By Irina Kaletinko

One of my notebook entries    
for a possible article        
reads: "Robert Vitolnieks,    
stellar boy."                 
He created a sensation four   
years ago.  TASS reported     
then: "The Academic Council   
of the Radio Astrophysical    
Observatory of the Latvian    
Academy of Sciences has       
approved new research into    
a mysterious natural          
phenomenon - luminous         
clouds.  New data has been    
obtained by a 16-year-old     
boy, Robert Vitolnieks."      
  What is he doing now?  Is he
still interested in Astronomy?
Or in something else by       
this time?                    

   I went straight to the university in Riga, figuring that Robert is now about  
20.  There I was told: "He is working for the Academy of Sciences of our         
   I headed for the Academy of Sciences, pleased at having located Robert so     
easily and wondering what he is doing at the Academy of Sciences.  There         
hadn't been enough time for him to get his university degree.                    
   The director of the academy's Radio Astrophysical Observatory, the well-known 
Latvian scientist Janis Ikaunieks, explained:                                    
   "Yes, Robert is a scientist at our observatory.  He is still a university     
student, but circumstances delayed his studies.  For several years he had to     
work to support his ailing parents.  He is now in his second year at Moscow      
University.  You will find him at a conference on ionospheric research going     
on here in Riga."                                                                

   At the conference, with scientists from all over the Soviet Union present,    
I met Robert.  Slim, with smooth blond hair and ruddy cheeks, he looked like a   
boy among these sedate older people.  When I told him that I wanted an           
interview, he turned red with embarrassment.                                     
   Robert follows a strict work schedule.  I had to tag along after him,         
looking and listening, so that, for the most part, the following is my own       
impression of this young scientist.                                              
   ... In 1956 Robert's family lived in the city of Liepaja, on the shore        
of the Baltic Sea.  He had just started school and was also taking violin        
lessons at a music school.                                                       
   One November day, on his way to an exam at the music school, Robert saw an    
announcement of a lecture on Mars at the city library.  It was still early for   
the exam, so he went to the lecture.  It was so interesting that he didn't want  
to leave, but there was an exam to take.                                         
   From that day on he read astronomy - first simple books, then more difficult  
   Like all the boys in Liepaja, Robert spent his summers at the seashore.  He   
went in for skin diving.  From a rubber hot water bottle and a piece of          
plexiglas he made himself a mask and from old automobile inner tubes, flippers.  
He became an underwater hunter.                                                  
   On one dive he came across some tiny jellyfish, a kind he had never seen      
before.  Each was about two inches in diameter, with a brown cross on its        
back.  They must have been washed in by a storm.  Robert caught some of these    
odd jellyfish, brought them home and put them into a homemade aquarium.  Next    
day he couldn't move his arms or legs.                                           
   The doctors thought it was polio.  Later it was found that the paralysis was  
caused by the jellyfish he had caught.  The semi-paralyzed boy was bedridden     
for a long time.                                                                 
   His father, an architect, gave him a pair of field glasses for his birthday   
so the boy could have a closer look at the outside world.  His mother, a         
lawyer, left her job to take care of him.  One of her first chores was to get    
him books on astronomy.  To answer his questions she, too, began to read the     
bulky volumes.                                                                   
   Once Robert came across an article by Janis Ikaunieks.                        
   "Mama, I want to write and tell him that I am going to be an astronomer,      
   "Why write?  When you get better, we'll go to Riga, and you'll tell him       
   It was an offhand comment.  The boy, she was certain, would develop other     
interests and soon forget the article, its author and her remark.                

   Janis Ikaunieks takes up the story:                                           
   "The door opened and a frail boy walked in.  'I want to work here,' he said.  
'What can you do?' I asked.  He told me what he knew.  Just then another         
astronomer came in whom I introduced to our future colleague.  I gave Robert a   
task: to observe the star Delta of the constellation Cepheus every night for a   
year and to compile a graph of variations of its brightness.   I did not tell    
him the star had been studied long ago."                                         
   A year later Robert returned to the academy and put the graph of his          
observations of Delta that he had compiled on the astronomer's desk.  Janis      
Ikaunieks was impressed enough to propose Robert for the Astrogeodetic Society.  
He was 11 then, the youngest member of this august society.                      
   He was given other, little known stars, to observe.  But his real work        
began when he became interested in luminous clouds.                              
   Luminous clouds are a strange natural phenomenon.  The are clearly            
discernible only in northern latitudes, and then only occasionally-in summer     
and after sunset.  At times they are barely visible, and only the eye of an      
experienced astronomer can discern them.  Sometimes they grow bright enough to   
read by.  Astronomers knew that they appear at heights of up to 50 miles and     
travel at a velocity of 187 miles an hour, but they knew nothing about their     
origin or the periodicity of their recurrence.                                   
   Latvian astronomers undertook to study these clouds during the International  
Geophysical Year.  Part of the work was entrusted to Robert.  Janis Ikaunieks    
told me: "We tried dissuading the boy, telling him it was too hard.  But he was  
   To make the observations, Robert had to travel to the observatory in Sigulda, 
quite a distance from Ogre where the family now lived.  Three times a week he    
took the evening train to Sigulda and returned early next morning.  From 10 p.m. 
till daybreak he would stand at the instruments, entering his observations in a  
log.  Precisely, pedantically.  A mistake of a second, or even a tenth of a      
second, he considered a discredit to himself.  During these sleepless nights,    
Robert decided for himself that the old equipment - telescopes - were no longer  
   The stars were now being observed by means of the radio waves they emit.  So  
he began studying radio engineering and radio astronomy.                         
   In a foreign radio magazine he came across a curiously familiar curve, very   
much like the one marking the occurrence of luminous clouds.  But the caption    
read: "Graph marking the appearance of the ionized layer of the atmosphere."     
This layer appears at limes at heights of 62 miles and reflects ultrashort       
waves, those responsible for transmission of distant television broadcasts, as   
remote as other continents.                                                      
   Robert was struck by a thought: Perhaps the similarity in the curves was not  
happenstance.  Perhaps it is when this ionized layer develops that luminous      
clouds appear.                                                                   
   TV amateurs who went in for long-distance reception could help.  Robert got   
the address of one of them, Leopold Osols of Krustpils and went to see him.      
Osols turned out to be a systematic person who noted down the precise times he   
received long-distance transmissions.  Robert compiled a graph on the basis of   
Osols' notes.  The graph looked like the one marking the appearance of luminous  
   His father came home from work shortly thereafter and found that the TV set   
he had bought the day before was a pile of components, screws and wires.  His    
son was assembling something from them.  "Listen here," fumed the father, "If    
that TV set is not assembled when I come home tomorrow, I'll throw out all of    
your junk."                                                                      
   Next day Robert toiled in earnest.  He got it together in time and even       
installed an antenna.  When father came home, son and mother were sitting in     
front of the screen.                                                             
   But it was not the studio broadcasts that interested Robert.  He was waiting  
for the day when he would see dark, nearly black bars on the screen, a sign of   
the appearance in the atmosphere of that condensed layer which allows television 
broadcasts to be received many thousands of miles away.  At last the bands       
appeared!  A broadcast from London.  A turn of the knob and there was Rome.      
   Robert was so excited he saw nothing of the broadcast flickering on the       
screen.  Drumming in his head, as if in Morse code, were the words: "In two days 
luminous clouds should appear!"                                                  
   Next day he went to the Academy of Sciences and reported that in two days     
luminous clouds should appear.  His announcement was received with considerable  
skepticism.  Thus far no scientist had been able to even approximately forecast  
the appearance of luminous clouds.                                               
   The clouds appeared as predicted.  They were followed by that sensational     
TASS report which began my story.                                                
   "That was a happy day," recalls Esmeralda, Robert's mother.  "But even        
happier was the day we learned that the Academy of Sciences in Moscow was        
shipping a radar station to Robert for his further investigation of the          
ionosphere.  For two days he could neither eat nor sleep.  He posted himself     
in the street, waiting for the trucks with the equipment.  And when he saw them, 
beside himself with joy he ran up the hill shouting: 'Mama, they've come!'"      
   He set up the equipment by himself, without the help of technicians.          

   Esmeralda, still young and attractive, sits on a couch in their house, showing
me books and articles that refer to Robert.                                      
   "We used to live in a different house, near the river.  But when Robert had to
install high antennas, we applied to the town council, and they gave us this     
house on top of the hill.  They also gave us ground near the house for the       
antennas and equipment.  We will soon be getting even bigger antennas from the   
observatory in Baldone.  I don't know where we'll put them."                     

   Esmeralda explained everything to me in great detail.  Something she did not  
tell me, I later learned in Riga, was that she, too, has become an astronomer.   
She is now working with the magazine Stellar Sky and is a member of the          
astronomical society.  Truly, the ways of a mother's love pass all understanding.
   She showed me a large collection of badges.  Many of them had to do with space
   "This collection and a motor scooter are all that are left of his earlier     
enthusiasms.  He still wants to take up skiing and sailing, but he can't make the
   And indeed, I noticed that Robert, like all scientists, values time highly.   
He doesn't slow down even when he walks.  But he did find the time to enter a    
contest sponsored by the German Federation of Astronautics, an international     
contest in which 6.000 people took part.  A reminder of his participation is a   
Stassfurt TV set in his room.  One of the contest requirements was to write a    
composition on the theme of man and space.                                       
   Robert wrote a science fiction story about men eventually traveling in space  
at the speed of light.  For this man has to be transformed several times during  
the flight into something other than man, but he becomes man again at the end.   
Risky, of course, but so is living.                                              
   The story is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's "The Star Child" with a difference. 
That boy was a visionary, too, but his dream was that no one would be cruel to   
wild animals.  He dreamed also of prosperity for his city.  Good things to dream 
about but very down to earth.  Who would have thought that in a few decades a boy
of his age, a real boy and not a literary character, would dream of flights to   
other worlds and of prosperity on a universal scale.                             

This article from the Aug 1968 issue of Soviet Life was first sent to me by Bob Cooper (KV4FU/K6EDX/W5KHT now best-known as ZL4AAA) during the summer of 1968.  I made a typewritten transcript of it then.  In early 1988 Bill Fahber of the WTFDA mentioned to me that he had become interested in seeing if there might be a connection between Es and NLC's (noctilucent clouds).  I mentioned this article from 20 years prior to him, and he was able to find it in the Rutgers University Library in Camden, NJ and sent me a Xerox of it.

Now, some may see this all as Soviet hype propaganda from the Cold War.  In quick WWW searching I've found no later prolonged scientific studies that substantiate any linkage as the phenomena are separated by about 10 miles in altitude.  In 1968 there was still some belief that the condensation nuclei for NLCs was meteor dust, which would sure fit the connection with Es and long-lived metallic ions!  Then there is the unexplained 2-day delay between Es and the appearance of NLCs.  Many now consider that the events are simply a coincidence of summer. Some more-recent articles (in abstract form) suggest that there indeed may be a 48-hour "settling" period for the metallic ions to go from Es levels to NLC levels! link Also this lastest item from NASA.