Per Aspera Ad Astra

How an Ad Agency Director Sent a Satellite Into Space

In the plant’s design department, a diverse group of men worked diligently, the youngest of whom was around forty. At twenty, fresh out of university and passionate about my job, I was the outlier.

My colleagues, who sketched on drafting boards and shared secretive updates about the “Agat” satellite I was designing – destined for space – referred to me respectfully by my full name from day one:

–  Klavdiya Sergeyevna, could you run down to the engineering department?

–  Klavdiya Sergeyevna, the production line is lagging; could you assist with assembly?

–  Klavdiya Sergeyevna, please prepare the drawings for microfilming!

They had dedicated their careers to this plant in our small town, ranging from ten to thirty years of service.

I, on the other hand, craved innovation. I implemented CAD systems, hunted down software, and gradually coaxed the veterans from their drafting boards to computers. Despite their initial resistance and skepticism towards my methods, within a year, the engineers were storing drawings on hard drives, using drafting boards only for their lunchtime naps – a perfectly angled surface for resting.

Klavdiya Sergeyevna Takes a Stand

After working there for two years, I enthusiastically shared that news with my colleagues, only to receive the reply: “And so thirty years will pass.”

That haunted me: thirty years earning a pittance, thirty years of 9 to 5, thirty years stuck in the same place. Thirty years.

The next day, I submitted my resignation. The chief engineer tore it up. Undeterred, I submitted another, to which he simply wrote: “I object.” Undaunted, I took my case directly to the CEO.

It took four attempts, but I finally managed to leave.

Soon after, I found a new job. I had no clue what it entailed at the interview; my only concern was the promise of a salary four times higher than what I made at the plant. Turned out, I was to be a marketer.

And that’s how I entered the world of advertising.

A decade later, I was still in the same small town in the Caucasus but now ran my own advertising agency, enjoying a stable high income and a seemingly bright future. Except, I despised my job.

Every day, I questioned my career choice. My life had purpose when I was engineering machines, tools, and even automotive automation for Avtovaz cars. Now, that sense of purpose was gone.

One summer morning, I woke up with a realization – I couldn’t go on like this. Lying in bed, I pondered what I truly wanted to do. Engineering, of course. But what? Something meaningful. Something universally beneficial.

Ever since reading Bradbury as a six-year-old, I’d been fascinated by space. So why not pursue that dream?

I nudged my husband: “Remember, you said you knew the director of the observatory? Let’s have him introduce us.”

The very next day, we were on our way to the observatory, located in the small village of Bukovo on the north side of the Caucasus Mountain.

“Do you understand the risks?” asked the director.

I racked my brain – what risks? Job conditions? Radiation? Not being accepted? What?!

“It’s dedicating three to four years of your life to this”, he continued.

I exhaled, smiled, and said, “I’m ready.”

I had been ready for twenty years, I thought to myself.

“Alright then”, he now smiled. “By the way, I have a meeting today with the president about our lack of local talent. How’s your financial situation?”

I eagerly spoke of my advertising agency, my ample earnings, my ability to afford whatever training necessary.

“No”, he responded, “there’s no need to pay; our PhD positions are funded. But it will take all your time; make sure it doesn’t interfere with your earnings.”

“It won’t interfere.”

He spent another ten minutes discussing the dissertation topic, illustrating his points in a notebook. My name, “Klavdiya Sergeyevna”, was written there, circled around my phone number.

Under The Observatory Dome

That winter, he called: “We’ll be doing observations on the telescope in the next two weeks, which you can join to see how everything works from the inside.”

Eagerly, I joined the observations. Alongside an international team, including astronomer Volodya and mathematician Jorge, we tracked celestial bodies according to a predefined list. My task was straightforward – update the computer with new coordinates every two minutes.

“Go check out the sub-dome; newcomers always do”, Volodya suggested, referring to where the dome opens to reveal the sky.

Jorge and I descended to the telescope’s sub-dome. As the lights dimmed and the shutters opened, revealing the starry sky, I laughed – a laugh of sheer joy and a sense of unity with the universe.

Returning in the dark, bruising against the metal steps, the observations from evening till morning were grueling for a novice. Exhausted, I slept among the other observers, in a building that wrapped around the telescope, where the surreal feeling was amplified by the room’s design, reminiscent of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia cathedral.

After the observations, I dove back into my studies, preparing for postgraduate studies at the Large Altazimuth Telescope, consuming online astronomy and cosmology courses, obtaining a driver’s license for the long commute to the observatory, and delegating responsibilities at my advertising agency.

I Try

The only concern was the observatory director’s, my future academic advisor’s, odd reactions to my calls. We’d plan my visits, but on the appointed day, I’d be unable to reach him. Then he’d reappear, reassuring me – I was expecting too much from a busy person. But as autumn approached and the admission deadlines loomed, he was unreachable, and my hope for a scientific future dwindled until he unexpectedly called, instructing me to contact an observatory employee about admission details and exams.

At the observatory with my documents ready, the scientific secretary took them, and as we set an exam date, she asked, “Where are your foreign language and philosophy exam results?”

I was dumbfounded, “Aren’t I supposed to take them here?”

It turned out I wasn’t, and no one had informed me otherwise, prematurely ending my observatory journey.

Back home, I contacted numerous universities, but it was too late for exams everywhere.

Finally, my alma mater, the North Caucasus Technological Academy, accepted me. I went to their professional development department, insisting, “I need this. Since you don’t offer astronomy, I’ll take physics.” Frustrated and angry, I chose theoretical physics as my specialty, a field I knew nothing about, instead of continuing with engineering. But the decision was made, and in 2014, I began studying condensed matter physics, a subject completely new to me.

As the only physics PhD student in the university, my studies were lackluster and soon became dull, but I persisted. My efforts during this period can be summed up as “I try.” I wasn’t accepted into astronomy, but I tried. I couldn’t get into a university in the capital, but I tried. I barely understood physics, but I tried.

Summer Space School

Between writing articles and various documents for the academy, I followed space-related groups online, eagerly looking for something. Then I found it – a post in the “Your Space Sector” community that seemed like a sign. It announced that anyone could now study astronautics through upcoming courses. Immediately, I contacted the organizer, asking if there could be an option for those living far from Moscow. He considered it and mentioned possibly organizing short courses in the summer.

That summer, the Summer Space School became a reality. Describing it without sounding overly enthusiastic is challenging. The school lasted a week and profoundly changed my worldview, self-perception, and understanding of those around me.

We were a group of forty, living in cottages at a resort near Moscow, immersing ourselves in space exploration. We attended lectures on astronautics, met astronauts, designed satellites, and presented our launch projects. Time seemed to stand still as daytime lectures and meetings transitioned to evening satellite design sessions and night-time project work, stargazing, and space storytelling.

I immediately felt a sense of belonging – that I wasn’t alone and that everyone there shared a common passion for space. Since that summer, we’ve remained in close contact.

Even a Brick Can Reach the Stars

After the first space school, it became clear that joining the space community wasn’t an unattainable dream.

Back in reality, I still led my advertising agency, but it became increasingly burdensome. I began to neglect my duties, slowing down the agency’s operations. Meanwhile, I fully committed myself to my dissertation, shifting from my original topic to a more engaging area at the intersection of chemistry and physics, focusing on predicting new chemical compounds.

A year later, I returned to space school, immersed again in learning, visiting the Cosmonaut Training Center, and engaging with astronauts and projects.

The highlight was Mayak, a satellite funded and built by enthusiasts.

The project started humorously: Sasha, the school organizer and satellite project leader, had casually mentioned in a lecture that anything, even a brick, could be launched into space. Thus, Mayak became our “brick”.

Launching an actual brick would have been absurd, so we gave it a purpose – to shine. We designed a deployment mechanism and a solar reflector shaped like a large pyramid. The glowing “brick” was meant to demonstrate that anyone could engage in astronautics and ignite their star, given some prerequisites like genuine interest or an engineering background.

We decided on a “cubesat” satellite – a modular design convenient for launch. Despite its simplicity, Mayak required significant time and effort to meet the stringent precision and safety standards for space launch.

That summer, holding the small, ten by thirty centimeter cubesat, we felt we were making history, introducing a new star into the sky, created by ordinary Russians.

But designing a satellite was easier than challenging the stereotypes of astronautics being accessible only to large state corporations. Despite mixed receptions, it was clear to us: this new star would shine brightly.

Returning from the Summer School, I faced a crumbling business and a stalled dissertation. Overwhelmed, I realized I couldn’t continue working. A doctor’s visit revealed that the stress had led to clinical depression, requiring treatment with antidepressants, not just vitamins.

With renewed strength from the medication, I finished an apartment renovation, sold it, liquidated the agency’s assets, and moved to a larger city.

I quickly adapted, took up engineering again, and remained involved in space projects.

Now, as I prepare for my dissertation defense and work on predicting new chemical compounds, I continue to promote space exploration in my new city. I recently returned from witnessing a Soyuz rocket launch at Baikonur, carrying our Mayak satellite. I say “our” proudly, as I’m an integral part of the team.

My Satellite

The journey to Baikonur, through endless Kazakh steppes, was a collective effort from all corners of Russia. Arriving exhausted, our spirits lifted as we donned Mayak shirts and watched our rocket ascend.

The Soyuz-2.1a launched 73 satellites, a record-breaking event featuring diverse international satellites.

Mayak stood out – it was Russia’s first enthusiast-built satellite, crowdfunded and equipped with innovative aerodynamic braking. It was destined to become a star.

Watching from over two kilometers away, we witnessed Mayak’s launch alongside Soyuz, a moment of unparalleled emotion. It shattered the mystique of space exploration, proving that space is accessible to all, not just to the likes of Gagarin, Armstrong, or Musk. Our “brick” in the sky was proof that ordinary people, driven by passion and perseverance, could achieve extraordinary feats.

Watching Soyuz ascend, I saw my journey reflected in its trajectory, clearer than ever before.

Original (in Russian)