On Why Lunokhod Designer Went Into Creating Military-Designed Hovercraft
For many years, he, who can be rightly called the "father" of space robotics, was left unknown, as his name was kept classified. The creator of the first-ever lunar rover, the Mars lander vehicle, and author of numerous unique inventions — he became known only with the fall of the USSR. There is even an asteroid that was named after him.
Alexander Kemurdzhian was born in 1921 in Vladikavkaz. He is a craftsman and inventor of impossible machines and mechanisms. No one would have suspected at the time that this childish hobby would make the boy a world-famous constructor.
In 1939, the young man decided to "storm" the Moscow Aviation Institute, but the lack of rooms in the dormitory forced him to return home. In 1940, he finally enrolled at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University in the tank department. At the beginning of the war, he made many attempts to get to the front, but he was repeatedly rejected. His "white ticket" was explained by his extremely poor eyesight. In 1943, thanks to his persistence, the young man received the necessary fitness certificates for service. His fight route began at the Kursk Bulge, and then there was the liberation of Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. On May 3, 1945, Alexander Leonovich took part to capture the German city of Bad Dobran in Pomerania.
After his demobilisation, he resumed his studies at the "regime" university. After his graduation, the young specialist was sent to the Leningrad VNII-100 (VNIItransmash). It should be noted that the main profile of this enterprise is armoured vehicles, so its activities, both in Soviet times and today, were classified. Only a few people were allocated to work at the Institute.
His career goes uphill: in 1959, the engineer becomes the head of the department of new driving principles. And further on, Alexander Leonovich is as if quoting a character from the Strugatsky brothers' humorous novel "Monday Starts on Saturday":
"What is the point of buying a car to drive around on asphalt? Where there is asphalt, nothing is interesting, and where it is interesting, there is no asphalt".
The scientist spent the next five years researching and designing the air-cushion vehicle, which received the name of "polzolyot" (in Russian: crawler-flyer). The unusual tank could hold up to 12 soldiers and be designed to cross bogs, off-road terrain and waterways. It was even considered for use in Antarctica. Years later, similar vehicles appeared in the army and industry. However, having laid the foundations for their design, the inventor was sent on the next project. Even more ambitious.
Khemurjian became the leader of works on the creation of self-propelled automatic vehicles on the surface of the Moon. For ten years, he was engaged in developing the basics of designing robotic space transportation vehicles. In other words, they were planetary vehicles. The researchers were faced with a task belonging to the science fiction section at the time.
What does the ground on other planets look like? How should the vehicle move? How should it be remotely controlled? To answer these and many other questions, the institute staff had to devise and build the machines and test them on Earth - simulating the vacuum, temperature, and gravity conditions of exactly those objects for which they were designed to operate. Test sites in the Leningrad Oblast, Belarus, Crimea, the sands of Central Asia and Kamchatka were involved.
In his memoirs, published in the post-Soviet period, Alexander Leonovich told an interesting episode near volcano Shiveluch. The helicopter supposed to take scientists to the test site almost crashed and made an emergency landing. A second one was not readily available. After lengthy negotiations, it was allocated by Aeroflot but without fuel. Local officials asked us to wait a couple of weeks - they were waiting for a tanker with petrol. To complete the picture, one must imagine that the trip was classified. The rover was already at the test site. A hastily made-up legend explained the necessity of a group of people in an emergency flight to the volcano.
The desperate Kemurjian appealed to the military for petrol. The very next day, a man appeared with the following offer: 25 tonnes of gasoline and a tonne of oil for 10,000 roubles in cash. The price was double that of the state. The designer spent the day making long-distance calls and telegrams and found the sum demanded. Without any receipts, checks or documents, he gave the truly "cosmic" money for those days to the first man he met, and the risk paid off 100%. The fuel was received, and the tests were successful. In 1970, the USSR designed and built the Lunokhod 1 on self-propelled chassis for the first time in the world was taken to the Moon, where it completed the task of exploring its surface. The modernised version – Lunokhod-2, designed in 1973 – saw the same remarkable success as its predecessor. The next similar vehicle landed on the satellite only 40 years later and was labelled "Made in China".
The originality of design thought knew no bounds. It was at VNII-100 that the world's first Mars rover appeared under the direction of Kemurdjian. The Mars rover, or PrOP-M for short, had to travel on two skis. This system was explained by the lack of information about the planet's surface. The apparatus to study the surface of Phobos moved by leaps and bounds. The fact that the force of gravity of the Mars satellite is 2000 less than that of the Earth, so scientists had to invent a very unusual way to move the unit.
The scientist's experience of creating remotely piloted transport was used to eliminate the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. Two weeks after the disaster, Alexander Leonovich visited the nuclear power plant. Having assessed the situation and conditions of the equipment, he returned to Leningrad and, in a short time, created a specialised robot STR-1. It included a self-propelled chassis with instruments and equipment, a radio-television complex for remote control and a bulldozer blade for territory decontamination.
Two such robots spent more than 200 hours clearing debris from the roofs of Unit 3. They removed more than 90 tonnes of radioactive material. The use of robots prevented around 1000 people from working in hazardous areas.
For many years Kemurdzhian remained unknown to the general public - he published his scientific articles under pseudonyms - Aleksandrov, Leonovich or Uglev. But when the veil of secrecy was lifted from his projects, the engineer and designer became world-famous. Thus, in 1997, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after him, and the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge included him in the book "Outstanding People of the 20th Century".