Interview with Mikhail Marov

13 April, 02:19

This photo shows Mikhail Marov and his teacher mathematician Mstislav Keldysh in 1966. Mstislav Keldysh played a leading role in the Soviet space program. While Sergey Korolev was known as “The Chief Designer”, Keldysh was called “The Chief Theoretician”. Keldysh worked in the  Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, where he was the first to describe the theory of shimmy and flutter (dynamic instabilities causing the aircrafts crashes). He later made a major contribution to the first Soviet satellite project and Gagarin“s spaceflight, and other projects up to the Buran program.  Mikhail Marov is a Soviet-Russian astronomer. He was one of the founders and main contributors to the Soviet Venus space probes program “Venera”, he also took part in the Soviet Mars program. Marov“s major scientific works are on dynamics, optical characteristics, and thermodynamics of planetary atmospheres.

“Math allows you to solve many problems with just a pen and paper”

About the times when people had stars in their eyes

InScience.News reporter Anna Soldatenko interviewed Russian astronomer Mikhail Marov, a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, head of the planetary research and cosmochemistry department of the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry of RAS. He began his scientific career during the first Soviet space projects, and the great mathematician Mstislav Keldysh was his teacher. In the interview, the scientist talks about the path he travelled and people he met. He shares his thoughts about the Russian space program, the exact sciences, youth, and also his dreams about the future.

Please tell us how you started the fundamental research of space.

— Mikhail Marov: Fate gave me the opportunity to live a quite long life. I entered space research soon after graduating from Bauman University. At that time there were a lot of different unusual directions. However, due to the secrecy, it was very difficult to put together into a big picture what we did in different areas. It became more or less clear over the years.

In 1958-1959, I began my work in the system of the State Committee for Defense Technology, namely in the famous OKB-1, created by Sergei  Korolev. First as an engineer, then as a senior engineer, I solved problems related to the first flights to the planets. I was engaged in the development of spacecraft orientation systems. Sergey Pavlovich was  enthusiastic for the exploration of the Moon, Mars, and Venus. Even then, the first spacecrafts were created: the lunar ones were successful enough but we were not that lucky about the planetary spacecrafts.

You know, it is very difficult to envision the Soviet era. It was in its own way extremely interesting and surprisingly productive. People, at least of my circle, were driven not by financial incentive, as is often the case now, but by an idea and true patriotic feelings, I don“t mean to be pretentious. And this, to some extent, determined what happened next in my career. I was captivated by  the development of our first planetary spacecrafts when, by order of Korolev's first deputy, Vasily  Mishin, I was transferred to the central office of the State Committee for Defense Technology. At some meetings, the first deputy chairman of this committee noticed me and made me his assistant. This is another legendary person  whom I had the chance to meet, Georgy  Tyulin. Wonderfully gifted, wonderfully devoted to the country and to rocket and space technology, he led state missions of our spacecrafts launches. At first I worked with him with great reluctance, but then I got a taste. For almost two years of close work, I really learned what rocket and space technology is. I often travelled with him to the test sites, attended many rockets and carrier rockets launches. I was a member of the community for testing ballistic missiles with an atomic charge, which were created in the engineering bureau of Mikhail  Yangel, another legendary personality. At that exact time  my whole professional personality was formed by very separate, unrelated directions in which I participated. 

Then, at one of the meetings held by the then high-ranking official, Chairman of the military-industrial commission Leonid Smirnov, I met a completely unique and amazing person: Mstislav  Keldysh. And suddenly he invited me to his institute. I did not hesitate to accept such a flattering offer, because I was very attracted to do not just technical, organizational issues, but also science. Then there were 17 years of the closest communication with Keldysh, working under his leadership, and recently for his 110th anniversary I published the book ” The Word about the teacher. Academician Mstislav Vsevolodovich Keldysh”. It describes a significant part of my life, inextricably linked with his fate. On behalf of Keldysh, I carried out very important missions related to the development and practical implementation of our space programs. These are projects that we are now rightfully proud of: lunar robotics spacecraft, completely unique flights to Venus and Mars. I have many awards, but there is one that really warms my heart — the gold medal of Keldysh, established by the Academy. This is the best recognition of my achievements.

That period is largely connected with the legacy of Korolev, whom I was also lucky enough to know well. I think this is an amazing piece of luck in life. Therefore, when particularly curious students (I still teach at Moscow State University and at the International Space University in Strasbourg) ask me if I would like to return to my youth now, to live a new life, I answer “No way!”. The most precious thing I have is that rich and incomparable experience. I keep a huge sense of gratitude to my parents, because they gave birth to me on time, I entered this field with the beginning of the space age. I agreed to your call for an interview to talk about this wealth and the happiness of having it. It is my duty to convey as much as possible to modern people, especially young people, the state of mind, the enthusiasm that has accompanied many years of colleagues, exceptional people with whom I have had the opportunity to communicate. Now there is a striking contrast, especially in the so-called post-perestroika period, when we have lost a lot of the positions we have won as leaders of space research. Now it is a completely different era, and it is impossible to talk about so many problems without pain.

Why do you think that happened?

— М. М.: You know, when I face difficult questions, sometimes I say: “This question is beyond my salary.” I have my own ideas, but I am far from thinking of discussing this in detail. There are many reasons.

I have already talked to your fellow scientists and asked them the same question. They say that there is not enough funding.

— М. М.: You can answer with a well-known humor: give me more money and there will be an output. I would say that first of all there is a lack of responsibility. Much of what is related to our work drown in bureaucracy — the paperwork sometimes exceed the weight of the designed spacecraft itself. 

I always mentioned Georgy Babakin, with whom I not only worked closely, but also was friends. For only six years, he headed the famous Lavochkin Aircraft Design Bureau, which led the lunar-planetary program after Korolev. Babakin just burned out at work, he was so dedicated to our cause. Back in the 60s, he developed a project for a manned spaceflight to Mars, can you imagine? And now we say that at best, such a mission will take place in the second half of this century, with all the new technologies. And here is just one figure: during the six years of Babakin's leadership of this program, 16 spacecraft were developed for flights to the Moon, Venus, and Mars. So far, this is an incredible achievement that we are proud of, which has ensured our leadership. I call this period the “Babakinsky Renaissance”. Since the beginning of the 80s and until today, almost no new spacecraft have been created, we have not flown to the Moon and planets for more than 40 years. You can see the contrast. Moreover, those devices were created with a minimum of technical documentation.

Another reason is that there is no enthusiasm that used to be then. People were enthusiastic, excited about the possibilities of reaching other worlds, and now they are, to put it mildly, calm about it. The third reason is what you mentioned. Of course, we have an absolutely incomparable amount of funds allocated for this activity with other countries. Many things have become more expensive, many things must meet the needs and technologies of today — this also requires a lot of money.

Perhaps there is one more thing. This is an underestimation of what determines the country's prestige in the international arena. When we were leaders, other countries wanted to cooperate. And now few foreigners believe in our capabilities in the field of cosmonautics. At the same time, there are still decent professionals, and our developments have weight at the world level, but only a few. Russia is an amazing country. The situation is well described by the expression: ” We know not what is good until we have lost it” I have witnessed that in the 90s, the most qualified people who do not have a job or face salary delays at leading companies went to the shuttle trades. It's a waste. Many people have passed away. Yes, young people came, but a generation gap was formed. There is no one to pass on the invaluable experience to base our main wealth on  — the people.

The problem is clear, but what does it take to solve it? What is missing in the space field?

— М. М.: I believe that the most important thing is the influx of young people. That is why I agree to give annual courses of lectures at Moscow State University, to participate in various events where there are young talented people. Moreover, we need young people who are not burdened with any kind of mercantile, pragmatic goals. The one who would like to fill their  soul with meaningful ideas, and their brain with sufficient education as a tool that will allow them to deal with the most interesting and at the same time very complex problems of space exploration. Fundamental knowledge, abilities, and spark in the eyes are required. Without this, nothing will happen.

How important is the exact sciences, such as mathematics, for those involved in space research?

— М. М.: Probably, in any field of activity — both in scientific, and in engineering, and in practice — the role of exact sciences is difficult to overestimate. Mathematics is one of the areas of science that is very close to me. It requires quite a lot of effort to operate with mathematical concepts, even without owning very complex sections, without even the need to create something. 

This is one of the most important tools that allows you to create both economic models and forecasts, not to mention models of those phenomena in the world around us that require the development of high-tech devices. You see, there are a lot of processes that cannot be reproduced experimentally in the laboratory. Well, let's say you are familiar with the concept of a black hole in the universe? Can you reproduce it in the lab? This is unthinkable! Or the improvement of the same atomic weapons. It is impossible, especially in view of the prohibitions under the existing contracts, to carry out an infinite number of experiments. But mathematics allows you to solve many problems, only with a piece of paper and a pen.

But the fundamental basis now is not even pure mathematics, but also an applied computational mathematics laid down by Mstislav  Keldysh. It allows you to create models that render the phenomenon and the expected results. This section of mathematical modeling fill  more and more  in our lives, becoming more and more of a key element in all areas of our activity. Therefore, from my point of view, the role of mathematics in understanding the world, in creating a new generation of aviation systems or medicines, in solving environmental issues, is extremely important from the point of view of obtaining preliminary estimates and forecasts.

What in your opinion has pushed space science forward the most in terms of  technologies and mathematics?

— М. М.: Everything in the world is interconnected. The study of space, the discovery of new phenomena and objects greatly influenced the development of physics. It, in turn, has predetermined many directions from what we call the science cosmos. It is very difficult to draw the line between physics and astrophysics. 

Astrophysics is one of the most advanced and significant branches of astronomy, because it helps to interpret many of the results of astronomical observations. Astrophysical mathematical models indicate the ways that are most interesting and promising in terms of setting up new experiments, creating new generations of spacecraft. Therefore, it is impossible to talk about who moved whom. The process is very multifaceted, and naturally, the future prospects are completely limitless. You know, I happen to be engaged in such an amazing field of modern astrophysics as cosmology-these are questions of the origin and evolution of our Universe, the world in which we live. There are a lot of tasks that are still largely solved purely speculatively, but it is possible to build models that we consider quite realistic. Some intermediate conclusions can be tested experimentally, based on available observational data, and many remain exclusively in the field of models of certain mathematical constructions. In them, we first of all rely on the laws of nature known to us, but we move away from the usual ideas into a world of completely different categories, which are impossible to imagine for a person who is used to thinking only in terms known to him. This is practically, I would say, the main path of the development of science, which continuously expands the boundaries of our knowledge.

And the last question: what would you like to see in space research in the near future?

— М. М.: Now at the Vernadsky Institute, my team and I are mainly focused on creating a lunar outpost. I probably won't be able to see it, but I would very much like my country, which I truly love, to maintain its strong position in the exploration of the Moon — we have a lot of competitors. I would also very much like to see progress in the area I told you about. Do our ideas about the rudimentary processes that gave birth to our universe, among other things, have stronger experimental evidence? It would be very important for me to understand that I am not mistaken in presenting these ideas in the books I produce. I would very much like what I write about the depths of the universe to find at least some confirmation. Well, the last thing. I would very much like to understand whether there are really any signs of life beyond our planet or, speaking from a deeply philosophical point of view, we are the only center of intelligence in the infinite expanses of the universe. And if so, I would very much like to find at least some explanation for why this happened. I may be a materialist by my beliefs and by my education, but I would really like to understand why my materialistic world views are no longer enough, and whether there is something else that would allow me to get at least a little closer to the answer to this question.