by articles
by three astronautical geniuses,
Alexandrov, Leonovich, Yudlov.
But who knew that they were
written by the same person,
After the collapse of the Soviet Union,
the West finally learned
the real name of the man
who ran the development
program for the chassis
of many planetokhods, in Russian,
vehicles that travel on planets.
In 1990, the chassis for a
Marsokhod, designed to operate
on the Red Planet, started
to intrigue Western scientists.
As the Americans and
Europeans started planning
their future rover missions to Mars,
they became interested
in the Soviet expertise.
As soon as the Iron Curtain came down,
we were able to communicate
with foreign colleagues.
Thanks especially to Alexander Kemurdzhian,
we began to work with American specialists
for the first time, and started working
very closely with the French.
The Russians had this
very good rover program,
and we met the groups
that were working on it.
We learned that these were the people
who had actually done the
only planetary rover to date,
which was the Lunokhod.
The most important thing for us
was to conserve the expertise and knowledge
acquired by our elders.
The people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
of Pasadena in California
discovered the mysterious
The Americans invited him, along with
a few Russian engineers, to their test center
in Death Valley.
These images were
unimaginable during the 40 years
of the Cold War, Kemurdzhian,
a hero of the Soviet Union,
walking serenely on American soil.
Even though everything wasn't perfect,
the former enemies joined
forces to test the Marsokhod rover
invented in Leningrad 15 years earlier
in the utmost secrecy.
The vehicle drove easily
over the slopes of the dune
that Pasadena researchers
called the Martian Hill.
And so, there is where the
Marsokhod that they brought
demonstrated that it
was completely bulletproof
as a machine you could
take out in the desert.
No matter how dirty it got or anything else,
you just turn it on, it works.
They in turn invited us to
Kamchatka to test the rovers,
and we did worldwide
publicity with these tests.
And I think that had
a large role in inspiring
American scientists and
engineers to begin thinking about
the role of rovers in our Mars program here
in the United States.
At the age of 70, Alexander Kemurdzhian
finally received recognition
in the international
In addition to his activities at Transmash
and his membership in
the International Institute
of Spatial Robotics, he was promoted
as a first-class scientist
at the Russian Academy
of Cosmonautics of Tsiolkovsky.
The Americans were extremely respectful
of the scientific work we
accomplished in our country
at Transmash and the Levochkin Institute.
My father felt the Planetary
Society was very important.
He and Louis Friedman were very good friends.
And I'll never forget walking
with Alexander Kemurdzhian
on the side of a volcanic
mountain that was so hot
that if you stood still, it
burnt a hole in your shoe,
so you had to keep moving.
And here is Kemurdzhian in his 70s,
lightly going up the sides of the mountains,
and we're having trouble keeping up with him.
It was a remarkable experience.
Everyone is capable of doing
extraordinary things, each in his own way.
Some are perfectly happy doing simple things
in good spirits.
Others, however, concentrate on details.
We're all different, and
it really doesn't matter
if you focus on space
travel or work in the fields.
What's important is to
do what you really want.
Alexander Kemurdzhian died
on February 24th, 2003, in St. Petersburg.
He left as a legacy two
small rovers on the surface
of the moon carrying the
red flag of a former empire.
In the future, man and automated vehicles
may travel together to distant worlds.
They will owe a debt to
Georgi Babakin, and to
all the Russian engineers
who were the first to design a way to operate
a vehicle on another planet.