50th ANNIVERSARY OF SPUTNIK - Korolev: The Mastermind of the Soviet Space Program

Author:  Corbaley Dean
Date:  October 2007

In the decades that the space race lasted between Russia and America, one man stood out amongst the Soviet comrades to distinguish himself as the master engineer of the Russian Space Program. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev led a truly amazing life, growing up in the outskirts of Russia to graduate the "MIT of Moscow", only to be thrust into one of Stalin's slave camps to return to assist his country in WWII and finally the Space Race, breaking records the whole way. Sergei Korolev was truly a genius without whom Russia would have been no match for the American Space Program.

Korolev was born in 1906 in the city of Zhytomyr in the Ukraine. In his young life, Korolev experienced a lot of changes, moving to different cities including Nizhyn, Kiev and Odessa, all in the Ukraine. His parents were separated and eventually divorced before he was ten. To make matters worse, the Bulshevik revolution occurred about a year later. In his teens, Korolev already showed an interest in aviation, and went through some of the best engineering schools that the Ukraine had to offer. Korolev finally transferring to Moscow's Bauman High Technical school where he graduated in 1929.

Korolev started to excel almost immediately, and made the position of chief of Jet Propulsion Research Group in 1932. But his career was not going to be one great streak of achievement. In 1938, during one of Stalin's purges, Korolev was thrown into a concentration camp in Siberia for apparently working on liquid rocket fuel instead of solid rocket fuel. In 1940 he was sent to the infamous Butyrskaya, known for brutal treatment of its prisoners for several centuries. After several months, Russia decided to use Korolev's genius and sent him to TsKB-29, a work camp for scientists under the direction of Andrei Tupolev, one of Russia's most known aircraft designers and the namesake of the current aviation company.

After his release from incarceration, Korolev went to work designing rockets beginning with the R-1 which was reverse engineered from German designs, and eventually designed the R-7. The R-7 was the first ICBM or Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. This design later was used as rocket boosters to launch many of Russia's spacecraft, including Sputnik.

Sputnik 1 was a very simple design of spacecraft, but the work behind it was very hectic and Korolev personally oversaw every step. He successfully launched his work on October 4, 1957. Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Soviet Party, was very pleased and demanded another launch for the 40th anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Within less than a month, Korolev had prepared another satellite that was six times as massive and carried the first animal in space, Laika the dog.

Image Courtesy of Anatoly Zak

Image Courtesy of Anatoly Zak

After Sputnik 3 failed and allowed the American's a mark in space history, Korolev turned his attention to the moon. It took two attempts to successfully impact the surface, Luna 1 missing by 6000 km,and Luna 2 became the first manmade object on the moon. Greater still, Korolev's Luna 3 was the first spacecraft the far side of the moon.

Korolev then turned his attention to putting people in orbit, and once again was the broke new ground. After five tests with this intension, Yuri Gagarin was launched into space on April 12, 1961 riding an R-7 ballistic missile. Several more missions followed, including the first female in space, Valentina Tereshkova, aboard Vostov 6. Korolev was then trying to design a spacecraft that would dock' with another spacecraft, but was told to move in another direction. Russia wanted more firsts to put in the record book.

Korolev made a bold and risky move by sending up the Voshkod rocket. The rocket was a lightweight version of earlier rockets that was sent higher into orbit with a crew of three cosmonauts. The vehicle was designed to land with the crew, thus they were sent up without spacesuits. With news of America's plans to attempt a space walk, the Russians quickly threw an airlock on the Voshkod 2 and sent Alexei Leonov to perform the world's first spacewalk on March 18, 1965. The mission almost ended in disaster, and the Russians no more Voshkod mission were attempted. Korolev was then to attempt to land a man on the moon, which he might have been able to accomplish if he had not died suddenly.

Korolev suffered a heart attack in 1960 and doctors soon discovered that he was also suffering from a kidney disorder likely caused by his detention in the prison camps. Though his health demanded that he lightened his work load, Korolev instead increased it. He knew if he died, the Russian space program would almost certainly die as well. Korolev was in and out of the hospital for the next several years until a botched operation on what should have been routine surgery resulted in his death on January 14, 1966. Up until his death, no Russian citizen knew how much Korolev had actually to set the benchmarks of their country. Korolev died the unsung hero of the Russian Space Program.

- Written by Dean Corbaley.

Published by Pooja Ghatalia.