Vladimir Syromyatnikov; Designed Docking System for Space Capsules

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Vladimir Sergeevich Syromyatnikov, 73, the veteran Russian space scientist whose docking system linked the Soviet Soyuz and the U.S. Apollo space capsules in the 1970s, a system that is still in use, died of leukemia Sept. 19 in Moscow.

Mr. Syromyatnikov worked for Energia Space Research Corp. in the space program since before Sputnik first orbited the Earth. He updated the design of his docking system in the 1990s for the meeting of the Mir space station and the Atlantis shuttle at the international space station.

His highly reliable electromechanical systems, which included the Androgynous Peripheral Assembly System, the proper name of the docking system, in addition to onboard manipulators and reusable solar arrays, are among the jewels of the Russian space program.

Mr. Syromyatnikov was one of the best, if not the best, of his country's space scientists, said Bruce Brandt, who worked on the Soyuz-Apollo program and later was Rockwell International's chief engineer on the Mir-Atlantis docking program.

"We used to call him 'big cheese,' and he liked that term," Brandt said. "He was always thinking. If there was a problem, he always had a sketch pad. We had our shares of failures and problems in the test [phase] . . . but it wouldn't be long, sometimes overnight, before there would be solutions."

Mr. Syromyatnikov, a graduate of a technical university in his home town of Moscow, was a young engineer for Energia in 1956 when he went to work with Sergey Korolev, chief designer of the intercontinental ballistic missile that in 1957 launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite.

Sputnik's beeping, blinking circumnavigation of the globe electrified the world and jump-started the U.S. entry into space, as scientists and politicians scrambled to improve science education and to direct federal dollars to space research, often in the name of national defense more than scientific curiosity. Few expected that the two nations would cooperate, never mind share quarters in space, before the century ended.

Meanwhile, Mr. Syromyatnikov helped design and develop the world's first manned spacecraft, the Vostok, which cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rode in 1961. He helped design lunar vehicles and worked on the Voskhod spacecraft, the Venera probe to Venus and the Molnia communications satellite.

His docking system was first tried out on unmanned spacecraft in 1967 or 1968, he told the publication Space News, then on two manned capsules in 1969. It successfully docked more than 200 missions and has never had a failure in space. He was awarded the Lenin Prize for it in 1976.

In the early 1970s, when detente had only slightly thawed the Cold War, Mr. Syromyatnikov was sent to Rockwell's space facilities in Downey, Calif., where engineers from both superpowers attempted to build the critical link that lashed two terrestrial enemies together. He once called the necessity to keep secrets during that era "a nightmare" and welcomed glasnost, and not just because he looked forward to writing a book ("100 Stories about Docking and Other Adventures in Space," which was published in English in 2005). But he also told a Washington Post reporter in 1995 that not everything can be open.

"Sometimes you don't express yourself with everything. It's not secrets -- it's life," he said. "Are you married? I believe you have some secrets from your husband?"

The collaboration in the 1970s worked well, and the scientists expected to continue their joint effort. But international politics interfered for two decades, a period that Mr. Syromyatnikov dubbed "The 20 Lost Years."

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