Calculate the Orbit: How Kazan Computer Factory Brought Gagarin’s Flight Closer

13April 2021

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Calculate the Orbit: How Kazan Computer Factory Brought Gagarin’s Flight Closer

The capital of the TASSR made computers for Kapustin Yar, Sarov and the first commanders of the space forces.

Today we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first manned flight into space. It is well known that a number of institutes, universities, design bureaus and factories worked for space programs in our republic but the episode with the Kazan computer plant is almost unfamiliar to the public at large. Margarita Badrutdinova, the director of the museum of ICL Group whose companies continue the work of their predecessors, spoke about it to “BUSINESS Online”.

Mysterious customer

In the early 1950s, cybernetics developed at an unprecedented pace in the USSR, of course, primarily in the interests of the defense officials. Kazan Computer Factory became one of four enterprises—the first-born ones of the military industrial sector focused on the production of electronic computers.

The first machine mastered in Kazan was the M-20 with a capacity of 20 thousand operations per second (at that time one of the best results in the world). It was developed by specialists from the Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Engineering and the special-purpose design office SKB-245 under the guidance of Chief Designer Sergei Lebedev, an outstanding scientist, one of the founders of Soviet computer technology.

The first production M-20 was ready in March 1960. According to legend, the defense officials who placed the order for the computer were not disclosed to the factory workers for reasons of secrecy, and only years later it became known that it was the computing center No. 1 of the USSR Ministry of Defense (today—TsNII-27 of the Russian Ministry of Defense), which became the prime customer of Kazan computer technology for many years.

It was founded by one more pioneer in computer science—Anatoly Kitov. Back in 1959, he proposed a project for a nationwide network of intercomputer exchange for a unified state network of computing centers. This was 20 years before the American Internet experience. Computing Center No. 1 was conceived as a center ‘capable of ensuring the implementation of any state computer project’.

How the military occupied the Kazan Computer Factory

By 1960, the specialists of the Computer Center had already carried out calculations for the launch of long-range ballistic missiles, the launch of artificial satellites and interplanetary stations. Moreover, since 1954, the development of flight control programs for the first cosmonaut was in full swing, but the Strela computer at the disposal of the center was too slow—only 2 thousand operations per second.

Then Kitov decided to start working out these programs out of 100 tasks in Kazan, on the first M-20 computer intended for Computer Center No. 1. The director of the factory, Konstantin Mineev, gave his consent. The Kitov team worked at the enterprise from March to mid-December 1960.

By this time, it was possible to achieve a positive solution for 99 tasks out of 100 ones on the computer. However, the activities of the military came into conflict with the production schedule of the factory. Since the operational plan had not been cancelled for Kazan Computer Factory, Mineev decided to stop the customer’s calculations and submit the computer for delivery. On December 20, 1960, the computer was shipped to Moscow together with a team of Kazan field engineers. In the capital, they achieved the successful computer calculations for all 100 tasks. Later, it became known that it was the calculated flightpath of Yuri Gagarin.

Continuation of space theme of Kazan Computer Factory in ICL operations

We add that the second M-20 went to the Institute of Cybernetics (Kiev), the third to Sarov (the famous Arzamas-16), and one more of the first 10 to the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome. The Kazan-made М-222 computers and Luch-1, Luch-2 and Luch-3 products (elements of ground infrastructure for communication with spacecraft) were installed in all tracking stations of the mission control center and the headquarters of space facilities control scattered throughout the country—the organizations that became the prototypes of the space forces of the Aerospace Forces in Russia.

In general, the operations of Kazan Computer Factory formed the base of the IT industry in the republic, the place which kicked start to the history of KNITI-VT, GNIPI-VT, NPO Algorithm, the Institute of Informatics Problems of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan, the corresponding departments of KSU and KAI universities.

Note that ICL Group carried on the traditions of Kazan Computer Factory. The Company works with government agencies and law enforcement agencies, providing traditional and innovative services in the field of information technology.

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