The life of Alexei Shipilov born in the Verkhnyamamonsky District was inextricably linked with the rocket and space forces for many years. He and his family spent almost 40 years in Baikonur - he was engaged in rocket tests. Now the lieutenant colonel of the reserve works as a leading engineer of the Design Bureau of Chemical Automation in Voronezh. To learn about the life path of Shipilov and the way his family supported him in difficult times, read the RIA Voronezh story prepared for the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity.
Alexei Shipilov wanted to become a military pilot since he was a child.
‘The most piercing memories are about lying on the grass and looking at the sky, where the plane draws a line,’ he shared. ‘From the ground, the plane seems tiny, but I know that it’s huge, and I imagine myself as a pilot of this colossus. I and my friends ran to see a cropduster pollinate collective farm fields — the An-2 airfield was not far from my house. Several times the pilot even took the most daring to the cockpit - these impressions are unforgettable.’
During his school years, Alexei did sports and became the first assistant to the military instructor in the lessons of initial military training.
‘We respected Ivan Ivanovich Netzeplyaev — he was a front-line soldier, a lieutenant colonel,’ Alexei Vasilievich went on, ‘and prepared the boys for military service in a serious manner. At the draft board, I said that I would like to become a pilot, to take the military path. This was fully welcomed, but I did not pass the medical examination in Voronezh - my blood pressure was slightly increased: right before our group entered, the officer asked us to unload the car. Of course, we dragged the boxes very hastily. In vain did I try to prove to doctors that that was the reason. But, since I really wanted to connect my life with the army, I was offered to enter the Rostov Higher Military Command and Engineering School. So I became a rocket specialist, I chose the ‘Aircraft Operation’ specialty. There was a survey before the graduation - the commanders tried to take the cadets’ aspirations into account. I said that all I wanted was to go to the training ground because it was where the testers worked. We were already completing our military training, we visited combat units. The work was interesting, lively. Some of our graduates went to serve in combat units, some went to the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Mirny, and I went to Baikonur, to the Red Banner Central Asian Military District. In the process of service, I happened to participate in combat training missile launches at the Kura Training Ground located in Kamchatka.’
Five years practically without days off
The young officer went to the duty station married.
‘My bride, Valya Katunina, was from Osetrovka,’ said Alexei Shipilov. ‘I made court to her when I came home on vacation. Before graduating from secondary school, we talked about a future together. So during one of the calls, I told my parents: ‘Send the matchmakers and decide when the wedding will be.’ That's how they got me married without me. And on July 9, 1983, after graduating from secondary school, we had a wedding and went to Kazakhstan two weeks later. We arrived at the junction of the Tyuratam railway station at 2:00 – it was dark, there was nothing to breathe with – and we began to understand what heat was. A bus with the inscription ‘Meeting of Graduates’ came to pick us up and drove us to Leninsk - that’s what Baikonur used to be called. We remembered the night at the Ukraina Hotel forever - we collected water from the sink, moistened the sheets, wrapped ourselves in them, and this way we could have a 40-minute nap. Then the process had to be repeated.’
According to Alexei Vasilyevich, his young wife endured all the hardships of service with dignity and patience:
‘At first, we were settled in a two-room apartment together with another family with a one-and-a-half-year-old child. That is, each family had one room. But it was alright, we got along. The weather conditions were also severe - in the summer, it is very hot and dry, up to 45°C degrees in the shade. You couldn’t stand on the sand without your shoes on but you could easily boil an egg. When a sand storm began, you couldn’t see the neighboring house, and after it, the room was covered with a layer of sand. By the way, there are also frosts down to -40°C and snowfalls. The most severe one within my recollection was in 1994 when a train with wagons was covered with snow up to the roof, and we were transported to our duty by a helicopter. We had to be on duty for two or three days until a shift was brought. It lasted for about a month until the roads had been cleared. But it was there that our family life began and passed all the trials, it was there that two of our daughters were born - Natasha and Veronica.’
Valentina Shipilova believes that wives of military officers need to be prepared for any trials:
‘I guess it helped us that we were rural people, accustomed to any work and not spoiled. And when we were young, we did may any particular attention to any problems - everything is solvable when there is peace, harmony, and mutual understanding in the family. Despite all the difficulties of his service, Lyosha (short for Alexei) tried to help me with small things. At the time, the essentials were given out in exchange for coupons, so he got up early in the morning and went to reserve a place in the line at the store, gave me the opportunity to pack up and put myself in order. Also, in turn, we were on duty near the vegetable shops in the summer to buy fruits. When I came and took his place in the line, he left for service - the site was located 60 km from the town. There he spent much more time than in the family. For four to five years, Lyosha practically had no days off.’
Valentina Shipilova began working as a nanny in kindergarten to earn a place for her daughter. Then she worked in the military units of military constructors, and then she made her way from a private to a chief accountant in the city department of education in 20 years. All this time, she tried to make the government-provided apartments feel like home even though they had to move four times. The spouses did not leave Baikonur even in the 1990s.
‘It was hard for everyone then,’ Valentina Ivanovna admitted. ‘We already had two children, the youngest was five years old. Many had left, there were many abandoned apartments and even entire houses. Kindergartens were closed - they were transferred to organizations to be turned into offices. There was no gas all winter, electricity was supplied to the apartments in a rolling power cuts mode – for two hours every two hours. During a work break, I ran home to make dinner and covered it up to keep warm until the evening. The apartments were heated with "potbelly stoves", we slept with our clothes on: by morning, the temperature was no higher than eight degrees. There was no money and no food but Baikonur lived nonetheless.’
According to the officer’s wife, it had never crossed her mind to reproach her husband for lack of attention:
‘I understood that Alexei was involved in grandiose projects. And after all, we had so many good times, despite the difficulties. I still remember the indescribable beauty of Baikonur tulips, meetings interesting people and, of course, rocket launches. Not every husband can grant his wife such a sight.’
Alexei Shipilov appreciated the patience and support of his wife:
‘A lot has happened in the service. You come home tired, angry, and there you are greeted with joy and love by your wife, and your heart immediately feels warmer, your mood improves. Of course, we always solve all the problems together, but the service always came first, and my wife always supported me in this. ‘Serve as the oath requires, don’t worry about us, everything will be fine,’ she said. And I was always sure that everything in the family would be fine. My wife is a reliable home front. One time, I had to go on a work trip in March – to deliver special equipment to the manufacturer. On March 8, I congratulated her on the phone, and when I returned, I brought flowers. I came back tired, dirty, smoked, but when I entered the apartment, I immediately fell into family comfort: the table was set, my favorite dish - pilaf - was on the table. And all the difficulties and worries faded into the background... My wife is always hospitable. During our stay at Baikonur, we made real friends with whom we communicate to this day. And this is thanks to her, her friendly nature and kindness.’
Valentina Shipilova tried to always have her husband’s favorite dish on the table.
‘Having lived in Kazakhstan for a long time, I learned to make beshbarmak and pilaf, which he loves, and I love cooking,’ said Valentina Ivanovna. ‘These dishes will be on the family table even on our wedding anniversary.’
The service was very exciting for the young officer.
‘The area of Baikonur itself is 7360 square meters, our native Verkhnemamonsky District is several times smaller,’ said Alexey Shipilov. ‘The cosmodrome is simply "entangled" by railways. Each launch pad is connected to a rail. The first impression of a night launch of a space purpose Proton launch vehicle was unforgettable. We and the soldiers were evacuated to the steppe, we saw the enormous backlit “pencil” from a distance. A flash - and the rocket was launched to the sound of growing rumble. When the powerful engines went on, we felt the vibration with our whole bodies. The rocket begins to rise and a very bright torch emanates from the work of the engines. The higher the rocket rises, the more it grows becoming the size of a huge pyramid. It becomes light as day. When it became possible to take my family with me under special permission, I took my wife and daughters to rocket launches. The first time they visited was the launch of the same Proton. And Natasha still recalls a sense of horror and delight at the sight of such power.’
With the family
The rocket specialist noted that the launch of the manned Soyuz did not impress his family so much, since the launch is more gentle - to avoid large overloads, the rocket takes off and picks up speed not very fast. The diameter of the central block of the rocket is 3 m, and it weighs only 310 tons. And the Proton is 4 m in diameter and weighs 700 tons. It is the heaviest rocket to date.
‘Civilians could also watch the launch from the town,’ continued Alexei Shipilov. ‘On a good day, from the coast of the Syr Darya, you can see the launch of a rocket from platform № 1 or, as they call it, the Gagarin LaunchPad, from which the Vostok spacecraft with pilot-cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard was launched for the first time in the world. The flash and the trajectory of the rocket can be seen from over 30 km away. It is impressive when the Soyuz takes off - 32 engines are running, the torch in the sky is visible for a long time. At the 118th second, the side blocks (first stage) are separated, they fall spinning and shimmering in the sun. The sight is indescribably beautiful, especially at sunset. By 1987, I had already seen launches of various rockets, but when I watched the Energia launch vehicle take off, this overshadowed everything. The rocket rose very slowly, as if hovering over the launch pad, and it seemed that it would not take off and would collapse to the ground. The rumble from the engines was simply deafening - excitingly scary.’
'Involved in the defense of the country'
While serving in the military units of the 8th Test Directorate, Shipilov was engaged in testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, new types of rocket technology, and combat missile systems. He participated in the launch of spacecraft including those involving the Dnepr launch vehicle created under the conversion program based on the Voevoda strategic missile. The most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile in the world has received the nickname ‘Satan’ in NATO. More than once Shipilov attended cosmonauts’ meetings both before their flight to the Mir station or to the ISS, and upon their return to the Earth:
‘I saw some crews very closely but mostly attended press conferences when the main crew was behind a glass partition so that no one could infect them. In general, they had many restrictions for maintaining health, they didn’t just go around the city - they walked in a special park.’
In June 2005, the 50th anniversary of Baikonur was celebrated, and Alexei Shipilov had the opportunity to talk to cosmonauts in an informal setting and even get autographs.
‘At that time, I met Alexei Leonov, Boris Volynov, and Pyotr Klimuk. Leonov turned out to be such a kind person - he joked, laughed, thanked us engineers for the work. And he didn’t say anything about space - he mostly asked about how the life of the town. It turned out that he preferred Shymkent beer too.’
He also remembered the meeting with Sergei Krikalev, the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on an American shuttle.
‘He said it was very scary when he first went out into outer space,’ Shipilov recalled. ‘He understood: you need to release the handrails, literally force yourself to tear your hands off - the abyss was terrifying. After flights, cosmonauts have to recover both physically and psychologically after being exposed to zero gravity. After all, there is neither top nor bottom - you need to get used to it, but later on Earth, you can automatically let a glass of water out of your hands – as if it will "float" to the side itself.’
In 2006, Alexei Shipilov was transferred to the reserve with the rank of lieutenant colonel but remained to work at the cosmodrome, only in a civilian agency.
‘The scope of work has but increased,’ noted Alexey Vasilievich. ‘In addition to the work I used to do, I got engaged in the preparation of Zenit and Soyuz space rockets as well as preparations for the launch of spacecraft and booster blocks.’
Assembly of the Zenit rocket
The resident of Verkhnemamonsky District also led an instructor group at the Yuzhny Space Center. Now he and his wife have moved to Voronezh - closer to their homeland, children, and grandchildren. Nevertheless, their connection with Baikonur is not gone.
‘Now I come there as a representative of an organization producing parts for the Soyuz and Proton rockets,’ Alexey Shipilov said. ‘My colleagues and I are preparing to launch Proton-M and Soyuz launch vehicles, we are participating in programs for launching Soyuz manned spacecraft and Progress cargo spacecraft to the ISS. We perceive the news stories during the launch not as contemplators but evaluate our work from a professional point of view. When the engines of the third stage turn on and we hear ‘300 seconds, the flight is normal. The temperature and pressure are normal’ and then after a while ‘The third stage engine is shut down. The third stage is separated. The spacecraft engine is on’, we can applaud and enjoy the well-done work.
Alexei Vasilyevich often visits his homeland - he visits the families of the oldest daughter Natalya in the village of Osetrovka in Verkhnyamamonsky District and his brother Vladimir in Verkhny Mamon.
‘Childhood memories always make my soul warm. It was from here that my path to the sky began. I didn’t become a pilot, but I managed to become involved in the defense of the country and space exploration.’
Aleksei Shipilov was repeatedly awarded by the command of the cosmodrome and the Ministry of Defense for strengthening the defense capability and nuclear missile shield of Russia. But most of all, the veteran of military service is proud of the title of Honored Tester of Baikonur. He participated in 97 rocket launches of both military and national significance.
When Valentina and Alexei Shipilov moved to Voronezh, they were presented with memorable books about Baikonur that absorbed the history of the cosmodrome in people. Shipilov was also included in this history.
‘Our daughters became engaged in peaceful professions: the eldest, Natasha, is a psychologist, the youngest, Veronica, is a designer,’ said Valentina Ivanovna. ‘But maybe one of the grandchildren will become carried away by a grand dream of the skies.’