Using film from U.S. spy balloons to take pictures of the Moon


Article from the newspaper "St. Petersburg Vedomosti" of April 10, 1993. by Igor Borisovich Lisochkin.
Russian text reference provided by Alexander DzhulySubsection headers inserted by Sven Grahn

How much I live, how much I write, I do not get tired to marvel at the human wealth of our city. Not just a lot of good and intelligent people. Quite a few and those whose experience, knowledge, experience are simply unique. And among them are those who, considering the "regime" of space and "defense industry," could not say anything for decades, and the most interesting "obvious-improbable" remained a mystery behind seven seals.

A year ago, fate confronted me with one of the founders of space television, laureate of the Lenin and State Prizes Peter Fedorovich BRATSLAVETS ( 1 ) [see picture on the right]. The conversation was quite broad on the topic, but in it Pyotr Fedorovich unexpectedly endowed me with a story that, after laughing a lot, I defined it as "AMERICAN BALLOONS".On the eve of the present Day of Cosmonautics, I decided to return to this story, and we met at my request again. There were questions, there were answers. In this conversation, the "balloons" that interested me somehow moved aside, because I happened to hear many interesting things :

Getting started in television systems


“The regime of strict secrecy that surrounded the space affairs, and in which I had to live most of my life, ultimately, I think, did more harm than good. Remember how the people were shocked by the death of cosmonaut Komarov ... Because it was represented as if all our activities were a chain of continuous victories. But life is life ...

We went out into space first, created something that was never before, and we did not have any directories and intelligence to rely on. There happened on this way joy and triumph, dramas and mistakes, your surprises, absurdities and, if you like, adventures ... Otherwise, it could not be!

I came to the astronautics in a natural way, without expecting it myself. Demobilized after the end of the war, settled in Leningrad and in 1948 began working in the Research Institute of Television. The old inclination to ham radio was  not insignificant. I was a senior technician. At the same time I studied in absentia at the All-Union Electrotechnical Institute of Communications.

I was engaged then by the KVN televison sets. The main part of these TV sets ("Kenigson,Varshavsky, Nikolaevsky "), which later became very popular, mass-produced by the Research Institute of Television, the first 20 pieces I in 1949 handed over to the commission in Moscow. The following year I graduated from the institute, became an engineer, and a year later, I got a job that can not be forgotten for life.

The system of air defense of Moscow - S-25 was created. We were required to design and manufacture equipment for the transmission of radar information (see image on the right). And, as is often the case in the design business, the situation arose: This has to be done yesterday.  Big verbal battles took place at the level of ministries, technical councils and leadership of institutions. And, whatever one may say, it turned out that with the maximum effort for the implementation of the project would take at least three years. And it was necessary to do everything less than in a year ... In the end, a deputy minister came to our institute and asked us to collect meeting of those doing the actual work ("Without chiefs", at the level of heads of laboratories, not higher). As you can see, this was not quite usual. We gathered. The Deputy Minister honestly explained the situation and asked: "Will you accept this task ...?" We sat, exchanged glances, counted from the end: two months would go to complete the acceptance testing, three - to the equipment test ... How much will remain for each of such stages in the project as design, tuning? It turned out - less than a month. Incredible! But we did it.


How did the developers work then, and in what conditions! The main head of the work on the S-25 was personally Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria. And he used to say:  "Do we need to arrest this designer and this designer? For the good of the cause, of course." And the faces he named really disappeared from the horizon. Your humble servant "for the good of the cause" also had to be in prison, because he had some kind of carelessness to somehow notice that one of the objects of the S-25 was clearly not in place. Stalin's unexpected death saved me, and everything that followed ...

Problems of financing did not exist. Since everything was paid "according to performance", and under normal engineering salary in 1600 rubles ("old", of course, before Khrushchev's reforms) I received 17 - 20 thousand. In other words, if I wanted to, I could buy myself a new car every month. And yet we worked not for fear and not for money. There are more important things ... I remember how I did not leave the institute for a whole week. And even when I was ill - temperature 39 ... My colleagues photgrapherd me while I slept, resting my head on the oscilloscope. This picture appeared in our wall newspaper. We solved a problem that was considered insoluble. And they decided. In December of the same year, our I-400 complex [see picture below on the right of part of the I-400 from a on-line resource: Official Illustrated Guide to Moscow anri-aircraft defense system, 1955] was already operating at 116 air defense facilities in Moscow.



Sergei Korolev comes for a visit


However, formally this had nothing to do with cosmonautics. Under the leadership of the chief designer Vitaly Illarionovich Sardyko, I was engaged in a large-scale television screen (3 × 4 meters), under the supervision of the chief designer Igor Leonidovich Valik - the aerial reconnaissance system "Plutonium." Actually, we had the 20th department at our institute (it was supervised by the just mentioned Vitaly Illarionovich), which little by little studied the problems of television in space. But neither I nor other young designers had any interest in this, because we believed that something really could be realized here only in the 21st century.


Everything radically changed on October 4, 1957. The first satellite, the launch of which shocked the world, "Beep-Beep", coming from space, received a special, professional resonance in our institute. It became clear that the real development of space television would not be required in the 21st century, but immediately. A committee was formed to consider the affairs of the 20 th Division. I was appointed its chairman. But the elementary knowledge of the problem still did not suffice, and I went to Moscow, to Mstislav Vsevolodovich Keldysh, who was then vice-president of the Academy of Sciences and director of the Institute of Applied Mathematics.


After the launch of the second satellite Sergei Pavlovich Korolev came to us in the scientific research institute of television. By the way, I saw him for the first time, as well as the Lenin Prize medal, which he wore. Sergei Pavlovich looked at the complex that was developed by us for aerial reconnaissance, and then quite specifically formulated two tasks: the first one was to develop equipment capable of photographing the reverse, invisible side of the Moon and transmit the image to Earth, the second - to create a system for transferring from the orbit of the television image first animals (dogs), and then a person.

Let me remind you that the rockets were launched only directly from the Earth, there were no launches involving intermediate, i.e. parking, orbits. The method of flight correction, braking systems, too, did not exist yet. Fifteen minutes of operation of the rocket engines had to accurately bring the station to the Moon region, where, under the influence of the gravitational forces of the eternal satellite of the Earth, it would go to the required orbit, then photograph the invisible side of the Moon and upon returning to Earth would transfer the image to the ground station. Specialists of space ballistics calculated that even with the use of a special "perturbation" trajectory, this operation was possible once a year - in early October. This determined the terms of the work.

Design work starts

Again the "day and night" work began. Enthusiasm was boundless. For four months we developed the equipment "Yenisei-1". The main designer was Igor Leonidovich Valik, I was his deputy, leading engineers were Yuri Pavlovich Lagutin and Viktor Fedorovich Kuverov. In general, the people worked a lot, all did not list their real working hours....


In principle, we, the television crew, were ready by October 1958. But other developers of the most complicated space complex were not ready. Too serious problems faced them. The launch was postponed for a year. We, without wasting time, began to develop more advanced equipment "Yenisei-2".


In parallel, even more promising equipment was the Yenisei-3 based on the use of an electronic tube of the Vidikon type and intermediate magnetic recording. But with it, unfortunately we "did not have time to meet deadline". It later became the prototype for meteorological satellite camera system in the "Meteor" satellites.


Now the compact, elegant onboard photo camera, which we did then, stands among other exhibits in the museum of our institute. And few can imagine what passions seethed in its time around it. Not only designers argued, but also academics. Some said: "It will work!" Others categorically: "It will not work!" Scientific and technical advice was like battles. It came to the point that at meetings at the ministry I was ordered to "keep quiet and not speak." But in the long run, this "will work - will not work" dispute always led to something that worked.


Without getting into technical details (and it is unlikely that they will be understood by anyone other than specialists), I explain that for the cosmos the usual "earthly" modes of transmission turned out to be completely unacceptable. For this, it would be necessary to use gigantic energy sources, which would exceed the weight of the station itself by tens of times. We only had a few kilograms ... The "usual" signal received from such a source would be so insignificant that it would completely disappear in terrestrial and cosmic noises.


The solution was to drastically narrow the transmission bandwidth, with a slowdown, of course, of the transmission of the image. The main ideas in this direction in television as early as 1938 were formulated by Semen I. Kataev, who worked at our institute (then called NII-9), with the transfer of images on a short-wave channel. Of course, it does not make sense for ordinary household systems, but for solving all sorts of special problems of image transmission, "slow-scan" television is simply irreplaceable.


And we applied it. In the I-400 system, about which I spoke, the transmission of one frame was carried out in 10 seconds, and in the aerial reconnaisance system  "Plutonium" - in 3 minutes. For the space camera system "Yenisei" two modes were developed - a frame in 10 seconds, and for obtaining a sufficiently high-quality image - for 30 minutes. As you know, it's okay. If humanity for millennia could not look at the reverse side of the moon, then we could wait half an hour.


There was one more major problem ... Photochemical part for us was developed by NIKFI [Cinema and Photo Research Institute, Moscow], and with them we decidedly did not agree. Its employees defended the "two-step" system, we advocated the "one-step system" (created, by the way, by the same NIKFI), in which the development, washing and fixing are simultaneous. Each side had its own arguments, and none was inferior. In the end, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev cut this Gordian knot as follows: "If the TV crew undertakes to make this device - let them do it." NIKFI was indignant and defiantly washed their hands.

Doubts about film type

"Let's get it done” ... And I had big doubts about the photographic film that we used - "Type 17" (manufactured by Shostka). For aerial photography it was quite suitable, but for the cosmos a much greater sensitivity was required. I was also afraid that the film would be strongly veiled due to cosmic radiation. What to do? Again bow to NIKFI, with which we were so much in disagreement? Impossible. And time was running out. And then a completely crazy thought occurred to me ...


But first I'll digress for a moment and remind you of the real events of those years. With the advent of the era of ballistic missiles, the Americans, for understandable reasons, began a large-scale reconnaissance of the territory of our country. In the 50s, American high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft literally "plowed" our skies. There were also battles in which both American and our pilots were killed. But more often the reconnaissance planes went at such heights that were unavailable for our fighters. All this continued until the time when anti-aircraft complexes were created in our country. Remember the story with Gary Powers? Thus, the time for "being assholes" was over.


Then the American intelligence undertook a new action. As you know, over our country at an altitude of 10,000 meters lies the air current, which moves from west to east. From the territory of Western countries, Americans began to launch balloons at us at this height, equipped with automatic photographic equipment. Theoretically, each of them, after making the survey, could drop the ballast, go up to 20,000 meters and go back on the opposite air stream. This activity was large, expensive, but, in my opinion, stupid, because it did not give anything to the Americans. Our anti-aircraft gunners shot down these reconnaissance balloons in batches. Samples were transferred to Mozhayka, with whom I maintained close business relations. The photographic equipment used for the balloons was of no interest, but the film, created for shooting from high altitudes, was good: highly sensitive and strongly tanned, with a solution temperature of up to 50 degrees. Just what we need ... And we had it, as they say, buried ... This film I decided to use in the "Yenisei".


Why was the thought "crazy"? Yes, because in space, as in the "defense", at that time nothing foreign was allowed. Literally everything - materials, instruments, technologies - had to be only domestic. It was part of the flesh and blood, in the minds of the developers, becoming their ideology. If I had only hinted to someone about the possibility of using an American film, I would be mistaken for a foolish joker or even for a person who was not completely normal. Only two people knew about this venture - me and Volodya Kondratyev, who was engaged in the chemical processes of the Yenisei. We cut an American 180-millimeter film to 35 millimeters, then punched it. We wrote "technical conditions of the film type AB-1", which after having been shown to the military representatives was filed in the appropriate folder with the stamp "top secret". Of course, we both stayed silent. What would become of us if this story was revealed, I can not say. In any case, not only in cosmonautics, but in general, I think we would not have worked for a long time ... "  


And I flew to the Tyura-Tam launch site (to this day I can not understand why it is called "Baikonur", because Baikonur itself is located about six hundred kilometers from it) with copies of the TV cameras that were charged with a film of the “AB-1” type [if directly transcribed from Russian this abbreviation would read = Sh=Sharik, i.e. ball or sphere, but I use the letter B to match the interpretation “balloon” for “sharik”).

The management style of Sergei Korolev

I will not retell the details of the launch of Luna-3. In 1982 Alexey Ivanov's book "For the First Time" was published, in it all events are reflected objectively. I will only reveal a little secret: "Alexey Ivanov" - this is Oleg Genrikhovich Ivanovsky, the leading designer for manned spacecraft, one of the closest associates of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. My surnames, like many others, you will not find in his narrative. But you will meet "the leader of the group of the TV system crew Petro Fedorovich". This is myself.


I will only say that I was especially impressed, and I will clarify something. Luna-3 was prepared in the same situation familiar to us; "This has to be done yesterday." The time was running out so that the plant's complex tests of AIS (automatic interplanetary station) did not proceed on schedule. Assembling it and testing were conducted directly on the test site. The schedule was severe, planned to the minute and any failure would cause a delay that threatened to postpone the launch by a year. The date could only be one - on October 4. And the "delays", continued, unfortunately enough ...


During the test cycle, after filling the "chemistry" one of the engineers dropped a tiny nut from the tweezers inside the tape drive mechanism. How to get it? After all, you will not turn and shake out ... Korolev turned up: "What are you doing, comrades?" I had to report the incident. I was waiting for an "explosion", but it did not happen. Korolyov grumbled a bit about the "bath-laundry factory" [a nick-name for the Yenisey camera system] and then, after examining the photo camera again, said: "There will be a laughter if this piece works."


And he smiled. Awesome man! Since 1959 I was already a member of the Council of Chief Designers in cosmonautics, I knew everybody, and I can say that there is no figure equal to Korolev. He is a Russian, I am Ukrainian, "Khokhol", but in the past we were both Odessa citizens. This somewhat facilitated our relations, but, of course, there could be no question of any "familiarity". The "chief" was really The Chief. Only he could cover the entire strategy of astronautics, cope with the avalanche of problems. Very attentive to the opinion of designers, developers. He could not stand untruth, lies. Always adhered to the rule: he who made the decision, was responsible.


It would end badly, if someone tried to impress this "great figure" by referring to textbooks. Korolyov would arrange "reprimands" at such subordinates, my God. It could seem not only sharp, but also ruthless. However, all this was combined with his deepest, sincere humanity. Somewhere in the memories of it flashed such an episode. Very angry with one of his co-workers, Korolev said: "I'm firing you!" - "Good," - the co-worker answered and returned to work in his office. The next day, enraged by some kind of "delay", Korolev came to him with a harsh statement: "I am reprimanding you!" I heard a calm reply: "You have no right." - "How?! - The Chief Designer frowned. "Why?" - "Because you fired me yesterday ..." Korolev only smiled confusedly. Very characteristic episode. I think I will not be mistaken if I say that it was Oleg Ivanovsky that was "fired" here.


Last-minute work at the launch site!

But I will return to the launch site, to "Luna-3" ... Because the "delays" continued. During a test the camera "programmer" suddenly worked for seven minutes more than it was supposed to. The camera was removed from the spacecraft, the cause of the malfunction was established immediately: when refilling, one of the nozzles was not returned to its place. Dust was sucked in through the hole, and the fan, which was blowing the film, began to get stuck.


A lot of people with screwdrivers ran into the laboratory. Korolyov appeared: "Who is there? Well, get out of here! ... Pyotr Fedorovich, how much time do you need? "-" Two hours. " - "Good. At the door, place a submachine gun to prevent anyone from interfering. Do not let anyone in. Not even me ".


According to the official version it is believed that I "replaced the motor", but this is not so. I replaced THE ENTIRE CAMERA, changing the name plates with the numbers - from test unit to standby unit. And I did not say anything to anyone. A terrible violation. But, as a designer, I knew that "replacing the motor" would lead to a complete breakdown of the test schedule, and then - and the launch. And the camera was the same, I was absolutely sure.

The night was spent with trials.
In the morning I sit on a stool near the hotel smoking. Suddenly I found out: Sergei Pavlovich had hurriedly returned to Moscow. Academicians from the Institute of Astronomy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences by phone told him that the shutter speeds for shooting (1/200, 1/400, 1/600 and 1/800) were not given out correctly, they should be increased tenfold. Oh my God!
I understand: the academicians do not know about the film "type AB", they are judging the situation based on film of the "type 17". In the afternoon, a team of mechanics arrives to reconfigure the exposures. I absolutely forbid their work. I get an order from Korolev to fly to Moscow. I did not comply. At night I climb up to the roof of the assembly building (MIK) and take a picture of the moon, shining in the sky. We show the film - the exposure is correct. This is reported to Korolev, he returns to the launch site the same night. In the morning I meet him. He asks: "What, Pyotr Fedorovich? .." - Then I burst out: "I will not tell you anything! Collect the Council! "They gathered. I throw a pack of prints on the table: "Look ...".


But now, it seems, we have already passed through everything ... The station was assembled, in the assembly building the nuts were screwed on the last lid. And then something worried me. Intuition? The subconscious? I do not know. I went to the shop and asked again to be shown the camera. They began to convince me. ‘We have watched this a hundred times, everything is fine.’ I insist on seeing for myself. Installers (although they do not want to), loosened the locked nuts and removed the lid. I looked - and it struck me like lightning: on the lenses of the camera - black covers! Have you ever photographed without removing the lens covers? Do I have to say more?


Why did this happen? In astronautics, as in aviation, caps and plugs of red color are used to show that they must be removed before flight. But our caps were black. Well, the installers left them on ... I quickly removed the caps, put them in the inner pocket of my jacket, I said: "Close it." I left the shop and met Ivanovsky. He looked at my face and asked: "What's the matter with you? What happened? "-" Nothing, "I answered. - It's okay."

According to the official version it is believed that I "replaced the motor", but this is not so. I replaced THE ENTIRE CAMERA, changing the name plates with the numbers - from "testing" to "standby". And he did not say anything to anyone. A terrible violation. But, as a designer, I knew that "replacing the motor" would lead to a complete breakdown of the test schedule, and then - and start-up. The night was spent with trials. In the morning I sit on a stool near the hotel, I smoke. Suddenly I find out: Sergei Pavlovich hurried to Moscow. Academicians from the Astrosovet by phone told him that the shutter speeds for shooting (1/200, 1/400, 1/600 and 1/800) were not given out correctly, they should be increased tenfold. Oh my God! I understand: where do academicians know about the film "type AB", they are judged by "type 17". In the afternoon, a team of mechanics arrives to reconfigure the exposures. I absolutely forbid her work. I got an order from Korolev to fly to Moscow. I did not. At night I climbed up to the roof of the MIK and shot pictures of the moon, shining in the sky. We showed the film - the exposure was correct. This is reported to Korolev, he returned to the launch site the same night. In the morning I met him. He asks: "What, Pyotr Fedorovich? .." - Then I burst out: "I will not tell you anything! Collect the Council! "They gathered. I threw a pack of prints on the table: Look ...


Launch and image reception


And then, on the night of 3 to 4 October [Oct 4 at 0043.40 UT, 0343.40 Moscow Time], the launch took place. Right after the launch, a group of scientists and designers, along with Korolev, flew to the Crimea, to the observation station. I remember a funny episode. The station was already built, but they did not have time to cover the territory with a fence. But there was a gate on the road and near it - sentry. I, as a sin, did not have a badge, and the soldier refused to let me through. There was a general laughter: after all, we were near an open field and I could go anywhere. The sentry says: “Past the gate does not concern me, but through the gate I will not miss." I had to go "past the gate."


We waited tensely and looked at the clock, counted. When the station had passed the Moon, telemetry was to be transferred to a monitoring station in Kamchatka. It was not. (Later it turned out that one of the mechanisms broke down, and it was not possible to accurately point the antenna).


We did not know anything. What about the spacecraft? Did the system "lunar" orientation work? Did the camera work? We just waited. And in such moments something always happens. The director of the Crimean Observatory Andrei Borisovich Severny came and said: "What are you waiting for? I figured ... We will not get any picture. To protect the film from cosmic radiation requires a half-meter layer of lead. How many do you have? 5 millimeters. What?!. "It just does not suffice ...


Finally, at the right time, telemetry started. And I sighed and involuntarily said: "Wait. In thirty minutes – it will happen! "All crowded around the machine, which recorded the image on electrochemical paper. Finally, there were shouts: "There it is"! The first lines were dark, but then the invisible side of the moon with its craters and seas began to open more and more. Embrace and kisses began, and the entire "picture" slowly emerged ... [The telephoto receiver for Luna-3 is on display at the Tsiolkovskiy Museum in Klauga, see image in the right].


Cosmic television makes its debut


Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was true to himself, very reserved. He came up and asked: "Well, what did you do?" He was handed a wet tape. On the first of the pictures he immediately wrote: "Dear Andrei.B. Severny. The first photo of the reverse side of the Moon, which should not have appeared. Sincerely. S. Korolev." Andrei Borisovich exclaimed: "How glad I am that I was mistaken! Things should always be wrong in this way ... ". And then we celebrated this event gloriously, N.B. in Russian style. I'll never forget how Korolev and Keldysh danced ...


For the design work that led to the photographing of the reverse side of the Moon, the Lenin Prize was awarded to eleven people, among them - myself. Pulkovo astronomers "tied" the resulting image to the moon, established the exact coordinates of all objects. Subsequently, with their participation near Moscow, in Podlipki, the first lunar globe was created. I had to take part in the meetings of the commission, which gave the names to new lunar objects. The main proposals were put forward by the Institute of Astronomy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There were new ones during the discussion, but I do not remember any disputes. On the map appeared the Soviet mountain range, the Sea of Dreams, the craters Lomonosov, Tsiolkovsky, Giordano Bruno, Maxwell, Pasteur, Hertz and others.


And the fact that we "photographed" the opposite side of the Moon with an American film that was sent to our country with purely spying goals, I told my closest associates only many years later, long after the untimely death of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. In fifteen years. The abbreviation “AB”, I think, is not necessary to decipher. Of course, this is the "American Balloons". Odessites never lose their sense of humor. Starting with "Vostok" I acted as the chief designer of space television systems. Of course, I perfectly remember the immortal flight of Yuri Alekseevich Gagarin, and everything that followed. But this is another story and completely different adventures.”



When I finished writing this story, I thought about something. Where are those tape recorders that would preserve the stories, voice, intonations of the pioneers of the cosmos! After all, this is an inseparable part of not only ours, but also of human history. Where are the PUBLICATIONS that FIGHT FOR THE HONOR OF RECEIVING MEMORIES OF SUCH PEOPLE, like Piotr Fedorovich Bratslavets? Maybe they will still appear?



  1. Peter Bratslavets was (1925-1999), born in Odessa. Like most members of his generation, fought in WWII. For participation in hostilities he was awarded medals "For the Defense of the Caucasus" and "For Victory over Germany". He was discharged from the Army in 1948. He came to work at the Leningrad Research Institute-380 (now the Research Institute for TV). He worked on many space television system but is perhaps most known for leading the design of the "Yenisei" camera system on Luna-3.

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