“Pursuing an Academic Degree Gives You a Great Opportunity to Tidy Up Your Own Mind”

Interview with Vitaly Lopota, the ex-president and chief designer at the S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation “Energia”, the prime developer and contractor of the Russian manned spaceflight program.

This interview was taken almost four years ago, when the editors of Youth Time magazine print version were in the planning stages for the issue, which was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space. We were toughly searching who to interview for the “Dialogue of Generations” column. We kicked around a number of possibilities, including the astronauts of our own time as well as the descendants of the space pioneers and even the new breed: space tourists. All of these choices seemed relevant enough. But, considering the anniversary in question, we wanted to remind our readers that it was first of all the designers and engineers of all these complicated machines who truly delivered man into the space. It was thanks to the conceptions of Sergei Korolev that the first satellite, Sputnik, was launched as well as the first cosmonaut. Thus, our editors decided to speak with the president and chief designer at the S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, a doctor of technical sciences Vitaly Lopota. Currently he is out of business. But the interview that he gave to YT editor-in-chief Julia Kinash definitely worth being published.

Why, in your opinion, does mankind in the modern world need to explore the Cosmos?

First of all, we need to possess the scope and range of knowledge so that we understand where we live, how we live, and what is happening around us and what can happen to us, and what are the potential risks and dangers posed to us? When a person decides where to live, it’s important to investigate the surrounding environment. The cosmos is such an environment and it is necessary to study it. At the same time this process generates knowledge. Manned space flight was predicted back in 1687 by Isaac Newton. But it took nearly three centuries from that moment until the Soviet engineers and scientists, headed by Korolev, figured out how to accomplish it. Secondly, as Ziolkowski said at the beginning of the 20th century, the human “at first, timidly penetrates beyond the boundaries of atmosphere, but then he will take possession of the whole circumsolar space”. Today, thanks to the outer space activity of humanity, the earthling can enjoy digital broadcasting, television, cellular communications, navigation. A whole global information infrastructure has been created. If humanity is to progress and develop and save itself in the future, it is necessary to actively develop activities in space. More than that, at this moment the market for space services is reaching around 250-270 billion dollars a year. This is comparable to the volume of capital involved in natural resources and represents a very promising direction.

What is the future of the space industry? What will humanity achieve in 50 years?

We live in a unique environment called the Universe. The observable universe contains around a hundred billion galaxies. In each of them there are hundreds of billions of stars. In our own galaxy – the Milky Way- there are about 400 billion stars. Our solar system moves relative to the galactic center at the speed of several hundred kilometers per second. Humanity cannot yet attain such rates with the existing technology.
So we earthlings are left with more modest tasks – the study the circumsolar cosmic space, planets, their satellites and other celestial bodies, the mastery of new knowledge, technologies and resources. To reach any area of the solar system, we would need to attain velocities of several dozens of km/sec. At the present stage of development of rocket technology the possibility of interplanetary expeditions is limited to using chemical energy generated by burning rocket fuel. We need to search for other sources and principals. In this regard, the next decades will be dedicated to the development of nuclear energy to solve this issue. And with the creation of safe and secure nuclear power systems and jet engines for space travel, in 50 years we will be able to significantly expand the horizons of our knowledge.

What kind of knowledge have we acquired through the development and achievements of space exploration?

Assessing the present advances in techniques and technologies which have allowed humanity to look into the past and explore the surrounding world, we have acquired a fairly broad knowledge. For example, how much time is allotted to our planet and what is the fate of our earthly civilization? Why is it that the history of mankind appears to be no older than several thousand years, while the history of the Earth is billions of years? What do we need to do so that the unique civilization of the Earth will continue to develop and not perish?

Tell us please about the specialization of the Rocket and Space Corporation “Energia”. Is it difficult to manage such a large group?

The specializations of RSC Energia cover virtually the entire field of marketable space services: manned spacecraft and space complexes, advanced launch vehicles, unmanned spacecraft. In essence, we are full-fledged participants of the market in all its segments. When I was offered the chance to lead this corporation, one of the main tasks was to save the Korolev school of rocket and space technology development. We did that and now we continue to develop it. In terms of management, it is always necessary to remember that everything is created by people. That’s why it is important to identify for each person the area of their competence from the point of view of creating. The better you know the person, the more effectively you can offer the most encouraging environment for his positive qualities to manifest themselves. That’s when success comes.

What motivates the highly skilled professionals to continue to work in Russia? Perhaps they were offered better deals abroad?

At one time, when people knew nothing about the market they knew how to dream. They dreamt about flying or being cosmonauts. Mainly, the generation which is working with us is the generation that in the 50’s and 60’s was helping to found our national rocket and space technology and cosmonautics. At that time people were brought up to be intelligent and logical. And the smarter people are the more romantic and visionary they are. And the best of those, who aren’t lured by money, are the ones who are going to implement those visions. The path is a long and thorny one though. And you certainly need a broad, quality education. Unfortunately, some do leave. This happens because under our social conditions today the common goals are replaced by private tasks and tasks can vary. If people are united by a common goal, if they are goal-oriented jointly, it becomes much easier to perform the tasks necessary for the development of our society.

At one time, you too were offered the opportunity to work abroad. Why didn’t you take it?

That was in the early 80’s. I was already a noted researcher and, in 1984, I received an offer from the Royal Society of Great Britain to lead their national laboratory of laser technology. The salary they offered me was sky-high, hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. At the same time, I received an offer to lead a laser technologies center in our own country. This position was part of an industry with 600 plants and many institutes. I accepted the offer. I grew up here, I like it here. Maybe some would consider me too much of a romantic for that.

Space exploration is unthinkable without the use of computer technology. Tell us how long you think it will take to develop a computer that can replace human intelligence?

In the near future, it’s probably impossible. Because humanity still does not entirely understand itself or the capacities of the human brain. Therefore, it’s too early to talk about it. I believe that, at present, computer scientists all over the world should strive to develop a machine that can carry out a million operations per second, at a cost of one watt. That would represent a huge energy savings. Today’s computers turn into ovens. They get very hot, and this heat needs to go somewhere, but in outer-space environment it can only be radiated out, there is no convection in space which is natural to terrestrial conditions. This, in my view, is one of the relevant tasks which need to be solved. In general, the highly intellectual robotics and cybernetics fields are thrillingly interesting spheres of activity and must be engaged seriously.

Would you want to fly into space yourself?

Never even thought about it, although I do have a space suit. If there is a need, I’ll fly. On today’s market for space services, a spot on a manned space ship costs tens of millions of dollars for a flight to a low orbit station – ISS. That’s why it is necessary to efficiently optimize any human flight. But if they were conducting laser experiments out there, for the development of which I’ve dedicated a lot of my time, then perhaps it would make sense for me to fly, given that the appropriate permits can be obtained.

What would you wish for young cosmonauts?

Good luck. When you get into the car, your loved ones say: Godspeed and good luck. As Vladimir Soloviev said (cosmonaut, twice Hero of the USSR, presently chief of the main operational flight control group of the Russian segment of the ISS): “Remember: Space is aggressive and humans are vulnerable“. We need to remember that. For myself, I would like to add that when you fly into space, take the best from the earth with you! At such times, ideas have no nationality.

What is your formula for success?

At work do not be lenient on yourself, initiate the overcoming of difficulties by moving forward while demanding the same from colleagues. You need to be logical. Do not deceive the people around you and, most certainly, don’t deceive yourself.

You always tell the truth?

Yes. And if the situation does not permit it, it’s better to keep quiet!

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