Rocket Science: From Russia and Bloomberg, With Love

Three years ago, a Purdue University student named Nickolai Belakovski stumbled on mention of a daring mission undertaken by Soviet cosmonauts in 1985 to rescue a space station that had become, literally, lost in space.

His interest in what appeared to be an obscure footnote was piqued. On September 16, after pursuing primary sources written in Russian and English, four drafts and radio silence from Wired, Belakovski’s article The little-known Soviet mission to rescue a dead space station: How two Cosmonauts battled extreme cold, darkness, and limited resources to save Salyut 7 was published in the online alpha-geek technical journal Ars Technica. To date, it has garnered 350,000 hits (including 90,000 in a translated version — Советская операция по спасению мертвой космической станции — posted to the popular Russian tech site habrahabr.ru) with more than 135 reader comments, unanimously complimentary.

The Russian-born Belakovski came to the United States when he was four with his physician mother and geologist father and grew up in Princeton. He holds B.S. degrees in both aerospace engineering and mathematics, both from Purdue. In 2010, he interned for four months in the Propulsion division at Space Exploration Technologies in Hawthorne, CA. And yes, he is a Star Trek fan. Clearly, these are all the right credentials to track down what really happened to the Salyut 7.

At first, it was an on-again, off-again project. Belakovski was recruited and came to work at Bloomberg in June 2012, landing a position as a software developer in Munis where he works on coding front and back-end systems. “About a year ago I decided I wanted to make this project of mine to get an article published about the rescue mission a priority,” he recalls.

Figuring out just what happened was tricky. “When I dove deeper into my sources I realized the American sources were wrong, and that it was an issue with the communications system [on the Salyut 7] that occurred first. The problem with the electrical system appeared to be unrelated.” He found a reference to the mission in a 1985 Pravda article that was then picked up by a few U.S. newspapers but many details were incomplete. He uncovered inaccuracies in these accounts and others. “Mistranslations from the Russian sources would get repeated,” he notes. As he gathered information he realized that many accounts attributed the initial problem to a power issue, when in fact it was more complex.

That’s only half the story, though. Belakovski’s article relates — with all the breathless drama of a Hollywood blockbuster — how two space cowboys are dispatched to manually capture the peregrinating space station, with illustrations that include diagrams, snippets of original Earth-to-Cosmonaut dialog and original photographs. (Attention Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, have you read this yet?)

“This story kind of found me,” says Belakovski, who professes he harbors no journalistic ambitions. He’s happy, for now, being a Bloomberg muni rocket scientist.