Yuri Kondratyuk: Born in Ukraine Visionary of the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept

Yuri Kondratyuk: Born in Ukraine Visionary of the Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous Concept

The head of Apollo Space Program John Houbolt and astronaut Neil Armstrong repeatedly publicly stated the crucial role of Ukrainian engineer Yuri Kondratyuk in both the success of the Apollo program and the successful landing of man onto the Moon. Fifty years prior to the first Moon flight Kondratyuk calculated the most favorable and fuel efficient track for the space flight from the Earth to the Moon and published it in 1929 in his book The Conquest of Interplanetary Space.

Ten years earlier, in 1919, Kondratyuk wrote in his other book: “…from the theoretical point of view, rocket flights into space is nothing incredible.” This talented scientist managed to calculate the basic equation of spaceship trajectory, described and made a drawing of an oxygen-hydrogen-fueled four-stage rocket, described the principle of a rocket engine’s combustion chamber and suggested many other ideas such as using atmospheric drag to decelerate rocket to save fuel; using gravitational field of celestial bodies for additional acceleration or deceleration of spacecrafts;  vertical ascent of the rocket through the layers of atmosphere with subsequent entry into the Earth's orbit at certain trajectory; placing spaceships on orbits of artificial satellites during interplanetary flights; using a compact take-off and landing module for astronaut’s landing on other planet surfaces and returning to the ship; using solar energy for power onboard systems of spaceships and satellites; a space shuttle concept; and sending a crew of three astronauts to the Moon of which two would reach the lunar surface in a special module while the third would remain on the spaceship on the circumlunar orbit, a scheme that 40 years later was used by the Apollo team.

Impressive list for any scientist … except Yuri Kondratyuk was not formally a scientist. He was a talented, self-educated and self-motivated enthusiast that most of his life worked at rather modest jobs. Space science was his passion, and he published two books with his findings and conclusions at his own expense. In 1947 other prominent Ukrainian, Serhiy Korolyov, helped to republish his Conquest of Interplanetary Space.

In fact, even the name, Yuri Kondratyuk, was not his real one. He was born as Oleksandr Shargey on June 21, 1897 in Poltava, Ukraine in a family with aristocratic roots. He entered the mechanical department of St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute in 1916 but was immediately drafted to the Russian Tsar Army to fight in the First World War. In 1918, while returning home after the revolution in Russia, he was forcibly again drafted and spent some time in the pro-tsarist White Army until he successfully deserted. Having returned to Ukraine, he had to hide from Bolsheviks so he moved around Poltava region taking low-qualification jobs until he managed to get fake documents of Yuri Kondratyuk and changed his name in 1921. In 1925 he started working as a mechanic at grain elevator growing by 1929 to a designer and deputy chief engineer in charge of construction of a largest at that time grain elevator was sentenced as “enemy of the people” because his opponents didn’t believe such a large construction was possible to operate. Nevertheless, the elevator worked until 1990.

In end 1920s-early 30s, Kondratyuk was invited to join Serhiy Korolyov’s rocket design bureau but he declined this great offer because he understood security scrutiny would mean NKVD tracing down his personal history and discovering fake passport and aristocratic roots resulting in inevitable execution.

While imprisoned, Kondratyuk was assigned to work at a coal mine design bureau at Kuzbas where he designed and patented several mechanisms. In 1932, he was freed at a personal request of Communist Party leader Ordzhonikidze to join Kharkiv Energy Design Bureau where he worked until the Second World War on designing an ambitious innovation for those days, a 12-thousand-kilowatt wind farm project in Crimea and other smaller projects. In 1941, he voluntarily joined the Red Army and in February 1942 went missing.

The name of Yuri Kondratyuk, a prominent space exploration visionary with a tragic and yet impressive life, is given to a street in Kyiv and Poltava National Technical University. Memorial signs to him were placed in towns where he lived, the International Space Hall of Fame (New Mexico), and his monument erected at Cape Canaveral space launch site.