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Korolev portrait

Sergei Korolov.

Korolev at the Kapustin Yar firing range in 1953

Chief Designer Sergey Korolev stands at the Kapustin Yar firing range in 1953, the same year that he joined the Communist Party and was elected a Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

An R-2A missile built by KorolevÕs engineers

One of the R-2A missiles, built by Korolev's engineers. Thirteen of them were launched between 1957 and 1960.

Sergei P. Korolev


For years, the life and career of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the chief designer of early Soviet rockets, were kept in mystery as a state secret. Born on December 30, 1906, at Zhitomir, the son of a teacher, Korolev became interested in the possibilities of spaceflight at a young age. Trained in aeronautical engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, in 1930 he co-founded the Moscow rocketry organization GIRD (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya, Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). Like the VfR (Verein fuer Raumschiiffahrt-Society for Spaceship Travel) in Germany, and Robert H. Goddard in the United States, by the early 1930s the Russian organizations were testing liquid-fueled rockets of increasing size.


In Russia, GIRD lasted only two years before the military, recognizing the potential of rockets, replaced it with the RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute). RNII developed a series of rocket-propelled missiles and gliders during the 1930s, culminating in Korolev's RP-318, Russia's first rocket-propelled aircraft. Before the aircraft could make a rocket-propelled flight, however, Korolev and other aerospace engineers were imprisoned during 1937-1938 at the peak of Stalin's purges. During this time of paranoia, people of competence often received sentences of death or imprisonment simply because of a perception of disloyalty. Korolev and several other rocket designers were victims of this paranoia, although there is no evidence that Korolev himself was involved in any traitorous activities. Korolev at first spent months in transit on the Transsiberian railway and on a prison vessel at Magadan. This was followed by a year in the Kolyma gold mines, the most dreaded part of the Gulag prison camp of political enemies of the Soviet Union.


However, Stalin soon recognized the importance of aeronautical engineers for the impending war with Hitler, and he released from prison Korolev and other technical personnel who could help the Red Army by developing new weapons. A system of sharashkas (prison design bureaus) was set up to exploit the jailed talent. Korolev was saved by the intervention of senior aircraft designer Sergei Tupolev, himself a prisoner, who requested Korolev's services in the TsKB-39 sharashka. Korolev, however, was not allowed to work on rockets except at night on his own time.


With victory in World War II virtually assured by 1944, and seeing the immense progress that Wernher von Braun's team had made with the V-2 rocket in Nazi Germany, Stalin decided to develop ballistic missiles of his own. He sent Korolev and other technical experts from the Kazan sharashka to Soviet-occupied Germany to investigate von Braun's efforts in 1945. At first Korolev merely accompanied the team that salvaged what was left of the V-2 production effort, but soon he began interviewing dozens of V-2 engineers and technicians who still remained in Germany.


On May 13, 1946, Stalin signed the decree initiating development of Soviet ballistic missiles. The minister of armaments, Dmitir Fedorovich Ustinov, was placed in charge of the development. In August 1946, the Scientific Research Institute NII-88 was established to conduct the development. Korolev's personality and organizational abilities had been impressive, and Ustinov personally appointed him chief constructor for development of a long-range ballistic missile. Following Korolev's instructions, 200 German employees of the Mittelwerke V-2 factory were rounded up on the night of October 22-23, 1946, and sent to relatively comfortable living conditions at Lake Seleger, between Moscow and Leningrad. Thus the jailed became the jailer. The Germans had little direct contact with Korolev's engineers. Aside from assisting in the launch of a few more V-2s from Kapustin Yar, they mainly answered written questions. They were finally returned to Germany between 1950 and 1954.


The V-2, initially copied with all Soviet components as the R-1, was quickly developed into successively more capable R-2 and R-5 missiles. By April 1, 1953, as Korolev was preparing for the first launch of the R-11 rocket, he received approval from the Council of Ministers for development of the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7. To concentrate on development of the R-7, Korolev's other projects were reassigned to a new design bureau in Dnepropetrovsk headed by Korolev's assistant, Mikhail Kuzmich Yangel. This was the first of several design bureaus (some of which later competed with Korolev's) that would be spun off once Korolev had perfected a new technology.


It was Korolev's R-7 ICBM that launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. This launch galvanized American concern about the capability of the Soviet Union to attack the United States with nuclear weapons using ballistic missiles. Indeed, the Soviet Union's succession of Sputnik and Luna launches, combined with the belligerent claims of Premier Nikita Khrushchev, created the public impression that the Soviet Union was far ahead of the United States in the development of unstoppable ICBMs and space weapons. In fact, Korolev's R-7-with its enormous launch pads, complex assembly and launching procedures, cryogenic liquid oxygen oxidizer, and radio-controlled terminal guidance-was a thoroughly impractical weapon. The warhead was overly heavy and therefore had a range of only about 3,500 miles (5,633 kilometers), barely enough to reach the northern United States. As a result, it would be deployed as a weapon at only eight launch pads in Tyuratam and Plesetsk, in the northern USSR. Development of more practical successors, such as Korolev's R-9, was not begun until May 13, 1959.


Soviet leaders then asked Korolev to develop ever more capable launchers, and the immediate result was the RT-2. This was a tall order. While he completed theoretical studies of the next generation of launch vehicles (the N vehicle) and spacecraft (Vostok Zh and Soyuz B), others inside the Soviet space technology bureaucracy persuaded Khrushchev in 1961 to proceed with development of the launch vehicle (UR-500 Proton) and the spacecraft (the LK-1) for a piloted circumlunar mission to follow Earth orbital missions.


The Soviet space program of the early 1960s came to resemble the cautious personality of Sergei Korolev who wanted definitely to explore space, but to do it safely. Because of safety concerns, Korolev made sure his designs evolved gradually over time, always using a design that worked safely and building on the success. The Vostok capsule evolved directly into the Soyuz capsule, which underwent several subsequent design changes but is still in use. Only the Voskhod program, forced on Korolev by Khrushchev as a prestige program, was an abnormal design that substituted three cosmonaut seats for the ejection system so the Soviet Union could beat the United States in launching a three-person crew into space.


Following Voskhod, Korolev campaigned to send a Soviet cosmonaut to the Moon. Following the initial reconnaissance of the Moon by Lunas 1, 2, and 3, Korolev established three largely independent efforts aimed at achieving a Soviet lunar landing before the Americans. The first objective, met by Vostok and Voskhod, was to prove that human spaceflight was possible. The second objective was to develop lunar vehicles that would soft-land on the Moon's surface (the soft landing would ensure that a vehicle would not sink into the dust accumulated by four billion years of meteorite impacts). The third objective was to develop a huge booster to send cosmonauts to the Moon.


The most difficult of these objectives to achieve was the third one. His design bureau began work on the N-1 launch vehicle, a counterpart to the American Saturn V, beginning in 1962. This rocket was to be capable of launching a maximum of 110,000 pounds (49,895 kilograms) into low-Earth orbit. Although the project continued until 1971 before cancellation, the N-1 never made a successful flight.


By 1964, the N-1 program was in trouble. Because of design considerations for the lunar landing craft and the orbiting command capsule, the launcher needed the capability of putting 92 metric tons into low-Earth orbit. This capability called for more main engines, and the N-1 already had 30. Getting them all to work proved more than Korolev's engineers could achieve. The N-1's payload capability could support only two cosmonauts going to the Moon and only one cosmonaut actually landing on the lunar surface.


Moreover, Kruschchev directed Korolev to accomplish the lunar effort-at least a circumlunar flight-by 1967 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Because of this deadline, Korolev pressed his rocket design bureau to develop liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX) engines for all three N-1 stages. In October 1964, Premier Khrushchev was removed from office by a coup; this cost Korolev a strong ally at the head of the government, but it did not ease the time schedule for completion of a lunar flight. Now, instead of a relentless schedule and resources made available by an enthusiastic premier to meet it, Korolev had only a relentless schedule.


On January 14, 1966, Sergei P. Korolev died from an improperly performed hemorrhoid operation. Because of his importance in the rocketry program, the Soviet Minister of Health had insisted on performing the operation himself-and when he found tumors in Korolev's intestines, the doctor continued without help, appropriate medical supplies, or extra blood. In death, Korolev received accolades for the first time for his successes in spaceflight. Having been known previously in the West as the “Chief Designer," now his true identity was revealed to the world, and the Soviet Union accorded him a hero's funeral and burial in the Kremlin Wall. When Korolev died, however, any realistic possibility of beating the Americans to the Moon also died. Several of Korolev's lieutenants and rivals emerged to direct what was left of the lunar landing program, but political intrigue and technical failures forced its eventual cancellation.


-From Launius, Roger D. Frontiers of Space Exploration. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.


Additional Reading:

Clark, Philip S. The Soviet Manned Space Program. New York: Crown Publishers, Orion Books, 1988.

Harford, James. Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.

Harvey, Brian. Race Into Space: The Soviet Space Programme. Chichester, England: Ellis Horwood Ltd., 1988.

Johnson, Nicholas L. The Soviet Reach for the Moon. Washington, D.C.: Cosmos Books, 1995.

Levine, Alan J. The Missile and Space Race. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.

Oberg, James E. Red Star in Orbit. New York: Random House, 1981.

Siddiqi, Asif A. Challenge to Apollo: the Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Div., Office of Policy and Plans, 2000.


Harford, James. “Korolev, Mastermind of the Soviet Space Program.” http://www.cosmos-club.org/journals/1998/harford.html

Lindroos, Marcus, editor and compiler. “The Soviet Manned Lunar Program.” http://www.ryp.umu.se/~96ml/moon1.htm

“Sergei P. Korolev (1906-1966).” http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SPUTNIK/korolev.html

Siddiqi, Asif A. “Korolev, Sputnik, and The International Geophysical Year.” http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SPUTNIK/siddiqi.html

“Why the Soviets Never Beat the U.S. to the Moon.” Interview with Charles P. Vick. 21st Century. July 1997. http://www.fas.org/spp/eprint/cp_vick_interview.htm


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