Satellite Command and Control in the USSR, 1955-1965

by David C. Arnold

Satellites perform a variety of scientific, reconnaissance, navigational, weather observing, and communications missions. Satellite telemetry and command systems (also called command and control systems) provide the essential link between satellites and the people who operate them. Because radio signals travel in a straight line, tracking stations can communicate with satellites only when they are within sight of the station’s antenna. For low-orbiting satellites, tracking periods are limited, sometimes as brief as five minutes. Tracking stations, therefore, are scattered widely, yet they also must maintain a communications link to a central control center.

Scholars have paid far more attention to the history of satellites than to the role of civilian and military tracking stations. But without those facilities, no one would have been able to verify space successes. Although satellite control developed haphazardly, it has been as vital to national politics as any single satellite program, perhaps more so, because satellite command and control systems support many different satellite programs. Furthermore, without satellite command and control systems, the space race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. could not have happened.

During the 1950s, several organizations researched satellite command and control systems in the United States and the Soviet Union. In the U.S.S.R., it was the Command Measurement Complex. In accordance with Eisenhower administration policies, the United States developed two separate but equal sets of satellite command and control networks: a public one to support civilian space science and the military’s secret one, designed specifically to support the top secret National Reconnaissance Program. The Soviet Union, in contrast, built a single network, which reflected the influences of geography and politics.

The Soviet totalitarian state did not distinguish between civilian and military space programs. Its space program served the purposes of the state, whether scien-tific, military, or propagandistic, and like its U.S. counterpart, it included elements of scientific exploration, technology development, national image building, practical applications, and military uses. Thus, the Soviet Un-ion needed but a single network to track satellites.

Between 1957 and 1981, the U.S. Defense Department conducted about 57% of the nation’s space flights, 44% of which had exclusively military missions, while the U.S.S.R. launched about 66% of their success-ful space flights for strictly military purposes.

Regardless of the mission, the Soviet Union’s space program needed a tracking network to verify space achievements and to maintain command and control over satellites. And, like the United States, the Soviet Union developed its tracking network from systems origi-nally designed to evaluate the success of missile test flights.

In 1953, in an address to the World Peace Coun-cil in Vienna, the president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences declared: “Science has reached a state when it is feasible to send a stratoplane to the moon, [and] to cre-ate an artificial satellite of the Earth.” Soviet Scientist G. I. Pokrovskii speculated that, although a satellite the size of a billiard ball would be of sufficient size to be observed from Earth, a satellite several deca-meters in diameter would be more useful. Meanwhile, Soviet scientists and engineers began planning for a missile tracking network.

The unique political structure of the U.S.S.R. impacted the design of the Command Measurement Com-plex (KIK), which served every piloted, interplanetary, scientific, and military space mission from 1957 to the present time. A government decision in January 1956, following fierce wrangling among ministries, placed re-sponsibility for developing the satellite command and control network on the shoulders of the military.

Engineers, scientists, and military officers expended considerable effort to create a ground infra-structure to track and communicate with Sputnik I. After fierce competition between the Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Defense for the contract to build the telemetry, tracking, and command network, the military took on the job of satellite command and control.

KIK initially comprised seven major stations spread across the country’s vast expanse. In order to justify the high ranks and salaries of the commanders and personnel, the stations euphemistically took on the name Scientific Measurement Installations. The KIK, under the command of Maj. General Ivan I. Spitsa, served both scientific and military satellites. All ground stations of the Command Measurement Complex were under the direct control of the Strategic Rocket Forces. In Decem-ber 1957, the Ministry of the Defense moved the KIK control center from Bolshevo to Moscow, and in January 1963, the control center came under the direction of the General Staff of the Strategic Missile Forces as military unit No. 32103.

Scientists and engineers in the U.S.S.R. sited their satellite tracking stations in order to keep their locations secret and to provide an acceptable environ-ment for communications, power, and living arrangements. The military established new units at each site, with their own seal, banner, and guard. The stations, often in the arid desert or the steppe, operated inde-pendently with their own supplies, technical support, and financial resources, and employed five or six officers and thirty to eighty conscripts. Officers’ families lived with them, but without schools and other support facilities.
Life at the tracking stations swung dramatically between monotony and the excited throes of a launch. At first newcomers felt elated because of the apparent freedom and independence of the isolated sites. Then boredom set in, and they would volunteer for transfer to anywhere else. In one case, the lieutenant colonel in command of one outpost committed suicide.

Each KIK station relayed all its tracking and telemetry data to the Coordination Computation Center, established at headquarters in Moscow in early 1957 under the command of Pavel A. Agadzhanov. The Ministry of Defense, in addition to its responsibility for the mis-sile-tracking network, was in charge of the tracking, telemetry, and command network for all Soviet satellites. As early as 1961, the U.S.S.R. did data processing for orbital calculations using an advanced digital computer capable of 20,000 operations per second, and later with another computer capable of probably around 50,000 operations a second. These computer capabilities easily rivaled their U.S. counterparts during the 1960s.

The size of the U.S.S.R. presented unique problems and advantages for the developers of their satellite command and control network. The country was two and a half times wider than the United States, but only nine of every twenty-four hours of a satellite’s orbit passed over the tracking network. When tracking requirements became more stringent for the piloted space program, the Soviets added six new ground-based tracking sta-tions. The lack of a global tracking network capable of continuous observation and com-munication with satel-lites became the chief restraint on Soviet satellite com-mand and control capabilities.

The U.S.S.R. filled in the gaps in its worldwide tracking coverage with ocean-based stations positioned at strategic points around the globe. Either reluctant or unable to negotiate agreements with foreign countries for the placement of tracking stations overseas, the Soviet Union relied on a fleet of fully-equipped, self-contained, floating tracking stations. These first set sail during the ICBM tests of the late 1950s.

The Soviet missile-testing program ships later became their satellite command and control ships. By the mid-1960s, several tracking ships, including Kosmo-naut Vladimir Komarov, Kosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and Akademik Sergei Korolev were in place. Each displaced at least 17,850 tons and had a crew of 121 plus a science team of 118. When the Soviets failed in their bid to send a piloted mission to the moon in December 1968, the United States knew about the failure, because the Soviet tracking and recovery ships in the Indian Ocean dispersed or returned to port.

Soviet engineers sometimes had to improvise in creating their satellite command and control system. In 1959, when Sergei Korolev first began developing inter-planetary spacecraft to fly to Mars and Venus, he proposed building a tracking network comparable to NASA’s Deep Space Network. Because they had a deadline of just eight months, Korolev came up with the ingenious idea of creating mounts for the dishes using left-over parts from the Soviet Navy.

Construction workers dug a huge crater out of the rocky ground, poured a foundation, took the revolving gun turret of a battleship consigned to the junkyard, and placed it on the foundation. Then workers mounted the open framework of a railroad bridge over the gun turret. The solid hull of a scrapped sub-marine, to which they had fixed antennas, covered the bridge. The facility was fully operational by December 1960. Located at Yev-taporia on the Black Sea, it ulti-mately would consist of three complexes, each with eight 16-meter antennas separated by several kilome-ters: one to send commands, and two to receive telemetry.

In this manner, the Soviet Union created a single satellite command and control network that was perhaps more economical and more efficient than its U.S. counterparts, because it served both civilian scien-tists and the military, while the United States had two separate sys-tems for civilian and military uses. The Soviet totalitarian state did not distinguish between civilian and military space programs. The single dual-purpose network thus mirrored the Soviet political system, which required that it serve the multifarious purposes of the state, whether scientific, military, or propagan-distic, and because it also reflected the dominance of the Ministry of Defense.

The nation’s vast breadth allowed the Soviet Un-ion to construct a substantial network within its own bor-ders; however, that network could track satellites only nine out of every twenty-four hours. The nature of satellite orbits demanded construction of a global tracking network, which the U.S.S.R. built not out of overseas fa-cilities, like NASA’s Deep Space Network, but with floating stations positioned strategically around the globe.