A dominant figure in the spectacular first decades of the USSR's ICBM and space-exploration effort, Sergei Korolev remained unknown in the West, and even to all but insiders in the Soviet Union, until his death in 1966.

This planet is now 40 years into the Space Age, a fact that may be difficult to believe for those who were around on October 4, 1957, when the first Sputnik rocked the world.

The man responsible for Sputnik, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, had launched a payload of perhaps even greater significance, using the same rocket, only six weeks earlier, on August 17, 1957. It was a dummy thermonuclear warhead, and it traveled from Baikonur in Kazakhstan to Kamchatka in the far–eastern reaches of the USSR, thereby introducing the era of intercontinental weapons. The US would not match that launch until Atlas traveled some 10,000 km from Cape Canaveral into the south Atlantic some 15 months later, nor would it match the Sputnik launch until Explorer I went up on January 31, 1958.

Korolev would go on to make these space records: first dog in orbit (Sputnik 2); first large scientific satellite (the 1.3 ton Sputnik 3); first man; first woman; first three men; first extra–vehicular walk; first craft to impact the Moon; first to orbit the Moon and photograph its back side; first to impact Venus. He would later design and launch the Soviet Union’s first communications satellite and first spy satellite, although not ahead of the US in these two feats. He would, however, fail in accomplishing the mission that became his supreme passion— sending a cosmonaut to the Moon before the Americans.


What is astounding, however, is that this complex engineer—in his case a mix of ingenious designer, inspirational leader, shrewd manipulator, astute politician, disciplined organizer, sometime vituperative tyrant and then softhearted boss—administered all of the above programs from a single design bureau, in those days known as OKB–1. In the US, in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s, it took all of the NASA centers, plus an industrial complex of dozens of major aerospace firms, not to speak of university and government research centers, to carry out comparable missions. As to financial support, Korolev had plenty of it, albeit without full cooperation from the military, but nowhere near the billions and billions approved generously by the US Congress year after year for NASA. The Apollo program alone cost the US over $24 billion. The unsuccessful Soviet moon program—four catastrophic explosions of unmanned test vehicles—cost about 2 billion rubles, according to Mstislav Keldysh, President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. At the time, the ruble was valued—probably unrealistically— at 1.25 to the dollar.

The Korolev story is very Russian, and remarkable for its manifestation of ingenuity and resourcefulness in what was surely one of the most paranoid and ruthless societies in history. Like millions of his countrymen, he was sent to the gulag and forced to confess to trumped up charges of disloyalty during the Stalin purges. In his case, he was spirited away to prison by the NKVD in the middle of the night in 1938 without being allowed, as his wife recalled, to take any clothing with him, or to say goodbye to his sleeping 3–year–old daughter. Only 31 years old at the time, he had already done pioneering work on liquid rockets, having launched the USSR’s first successful liquid fueled rocket in 1933, seven years after Robert Goddard had launched the world’s first.


Unlike others who had been sent to the gulag, however, Korolev was released after only about a year, avoiding probable death from the cruel work and conditions to which prisoners were subjected while digging gold mines in the frigid climate. It is likely that the person responsible for rescuing him was Andrei Tupolev, the noted airplane designer, who had been Korolev’s professor at Moscow High Technical School in the 1920s. Tupolev himself had been arrested but put in charge of a prison design bureau called a sharaga–surely a unique Soviet institution (see Alexander Solzhinitsyn’s First Circle, which was set in a sharaga)—for scientists and engineers who were given decent food, but almost totally deprived of outside contact. Tupolev’s sharaga was assigned to the design of rocket–assisted aircraft, among other products, and it is likely that he put out a call for specialists, like Korolev, who could help him. In any case, Korolev was assigned to Tupolev’s sharaga and spent the war years working in various sharagas in Moscow and—when the Germans threatened that city—Omsk and Kazan.


Korolev inspecting German rocket technology [photo]At the end of the war, still technically a prisoner— he was not officially rehabilitated until after the Sputnik launch—he was nevertheless given the rank of Colonel in the Red Army and sent to Germany to help a team of specialists learn what they could about the V–2 weapon which had caused such panic in bombarding Britain.

For years Soviet space leaders put down the contribution that captured Germans and their V–2 technology made to the Soviet ballistic missile and space programs. “Not significant,” they would say, “we got mostly the technicians. The Americans got Von Braun and his top team. We sent our Germans back after a few years.”

That explanation is no longer the Party line. In fact, it is now acknowledged that German rocket technology was bedrock to the USSR, just as it was to the United States.

The Americans did, indeed, get the cream of the V–2 crop. Wernher von Braun kept most of his best engineers together, escaping the Russians by fleeing Peenemunde, which was in the Red Army zone, and giving himself and his team up to the Americans in May 1945.

Eventually, 127 of the von Braun Germans came to the US. After a period at Fort Bliss in Texas they settled in Huntsville, Alabama, forming the technical strength of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. There they escalated the V–2 technology into the design of the Army’s Redstone missile and its first intermediate range ballistic missile, the Jupiter. Later would come substantial contributions to the development of America’s first satellite— Explorer—and eventually to the Apollo lunar landing program.


But not generally known is the fact that the Russians, even without von Braun and his top team, recruited a very substantial group of Germans, not just from the V–2 program, and certainly exploited the V–2 technology to a degree that was at least equal in resourcefulness to that of America’s. And they carried out their work in a style even more Machiavellian than their counterparts from the US.

Beginning in April 1945, the Soviets began to round up V–2 hardware, launch facilities, blueprints, and as many engineers and technicians as could be found. Since all of the launch and production facilities were in the Soviet zone, which became East Germany, the potential haul was huge. Although most of the von Braun team was gone, and the Americans had already spirited off the blueprints, assembly jigs and fixtures and as many of the intact V–2’s as they were able to grab, there was still plenty of materiel, if in pieces, to salvage, and the Soviets created an institute devoted to the rebuilding of the V–2 and its facilities.

The institute, in the town of Bleicherode, comprised about 1,000 people, half of them Russian, the other half German workers, plus about 50–60 Peenemunde veterans, mostly technicians and a few senior technical people. According to a CIA report, the institute, plus other rocket and guidance–related facilities in other parts of Germany, eventually numbered some 5,000 Germans. In 1946, after only a year of working with the Russians, many of these workers, along with hundreds of other engineers, scientists and technicians, were shipped by trains, freight car and trucks, with their families, to the Soviet Union. Most of them were put on an island called Gorodomliya, remote from Moscow, and their brains were picked systematically over the next eight years, before the last contingent was sent back to Germany.

Korolev, on his return from Germany, was made chief designer of the R–1 missile, the Russian clone of the V–2. As one of Korolev’s colleagues put it, “He, one of the first pioneers of rocket technology in our country, had to drink a full cup of humiliation as a prisoner and to learn…that some of his own ideas had already been realized, and that German rocket men had gone farther than his most ambitious plans. It was galling to him to have been made chief designer and then asked to test not his own concepts but the R–1, which was to be an exact replica of the V–2.”

After this the Russians set to the job of building their own missiles, a task, according to one of the veterans of this period, which was “unbelievably difficult for our country…We had to develop a lot of technologies from scratch. Furthermore, where to get the materials… absolutely new materials…never produced by our industry before?”


After R–1 came R–2, R–3, R–5 and eventually R–7, the rocket that launched the ICBM warhead. With varying upper stages, the Sputniks, Yuri Gagarin, the first lunar and planetary spacecraft, the USSR’s first spysats and comsats. Difficult though it may be to believe, the R–7 technology is still being used today, after some 1,700 launches, to send cosmonauts to Mir, and will send them to the International Space Station beginning, hopefully, before the end of the millennium.

Korolev’s development of the R–7 is a remarkable story not only of technical inventiveness, but of resourcefulness against tough obstacles. Following the loss of more than 20 million of its people in the Great Patriotic War, and perhaps tens of millions more, including of some of its best citizens, in the pre–war purges, the Soviet Union was in desperate condition. The area around the plant where R–7 would be built, outside of Moscow, had been dedicated to the manufacture of artillery pieces for the war, and it was in an awful state.

There were no working tables for the designers, so equipment boxes had to be used. The production buildings were in disrepair. The roofs leaked so that puddles appeared on the factory floors when it rained. “The heating didn’t work,” wrote one of the early Korolev designers, “so it was colder inside the shops than outside.”

Disease was rampant among the workers— expanded hospital facilities were desperately needed—and housing problems were acute. Workers had be to be moved from tent camps, degenerating barracks and basements and reaccommodated in decent structures.

Four stage, interplanetary version of the R-7 [photo]Despite those problems, however, the Korolev team worked assiduously on the evolving designs. In 1953, told that the thermonuclear warhead which had been developed by specialists, including Andrei Sakharov, weighed some five metric tons, the Korolev team scaled up the design on which they had been working to achieve a liftoff mass that could carry such a pay-load— 300 tons. That was R–7, capable of carrying 5.4 tons.

“We faced major difficulties in developing the system,” according to one of the designers. “It called for big advances in pumps, we had to deal with hydrodynamic shocks, we had many failures. The strapons fell apart. We had large heat fluxes, overheating. But we overcame these difficulties, gained experience, became more sophisticated.”


Throughout the problems Korolev faced with staff and technology development, he was careful to maintain the backing of his most important supporter, Josef Stalin, whose word was the definitive one in all major decisions. Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that:

…while Stalin was alive, he completely monopolized all decisions about our defenses, including— I’d even say especially—those involving nuclear weapons and delivery systems. We were sometimes present when such matters were discussed, but we weren’t allowed to ask questions. Therefore, when Stalin died, we weren’t really prepared to carry the burden which fell on our shoulders…Not too long after Stalin’s death, Korolev came to a Politburo meeting to report on his work. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I’d say we gawked at what he showed us as if we were a bunch of sheep seeing a new gate for the first time. When he showed us one of his rockets, we thought it looked like nothing but a huge cigar–shaped tube, and we didn’t believe it could fly. Korolev took us on a tour of a launching pad and tried to explain to us how the rocket worked. We were like peasants in a marketplace. We walked around and around the rocket, touching it, tapping it to see if it was sturdy enough.

However, the R–7 never made it as a successful ballistic missile. It simply was not a weapon for the long run because it lacked the quick readiness capability required of a practical ICBM, depending as it did on volatile propellants which boiled off quickly, and therefore could not be fueled in advance. It took some 20 hours to prepare an R–7 for launch, much too long to provide rapid response to an enemy threat. Atlas’s storable propellant RP–1 (essentially kerosene) was always loaded, but it still required fifteen minutes to pump in the liquid oxygen prior to launch.

By 1958, storable propellants began to be introduced in the USSR, as well. The major responsibility for ballistic weapons was taken over by other firms. Korolev was then able to concentrate on his passion—space exploration.


Ten years earlier, in 1948, the visionary Mikhail Tikhonravov had made the case to Korolev for the development of an earth–orbiting satellite. At first he was unable to get support for the concept. His presentation to a meeting of the Academy of Artillery Sciences was treated skeptically. “The topic is interesting. But we cannot include your report,” was the official reaction, recalls Korolev’s biographer, Yarolslav Golovanov. But five years later, towards the end of 1953, having redesigned the R–7 rocket to carry a heavier payload, Korolev drafted a decree for the Central Committee of the Communist Party which included the possibility of using the vehicle to launch a satellite. According to Korolev’s deputy, Vassily Mishin, Korolev had to propose a Sputnik launch as part of the test program of the ICBM program, in order to get it approved by a group strongly influenced by the military. This group plagued Korolev throughout his career by opposing, generally, any space exploration initiative which might detract from weapons development. Thus, Korolev’s proposal was so delicately phrased that it merely referred to a “…new article which permits speaking about the possibility of designing an artificial Earth satellite within the next few years. By a certain reduction of the weight of the payload it will be possible for the satellite to achieve the necessary velocity of 8,000 m/sec.”

The launch itself, on October 4, 1957, jolted the world, and in particular the Americans, who had every reason to think that they would have been first to achieve such a success.

The concept of putting up a satellite had been known to the world’s space enthusiasts for many years. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian, and the American Robert Goddard had both written of the feasibility of such a launch. Serious proposals to launch a spacecraft into Earth orbit had been discussed since the mid–1940s. But it was not until July 29, 1955, that the Eisenhower Administration announced that the US would launch a satellite—named, embarrassingly, Vanguard, since it would blow up on the pad two months after Sputnik’s success—for scientific purposes during the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year. A few days later, at the Sixth Congress of the International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen, a delegation of Soviet scientists, appearing at IAF for the first time, revealed at a press conference that the USSR, too, might be in the game. Korolev would not be ready, though, to put up his bird until after his R–7, in its fifth attempt, sent the dummy H–bomb some 6,000 km to Kamchatka, on August 21, 1957. With that success he made his move to beat the Americans with his Prostreishy Sputnik—simple satellite. Abandoning a plan to put up a big 1.3 ton scientific satellite (it would become Sputnik 3) because the instrument–designers were lagging, he bulldozed the development, in a little more than a month, of a plain, polished 83.6 kg sphere containing only a radio transmitter, batteries and temperature measuring instruments, “with only one reason,” as cosmonaut Gyorgi Grechko— who was on the design team—remembers, “to be first in space.”


For the next five years Korolev’s team was on a roll—the Sputniks were followed in 1958–59, after three lunar probe failures, by Luna 1 (first moon flyby), Luna 2 (first spacecraft to land on another celestial body), Luna 3 (first to photograph the moon’s backside). A model of the latter was carried triumphantly by Anatoli Blagonravov and Leonid Sedov to Washington to present to American Rocket Society president John Stapp at the ARS Honors Night Dinner in 1959. During this period the US was experiencing what would become seven failed attempts to send Pioneer spacecraft to the Moon and then, in 1961–62, the failure of the first five Rangers, developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), on their lunar missions. A Russian designer, now in his 80s, recalls that they called the Rangers “American Kamikazes.” Rangers 6, 7 and 8 would, however, not only reach the moon but return thousands of striking photos in 1964–65.

Korolev’s luck with Mars and Venus was poor. From 1960 to 1965 he experienced 13 successive essentially failed missions before Venera 3, launched March 16, 1965, became the first spacecraft to land on another planetary body. In the meantime, JPL was getting into high gear with the first Venus flyby, Mariner 2 in 1962, and the first close–up photos of another planet, also Venus, with Mariner 4 in 1964.


The early 1960s were still, however, glory days for Korolev. He made Second Coming headlines on April 12, 1961, by sending the first human into orbit—Yuri Gagarin, and followed up, in August, by orbiting Gherman Titov 17 times. But shortly after Gagarin’s launch an action was taken by John F. Kennedy which would prove to end the Russian’s domination of space. On May 25, 1961, the young President asked Congress to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

Korolev was far from through, however. After John Glenn became the first American in space in February, 1962, followed by other Mercury triumphs, Korolev anticipated in 1964 the US successes sure to come with the two-man Gemini program. He thus devised the ingenious idea of putting not two, but three cosmonauts in orbit in what the West believed, for some time, was a new, multi–man spacecraft. It was, however, Korolev’s “circus act,” as his deputy, Vassily Mishin describes it. He had simply, or not so simply, redesigned the Vostok spacecraft that had orbited Gagarin and others. He then sardined three cosmonauts without space suits, and without a launch–escape system, into a craft he called Voskhod. The same spacecraft would, in March 1965, achieve another first—a walk in space by Alexei Leonov, three months ahead of the first US EVA by the late astronaut Ed White in Gemini 4.


Surely, though, by this time, Korolev must have realized that time was running out on his victory skein. He was working hard on the Soyuz spacecraft, which would have carried cosmonauts to the moon. And he had finally gained a measure of support for his scheme to put cosmonauts around the moon, and—in a different scenario—land one of them on the lunar surface. But he lacked the full backing, and funding, that was so generously awarded by the US Congress to the Saturn/Apollo program. He had no rocket engine comparable to the huge F–1 engine, five of which would lift the Apollo complex off the pad. He had no liquid hydrogen engine, which was crucial to the performance of the upper stages of Apollo/Saturn.

He even had to deal with competition from rival designers—Valentin Glushko, the rocket engine designer who had defected from Korolev’s team to join Vladimir Chelomei; and another team headed by his former colleague, Mikhail Yangel. Glushko had refused to design the oxygen–kerosene engines that Korolev preferred and so another engine firm, experienced mostly with aircraft engines, had to be relied on.

The subsequent design called for 24 engines in the first stage, later expanded to 30 when it became clear that the vehicle would be unable to lift the huge lunar payload, laden with bulky, relatively primitive electronics. With constant opposition from the tunnel–visioned military, preoccupied with weapons, he never got the funds to statictest his engines as a system, and this failure would prove fatal.


Still, before 1964 there were many on the Korolev team who felt they had a chance to beat the Americans. One of the designers, Boris Gubanov, said, “It was then the prevailing opinion in the USSR that the US would never get such a powerful development (Saturn V/Apollo) going. The engines were too large. The launch vehicle was too big and the use of liquid hydrogen too complex. It was a major mistake for Korolev to underestimate the US. It wasn’t until 1964–65 that this mistake was realized.”

At the end of 1965 the pressure from Korolev’s crushing agenda of space projects was mounting just as his relationships with his funding sources were deteriorating. Scheduling an operation, therefore, was hardly opportune. But the Chief Designer was drained physically, and perhaps a hospital stay, even including minor surgery, would be therapeutic.


For some years Korolev had not been a well person. Even though he appeared physically strong—stocky, husky looking, square–jawed— he suffered numerous ailments. Heart problems plagued him most seriously.

Then, in December 1965, the same month in which his design bureau was assigned to attempt a manned circumlunar flight on top of the N–1/L–3 lunar landing program—using largely different hardware for each mission— Korolev had a medical analysis which showed that he had a bleeding polyp in the large intestine. Surgery for removal of the polyp was prescribed for January 14, two days after his 59th birthday. Korolev moved his appointments to the latter part of that month. His daughter Natasha, a prominent lung surgeon, described the end:

The surgeon who performed the operation thought it would be a simple one, so simple that he scheduled another operation afterwards. He started at 8 AM, used a rectoscope to remove the polyps endoscopically. My father hemorrhaged on the operating table, bleeding so severely that it couldn’t be stopped. Petrovsky cut the abdomen to stop the bleeding, and found a cancerous tumor which had not been visible before. He began to remove parts of the rectum to take out the tumor. This took a long time. My father had an anesthetic mask on for eight hours. They should have put some kind of tube into his lungs but his jaws had been broken in prison so they couldn’t use the tube. His heart was not in good condition and Petrovsky knew this. He completed the operation but my father never revived.

Incredibly, up to this time Sergei Pavlovich Korolev had been known to the Soviet public only through the press as the “Chief Designer.” Now, finally, it was time to reveal who he was. Insiders, of course, knew. But the glory and plaudits which had gone to the cosmonauts— and to American space heroes like Wernher von Braun, whom he had long admired, although not openly, had never reached him in his lifetime. Now they would. Today there are many Korolev monuments and streets, and even the town where his design bureau stands has been given his name. Ironically, it is this design bureau, today named Rocket Space Corporation Energia, named for Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, which has the lead Russian role in assembling, in cooperation with the US, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan, the International Space Station.

Those who may wish to visit Korolev’s tomb these days will not find it easy. Since public visits to Lenin’s mausoleum are no longer allowed, neither is access to the long wall of past Soviet leaders and heroes which includes, besides Korolev, Gagarin and other cosmonauts who were killed—unless one is willing to give one of the guards a financial inducement.

Leonid Brezhen and other officials carry Korolev's coffin [photo]


After his death the monumental job of continuing the competition to beat the US to the moon fell to Vassily Mishin, a long time deputy. There are those who feel that the Soviet failure to win can be blamed on Mishin, but most knowledgeable engineers consider him a scapegoat. The US program was too technologically superior in engine design, spacecraft sophistication, computer capability and electronic microminiaturization, to name just some of the factors going for them. Twenty–four billion US dollars and a fully cooperative Congress were others. N–1/L–3 blew up four times in unmanned tests—twice in 1969, once in 1971, and finally in 1972. The program was not officially cancelled until 1974. It was not officially acknowledged as having ever existed until Mikhail Gorbachev declared the policy of glasnost in 1989.

Recommended Reading: This article is adapted, in part, from the author’s book, Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997.

James Harford (CC ‘88) is Executive Director Emeritus,
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
601 Lake Drive, Princeton, NJ 08540;
email: 71053.1525@compuserve.com

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