1931 — 1938
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Community of Dreamers

Friedrich Zander  Friedrich Zander and Sergey Korolev  Sergey Korolev met each other in the autumn of 1931. Zander was almost twice the age of Korolev and by then had already spent years building rocket propulsion engines and developing groundwork for future space flights.

Korolev was preparing for an upcoming gliding competition and test flights in an innovative tailless glider designed by Cheranovsky. Having learned that Zander had already created a prototype rocket engine, Korolev immediately suggested that he put this engine on the glider, that is, build a rocket-powered glider.

Flight of the tailless glider at the gliding competition in Koktebel. 1929

Aviation and Chemistry

Zander readily latched onto the Korolev’s idea. To start with, he drew on his contacts with the influential Soviet organization Osoaviakhim and set up the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD) in September 1931.

The Society for the Promotion of Defense, Aviation and Chemical Construction — Osoaviakhim for short — was aimed at involving young people in an array of military support activities.

«Join Osoaviakhim» promotional campaign seaplane. Early 1930s
Propaganda poster. 1933
Osoaviakhim Dirigible. Early 1930s
Group of Osoaviakhim activists of the town of Podolsk. 1931-1933

Osoaviakhim supported research and development projects that could be used in military applications. Friedrich Zander managed to get Osoaviakhim interested in his OR-1 engine (Experimental Rocket Engine One). The engine ran on compressed air and gasoline and was based on a regular blowtorch.

Friedrich Zander, the dreamer number one

Reactive Propulsion Motion

Zander himself headed GIRD at the start. But, being totally absorbed in rocket engines, he tended to overlook management duties. Korolev then served as both manager and frontman of GIRD. At one of Osoaviakhim meetings in July 1932, he talked about achievements and future plans of the group, and the report was so well-made and so convincing that four days later Korolev was made head of GIRD.

We do not know what exactly Korolev said then, but, as he was greatly influenced by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, his personal plans for the future must have already included the main goal, a space flight with a man on board.

Korolev, head of GIRD. 1932
Group for the Study of Reactive Motion. Korolev (the second on the left) and Zander (standing on the right). 1931
Korolev at the Nakhabino testing site near Moscow. 1932
Why everybody was so inspired by Tsiolkovsky


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What GIRD Accomplished

GIRD existed for only 2 years during which time it managed to do the most important thing, to create and successfully test the first liquid (hybrid) fuel rocket in the USSR.

This rocket, GIRD 9, designed by Mikhail Tikhonravov, was launched on August 17, 1933, and reached an altitude of 400 meters. Tests of the next rocket, GIRD 10, took place three months later and went well enough until finally the rocket failed at an altitude of 80 meters.

The GIRD 10 rocket was Friedrich Zander’s last project. He did not live to see the rocket fly, in March 1933, the «dreamer number one» died of typhoid fever in Kislovodsk. Korolev and Zander had a very strong bond between them, both on emotional and professional levels. Upon learning of his friend’s death, Korolev burst into tears. He would keep Zander’s portrait in his house in Ostankino hanging right above the desk next to Tsiolkovsky’s portrait.

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

GIRD, consisting of young romantics, foreshadowed the entire future Soviet rocket industry. Only the scale would change, what one engineer was doing in the GIRD could in 20 years become a task for a whole research institute.

Working for Nothing

The first GIRD members were not paid; they were driven solely by enthusiasm. Many worked in the evenings after their main job, as well as on weekends and holidays. The members used to joke that the abbreviation «GIRD» stood for Group of Engineers Working for Peanuts (based on matching initial letters).

Osoaviakhim supplied GIRD with equipment and materials, provided premises and, sometimes, transportation. However, much of what was needed to build rockets was hard to get from Osoaviakhim, and the GIRD staff had to source it elsewhere. When silver was needed for the engine, it had to be procured by the members bringing silver plates, forks, and spoons from home. When a truck was not provided, the rocket was taken to the Nakhabino testing site by streetcar. In 1932 the GIRD employees began to receive small salaries.

GIRD-9 rocket test preparation at the Nakhabino testing site. Korolev is on the far left. August 17, 1933
GIRD members with the GIRD-9 rocket. 1933
Rocket «GIRD-9» after landing. August 17, 1933
GIRD members before the launch of the GIRD-10 rocket at the Nakhabino testing site. 1933

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

In February 1934, Mikhail Tikhonravov, the creator of the GIRD-9 rocket, came to Kaluga to see Tsiolkovsky and tell him about first successful rocket launches. When he heard this, Tsiolkovsky exclaimed in disbelief,

— No way!
Mikhail Tikhonravov visiting Tsiolkovsky. 1934
Who else in the world launched rockets

Rockets and Postage Stamps

Vladimir Lositsky, historian of Russian aviation and cosmonautics, director of the Cosmonaut Serebrov Foundation

How the Reaction Engine Institute Came Into Being and What Korolev Did There


In 1933, the Revolutionary Military Council, the then-Ministry of Defense, merged Moscow-based GIRD and the Gas Dynamics Laboratory of Leningrad into one scientific research center, the Reaction Engine Institute.

As opposed to GIRD, which dealt with liquid-propellant rockets, the Gas Dynamics Laboratory was engaged in development of smokeless powder projectiles, prototypes of future Katyusha rockets. The head of the laboratory, military engineer Ivan Kleimenov, was appointed head of the Institute. Korolev became his deputy.

Rockets mounted on a Katyusha Launcher. 1944

Relations went sour right from the start. Kleimenov, a senior army officer, did not think much of civilians and did not want Korolev, a civilian, to go beyond the scope of regular administrative matters, which definitely did not suit the latter. The conflict resulted in Korolev having been demoted from deputy head of the institute to a position of engineer in the rocket department.

For GIRD staff members who moved together with Korolev to the Reaction Engine Institute, the transformation from civilian engineers-enthusiasts to military structure employees created many opportunities to implement new technical ideas. The supply of equipment and material resources was incomparable to that of GIRD. But since then, for each step or misstep they became responsible not only to colleagues as they used to be, but to the NKVD as well.

Korolev’s pass to the Reaction Engine Institute
Korolev, Deputy Head of the Reaction Engine Institute. 1933
Korolev and his staff. 1930s
Who was the first in the USSR to understand what rockets were really for (the military, and Tukhachevsky in the first place)

Korolev’s Rocket Glider — how it flew and why it was useful

One of the projects Korolev was involved in at the Reaction Engine Institute was a rocket-powered glider, a hybrid of a glider and a rocket. It would take off like a glider — air towed by a tow plane to a desired height — and then the glider pilot would fire the rocket engine located in the tail.

The rocket glider was Korolev’s long-held idea. Practical and military application of such a project was unlikely, but it was the first step toward creating a rocket-powered aircraft. It was necessary to make sure that a rocket airplane was able to fly and could be controlled by the pilot.

3D reconstruction
RP-318-1 rocket glider
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The first flight of Korolev’s rocket-powered glider RP-318 with the rocket engine in operation was made on February 28, 1940. Pilot Vladimir Fedorov, who conducted the flight, reported well on it.

Korolev was not present at the test; two years earlier, on July 27, 1938, he had been arrested.

Rocket glider RP-318-1 stayed at the Podlipki airfield off Moscow until World War II. In August 1941 it was burnt down to avoid capture by advancing enemy troops.

Pilot Vladimir Fedorov, the first to test the RP-318 rocket glider
Rocket glider RP-318 at the airfield


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Based on recollections of Korolev’s employees Nikolay Efremov (GIRD) and Arvid Pallo (Reaction Engine Institute)

About the project


Georgy Avanyan


Natalya Akulova


cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko


Elena Matza


Natalya Makarova


Pixeljam Studio
  • Art director:
    • Aleksander Grigorev
  • Developers:
    • Dmitry Udovichenko
    • Dmitry Orlov
    • Daniel Denisov



  • Producer:
    • Artem Patyn


Studio Lastik


  • Actors:
    • Valeria Dorokhova
    • Alexander Vladimirtsev
  • Director:
    • Gleb Dobrovolsky


Elena Kuklina


Julia Baklanova


Anna Ulyanskaya, Alla Chetaeva, Victor Koreshev, Georgy Kulikov, Vladimir Derevyanko, Alexei Taranin, Natalya Bogoyavlenskaya, Maxim Makarov, Svetlana Alexikova, Dmitry Anzhaparidze, Dmitry Koshelev, Danila Koshelev, Ivan Karyshev, Arthur Salikhov, Mikhail Tatyanin


Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara for the filming opportunity

Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow for the filming opportunity on the territory of the Memorial House Museum of Academician Sergey Korolev in Ostankino


Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive



Yaroslav Golovanov, Boris Smirnov, Evgeny Ryazanov


Documentary footage:

«Pilot Shabanov’s Flight Moscow-Berlin (1920-1930)», «The Country of the Soviets Turns 16. (1933)», " May 1 Celebration in Moscow (1923)», «Sovjournal No. 64/173 (1928)», «Aero March (1934)», «Aircraft Inventor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1927)», «Into the Air Now! (1923)», «The Great Scientist of the Great People (1935)», «The Eastern Flight (1924)», «Socialist Village No. 3 (1935)», «Fighter Planes (1942)», «Airplane in the Service of Culture (1925)

Documentary films and stories (1960-1992):

«Korolev», «Conquerors of the Universe», «Columbuses of the Space Era», «Twenty-Five Years' Undertakings», «Documentary Filings of Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov» — footage of cosmonauts in the TV studio, footage of flight preparation of the first team of cosmonauts


  • Dmitry Zilmanovich. Friedrich Tsander, Pioneer of Soviet Rocketry. 1966
  • Cosmonautics. Soviet Encyclopedia article. 1968
  • Pyotr Astashenkov. Academician Sergey Korolev. 1969
  • Vadim Shavrov. History of Aircraft Designs in the USSR up to 1938. 1978.
  • Irina Strazheva. Tulips from the Cosmodrome. 1978
  • Creative Legacy of Academician Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Selected works and documents. 1980
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Road to the Cosmodrome. 1982
  • Mark Gallay. With a Man on Board. 1985
  • Boris Rauschenbach. Memoirs about Sergey Korolev. 1985.
  • Academician Sergey Korolev. Scientist. Engineer. Personality. Creative portrait in recollections of contemporaries. 1986
  • Valentin Glushko. Development of Rocket Building and Cosmonautics in the USSR. 1987
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Korolev, Facts and Myths. 1994
  • Boris Chertok. Rockets and People. 1999.
  • Mikhail Rebrov. Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Life and Singular Destiny. 2002
  • Anton Pervushin. Battle for the Stars. Space Rivalry. 2004
  • Natalia Koroleva. Sergey Korolev, My Father. 2007
  • Anton Pervushin. 108 Minutes That Changed the World. 2011
  • Anton Pervushin. Sergey Korolev’s Empire. 2017
  • Korolev. Horizon of Events 1947-1965. Tender Letters of a Stern Man. 2019
Why everybody was so inspired by Tsiolkovsky

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was no other person in Russia who was as obsessed with the idea of space expansion as Tsiolkovsky. He considered space settlement — population of outer space — the ultimate goal of the human race. What Tsiolkovsky called settlement was not the colonization of the surface of other planets, but rather the construction of giant inhabited space stations (ether cities) in interplanetary and interstellar space.

Until he was 39, Tsiolkovsky was hardly interested in rockets. As a writer and visionary, he concerned himself with space utopias, as a scientist, was engaged in aerodynamics and aeronautics. In 1896 a brochure by the Russian inventor Alexander Fedorov A New Principle of Aeronautics was published. It contained a description of a rocket engine that used the propulsion force of the exhaust gases to move the rocket ahead. After reading the book, Tsiolkovsky realized that rocket propulsion was the force that could be employed to carry out space projects.

On May 10, 1897, Tsiolkovsky derived a formula that bears his name today. It establishes the relationship between the speed of the rocket, velocity of the exhaust gases, weight of the rocket, and weight of the fuel. In 1903 he published his most famous book Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Reactive Devices where he quite accurately envisaged the outward appearance and some design features of future space rockets. Eight years later, in the second part of the book, Tsiolkovsky presented the calculation of the speed required for the rocket to overcome the earth’s gravity force.

Tsiolkovsky’s spirited vision of the cosmic future where billions of people lived in giant self-contained space habitats that filled outer space was absolutely fantastic. But his mathematical calculations, giving ground to the very possibility of space flight, were strictly scientific. It was this amazing mixture of science fiction and mathematics that fascinated and mesmerized Tsiolkovsky’s followers, Zander and Korolev among them.

Tsiolkovsky in Kaluga. 1932
Tsiolkovsky during a country walk. 1925
Tsiolkovsky with his hearing trumpet. 1930
Who else in the world launched rockets

In 1925, American engineer Robert Goddard created a working liquid-fuel rocket engine. On March 16, 1926, he successfully launched the world’s first rocket.

Robert Goddard

In 1931, Johann Winkler, a member of the German Society for Interplanetary Communications, carried out Europe’s first successful launch of a liquid fuel rocket.

Johann Winkler

In 1934, another member of same society, Wernher von Braun, the future creator of the Nazi weapon of retaliation, the V-2 rocket, successfully launched his first experimental A-2 rocket.

Wernher von Braun (in a white coat on the right) with members of the Society for Interplanetary Communications.
Who was the first in the USSR to understand what rockets were really for (the military, and Tukhachevsky in the first place)

The initiative to create the Reaction Engine Institute belonged to future Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. In June 1931 he was appointed Chief of Armaments of the Red Army and Deputy Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. At the time, the Red Army still boasted several cavalry corps, as the cavalry was considered a strategic force.

Cavalry on the Red Square. 1932

Tukhachevsky was a leading proponent of the modernization and reweaponing of the Red Army and gave special attention to the creation of new types of artillery, tanks, aircraft, and any novel armaments in general. He was impressed with capabilities of rocket technology, and in less than a year after his appointment as Chief of Armaments, Tukhachevsky came up with a proposal to create the Reaction Engine Institute.

Military parade on the Red Square. 1935
Tank MS-1 on a Moscow street. 1932

The GIRD employees were eagerly looking forward to their group converting into a bigger research and production facility, the Reaction Engine Institute, but it took another year and a half before the bureaucratic procedure was finally completed. In April 1933, Korolev even wrote a letter to Tukhachevsky, «In view of the difficult situation of the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD), which I supervise, and the unseen end of our ordeal, I am compelled to appeal to you directly…»

Another reason behind the delay in setting up the Reaction Engine Institute was the tension between Tukhachevsky and Kliment Voroshilov, his immediate superior and one of the top Soviet leaders. Voroshilov had a very limited understanding of the military science and up-to-date warfare, disliked any modernizations, and could hardly guess what «reaction engine» might mean.

Tukhachevsky addressing an audience. 1932
Friedrich Zander, the dreamer number one

In 1904, 17-year old Friedrich Zander, a final year student of the Riga Technical High School read the article by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Reactive Devices and on his own carried out trajectory calculations for a flight to Mars. Since then, he became totally absorbed by the idea of interplanetary flights.

In 1912, Zander was one of the first to invent a multi-stage rocket with detaching stages. He left a record of that in his diary, though it didn’t seem possible to transcribe the record until very recently.

At an inventors’ conference in 1921, Zander presented his design of an engine for an interplanetary spaceship. In 1924 he published his article «Flights to Other Planets» in the Technology and Life journal and lodged a patent on his invention, a winged rocket. By 1931 he built and tested his first veritable rocket engine.

Zander could stay working in the basement, where GIRD was located, for 24 hours a day. Korolev even had to set a special rule that the last-leaving employee should take Zander with him. Zander would obediently allow taking him away and then sneak back in. He gave his children «space» names, Astra and Mercury.

Friedrich Zander. 1922
Korolev and Zander with other GIRD members. 1932

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