From Metsamor Upward: A look back at space-minded Armenians

Armenians have had starry visions since long before the "space age"
In recent days media has been reminding the world of Sputnik – launched 50 years ago and in the process launching the “space race”.

In fact, long before – IV-III millennium BC -- some 30 kilometers east of Yerevan, one of the world’s oldest observatories looked to the sky perhaps for the same reasons the Russians and Americans would later fight to dominate it.

Though sadly deteriorating, patterns of night skies carved into rocks that became celestial maps for early astronomers can still be seen on a Metsamor hill. Fifty years? Hardly a flash compared to the centuries Armenians have been interested in the heavens.

And when technology accommodated curiosity, Armenians left the ground for a closer look.

In Europe yet in the late 19th century there was a famous aeronaut Alexander Topchyan. His successor Artiom Katsian was a participant of the first aviation competition held in Germany in 1909. By the beginning of WW I the number of Armenian pilots could claim to be a “national squadron”. Among the sky conquerors was the outstanding seascape painter Hovannes Ayvazovski’s grandson Konstantin Artseulov, who was among the first test-pilots to perform the “dead spin”.

In 1942 eminent scientists Abram and Artiom Alikhanovs founded the first station of Cosmic research on Mount Aragats, where they studied cosmic rays. In fact, before the world learned of nuclear bombs via the American laboratories of Los Alamos, Abram Alikhanov had already offered three variants for how to defuse it.

Widest acclaim was won by “Andranik Iosifyan’s helicopter” a flying machine equipped with an electrical engine, invented by a prominent physicist. In the early 1930s even traditional helicopters that ran on fuel practically did not exist yet, except in the classified documents of Iosifyan.

In 1941 Josef Stalin appointed him the director of the specialized scientific-production enterprise supplying the battlefront with special electric machinery, automatic devices and communication means. Later the USSR’s largest scientific research institute of electro-mechanics would be established on the basis of that plant. For thirty years the “classified” Chief Constructor of electrical equipment of ballistic rockets, nuclear submarines, spacecrafts and Omega and Meteor satellites Andranik Iosifyan was in charge of that institute.

Tsmakahogh - in Armenian means “shady, sunless place”. But it is also the name of a tiny village in Karabakh where in 1905 the future tamer of Light and Energy Andranik Iosifyan was born. In the neighborhood of the Gandzasar monastery, which is not far from the village, nights are notably starry. The boy would peer into the flaring sky for hours and probably accumulate in his small body but a big mind the energy emitted by the remote stars, in order, decades later, to share it…

He, of course, would find his “star”. The star of the Hero of Socialist Labor (the highest civilian award in USSR) would be the award for his active part in the implementation of man’s first flight to space. Later Yuri Gagarin in his speeches was able to refer to Iosifyan’s research with confidence.

On March 18, 1989 nothing principally new took place in the world of cosmonautics, except the completion of Discovery’s eighth flight.

For Armenian’s however, the back-page news was front-page, because one of the astronauts on that Discovery flight was James Bagian, son of the Philip Bagian family that had migrated to the USA.

The future astronaut was born in 1952 in Philadelphia. His parents had moved to the States from Trabzon. As James himself asserted his “grandfather Gevorg is from Artsakh”. His passion for aeronautics wasn’t accidental. His father, Philip, used to be a pilot and one of 18,500 American Armenians having served in the US Army during WWII. For his courage on the battlefield Philip Bagian was decorated with an American order of Red Cross.

James Bagian became an astronaut in 1980. First, he was a doctor, engineer, sportsman; he is one of the first professional doctors that went to outer space. Zero-gravity scientific experiments carried out by Bagian were based on his compatriot, laureate of State Prizes of USSR Norayr Sisakian’s research.

Norayr Sisakian not only clearly comprehended and responded to what was most essential in world science at the moment, but also saw the perspectives of science development in general. In the mid 20th century he laid the foundation for such future studies as molecular, radiation and cosmic biology. A crater on the Moon is named for Sisakian. Closer to home, though, it is his name on the wall of UNESCO office building in Paris that gets more notice. For 10 years (1956-66) Sisakian worked at the organization as a member of consultative and executive committees of UNESCO, where he was president of the 13th Session of Conference General …

In June 1991nothing new happened in the world of aeronautics: James Bagian explored space for the second time, and he was assisted in the preparation to the flight by chief engineer of Norton firm Joan Yazejian-Poghosian and the head of NASA life support service, doctor Arnold Nikoghosian…

Worldwide, astronomers call the Armenian scientist Victor Hambartsumyan “the creator of stellar associations”. While yet a student he published 16 scientific works on theoretical astrophysics, and in 1931 (when he was 28) he would be the first in the USSR to deliver lectures on the subject. Working at Pulkovo observatory he opened the first astrophysics chair in the country, headed it, and at the age of 32 he became the Pro- Rector at Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) University on scientific issues.

Similarly, Grigor Gurzadyan is considered to be “the founder of radio astronomy”. Indeed he caused a revolution in science, having worked out a method of telescope maintenance not on the Earth, but in space. The President of USSR Academy of Sciences Mstislav Keldysh, academician Lev Artsimovich and Constructor General of the world’s first rocket Sergey Korolyov managed to help “the astronomer of the 21st century” to found the Cosmic Institute in the Garni gorge. Gurzadyan’s works also attracted NASA’s attention - a little telescope called Hubble engineered by Gurzadyan’s principle would make more discoveries than all the observatories from the Earth.

During the last 16 years of Independent Armenia no works in this direction have been carried out, as Armenia’s statehood does not consider the matter as a priority, hence no such project has been financed, as opposed to the USSR which was highly interested in the development of that branch of science and consequently financed it. There are Armenian scientists now working either in the USA or in Russia.