Feoktistov’s Starship

The pioneering cosmonaut who dreamed of interstellar flight.

Hubble Space Telescope ESA/NASA

A few Saturdays ago, I spent the afternoon tossing out old papers, trying to clear space in my home office. Mostly it was manuscripts and documents from 20 years back, stuff I should have thrown out long ago. One typewritten paper, yellowed with handwritten notes in the margin, was headed for the trash pile when I happened to look down and notice the name: K.P. Feoktistov.

I’d forgotten about this.

Konstantin Feoktistov, who by chance died a few days later, was a monumental figure in the history of space exploration. In 1958, at the age of 32, he was put in charge of the engineering team that designed the world’s first spaceship, Vostok. He co-wrote the instruction manual for Yuri Gagarin’s first flight on April 12, 1961, and it was Feoktistov who briefed Gagarin on the day before launch.

The paper I found in my office came from a 1987 conference at the Space Studies Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, where Feoktistov had delivered a talk titled “A Flight to Stars.” I recall going up to him later to introduce myself, and chatting briefly through an interpreter. What I hadn’t remembered is that Feoktistov gave me his copy of the talk, with his notes and corrections, including pronunciation guides written in Russian for several troublesome English words.

The conference had to do with space manufacturing, and most of the speakers were academics or NASA engineers. Feoktistov stood out not only because of who he was—he also was a cosmonaut and a member of the first space crew—but because of what he said that day.

He began with a sobering brief on the problem of interstellar flight. Basically, it’s a lost cause to send physical spaceships to other stars, given the vast distances and the intervening clouds of dust and gas that would pose a fatal hazard to vehicles moving at near-light speeds. “It seems,” he said, “that there is no practical solution to the problem of material bodies transport[ing] at gala[ctic] distances.”

Feoktistov proposed instead that we fax digital versions of ourselves to the stars. “It is possible to imagine a specially designed ‘human being’ whose personality you can separate from his body,” he said. “If an information package that is equal to [the] total content of personality can be rewritten from man’s fields of operative operations and from his memory, this information package could be transmitted through radio line to the designated reception station.”

He calculated the size of the transmitting antenna that would be needed (“more than several kilometers”) and the amount of energy required (100 million kilowatts). In addition to beaming a digital person, we’d also need to send (to some as-yet unknown alien civilization) instructions for building the receiving antenna. While acknowledging that his plan required technological leaps, Feokistov concluded “For this approach to star journey we need decades but not thousands of years and not millions of years.”

Science fiction writers also have imagined beaming our personalities, rather than our bodies, to the stars, and at the time of Feoktistov’s talk, futurists like Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University were already theorizing about a day when our digital selves might be downloaded into robots. I’ll leave the practicalities of that to artificial intelligence experts and philosophers. But the fact that Konstantin Feoktistov gave it serious thought is fascinating.

He was the Soviet counterpart to Max Faget, the genius who designed NASA’s Mercury capsule. But unlike Faget, Feoktistov traveled into space in one of his own creations. In an attempt to upstage NASA’s planned two-man Gemini flights, the Soviets decided in 1964 to launch the first three-man crew by modifying the tiny Vostok. Feoktistov was among the engineers who argued that it was unsafe to cram three people into a capsule built for one. His boss, chief designer Sergei Korolev, told him that if the engineers made it happen, Feoktistov could go along on the flight. And they did. Feoktistov himself came up with the risky solution: leave behind the cosmonauts’ spacesuits and ejection seats. On October 12, 1964, the Vostok designer, along with military pilot Vladimir Komarov and medical doctor Boris Yegorov, climbed inside Voskhod 1 wearing little more than street clothes and set off on one of the most daring spaceflights in history.

It wasn’t the first time Feoktistov faced death. As a 16-year-old in the Russian army during World War II, he had been captured by Germans, shot, and left for dead in a pit full of bodies. He was only wounded, miraculously, and he escaped back to Russia to complete his engineering education.

Feoktistov was reportedly a difficult personality, socially polite but stubborn when it came to arguments on technical matters. He never joined the Communist Party, rare for a cosmonaut of his generation. He was a clever and skilled engineer—he later played a lead role in designing the first Salyut space stations—but also a visionary. In 1960, even before Gagarin’s first flight, he worked up detailed plans for a manned Mars mission.

And late in life, he dreamed of starflight. His design, as always, was elegant, the simplest practical solution to the problem. I wish I’d spent more time talking to him on that day 22 years ago. If we ever do make it to the stars, or if our disembodied personalities make it, I propose that the transmitting antennas be named Feoktistov in his honor.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.