January 30 in Russian history


Soviet balloon Osoaviakhim-1 reached the record altitude — 22,000 metres. The earlier world records were achieved by Auguste Piccard. In 1931 he and Paul Kipfer reached 15,785 metres and in 1932 Piccard and Max Cosyns ascented to 16,200 metres. In 1933 Soviet aeronauts Georgy Prokofyev, Konstantin Godunov and Ernst Birnbaum on balloon SSSR-1 (USSR-1) reached 19,000 metres. Newspaper Pravda wrote: "On the American balloon that was the first to ascent to the stratosphere there were large letters: Piccard. It was a flight of one man who sought fame for himself. The soviet balloon that flew to 19 kilometres was titled SSSR-1 and this meant that the whole country participates in the flight."

The SSSR-1 was made by the Soviet Air Force. At the same time, a group of engineers from Osoaviakhim (volunteer Society for Assistance to Defense, Aviation and the Chemical Industries of the USSR) were building another balloon. The volume of the balloon was 24,940 cubic metres. The construction was not sponsored by the state. Instead, Osoaviakhim published a brochure titled "To the stratosphere!" and sold it for one ruble, quite expensive for those years. The brochure was sld out in one day. Actually, the factories obliged their workers to buy it. In summer 1933, when the balloon was ready, a commission from Moscow banned the flights, since the construction was too dangerous. So, the commission criticized the escape hatch. To open the hatch, the pilots had to unscrew 24 nuts. In SSSR-1 it took only 5 seconds to turn a handle and open the hatch. Besides, the hatch was located at the top of the gondola. The speed of the ballast release was too low, it took more than one hour to release one ton of the lead shrapnel. The hooks that held the slings attaching the gondola to the balloon were too weak. In spite of all these and other problems, the engineers decided to launch the balloon.

There were three people in the crew. Pavel Fedoseyenko was the commander. He was interested in aeronautics since 1915. During the Civil war he commanded an aeronautic detachment and committed more than 100 reconnaissance flights on balloons. After the war he graduated from the Air Forces Academy and the dirigible building faculty of the Civil Air Fleet Institute. Alexander Vasenko was the chief designer of the balloon. He graduated a prestigious gymnasium in Tsarskoye Selo near St.Petersburg. He was a good opera singer and could make a career in the theater, but he preferred to become an engineer. He entered the airways faculty of the Petrograd Institute of Communication Engineers and defended the thesis "The prospects of the atmosphere exploration with dirigibles". He taught in the Leningrad Military Technical School and then joined the Osoaviakhim-1 project. And the third one was Ilya Usyskin. He was born in Yaroslavl oblast in the family of a blacksmith. His father was a bolshevik who was exiled to Yaroslavl. Since childhood Ilya was a good mathematician. He was also interested in foreign languages and at the age of 14 he could read "Faust" by Goethe in German. When studying in the Leningrad Physical Technical Institute, he wrote two works on the difraction of fast electrons. "If someone asks me many years later, what did I do in the years of the first five-year plan, I will reply: "I studied the space radiation." I know that my country needs my work, but when I read of the coevals who build blast furnaces in Magnitka or roof the factory sections at the STZ factory, I want to be with them." The main objective of the Osoaviakhim-1 was the exploration of the space radiation and it was Usyskin's job.

The balloon was launched at 9:07 am, January 30, 1934. On the same day the XVII congress of VKP(b) (the Communist party of Russia) opened in Moscow. At 9:16 the crew sent the first radio. At 9:32 they reported of problems with the radio, they couldn't hear the messages from the command center. At 10:14 they reached 19,000 metres. At 11:16 Osoaviakhim-1 was at 20,500 metres and at 11:59 the commander sent the welcoming message to the congress of the Communist party. It was the last message from the balloon. This message was read on the congress and was met with the exclamations: "Glory to the Politbureau of the Central Committee! Glory to comrades Stalin and Kirov!"

The following events were recorded by Alexander Vasenko in the log. 12:33 — Osoaviakhim-1 reaches 22,000 metres. 12:45 — descent started. The investigation later said that they spent too much time at this altitude. The balloon, heated by the sun, refused to go down and one the crew released the gas for three minutes. At 15:00 they were on 18,000 metres. The sun was going down and the temperature fell to -50C. Vasenko wrote: "Fedoseyenko untangles the rope of the release valve that got tangled in an instrument." The descent speed is growing slowly. 15:40 — 14,300 metres. The last record was made at 16:10 on 12,000 metres: "The sun is shining brightly. The beauty is unforg..." At the altitude of about 1,500-2,000 metres the slings tore away. At 16:21 or 16:23 the gondola of the balloon hit the ground near the village Potizh-Ostrog in Mordovia.

The strange thing is that at 12:45 a radio amateur from Gomel recorded the following text: "This is Sirius. The balloon is in the precipitation layer and it's icing up. We are covered with ice and falling. Waiting for the strike. My comrades are in terrible condition. Ending. We'll hit soon." This information was dismissed during the investigation as a mystification, and there were no traces of the ice coating on the gondola.

The investigation has shown that the descent speed was too high. The heated gas expanded and left the balloon. When the aeronauts wanted to begin the descent, they must have released too much gas in the hurry. Besides that tangled rope, probably, left the valve open. The speed of the descent was too high. Due to the construction of the gondola, the crew could not release the ballast quickly enough. Besides, there was not enough ballast to compensate for the loss of the gas. The speed increased till the slings tore and the gondola fell to the ground. The investigators came to the conclusion that the safe altitude for Osoaviakhim-1 would be 19,500 metres and the ascent to 20,500 could present acceptable risk. The attempt of the explorers to go even higher led to their death.

The village Potizh-Ostrog, where Osoaviakhim-1 fell, is now named Usyskino, after Ilya Usyskin.

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