Sergei Pavlovich Korolev

Phil Delnon

May 1998

Part 1: The Beginnings.

There are difficulties even with his name and his birthday. His surname transliterates into our alphabet as Korolev, but is pronounced Korolyov. His birthday was 12 January 1907 in the modern reckoning, 30 December 1906 in the old calendar. He was born in Zhitomir, Russia, and from his middle name we know that his father was called Pavel (Paul).

The city of Zhitomir is the capital of Zhitomir Oblast, northern Ukraine, and lies on the Teterev River in an agricultural region. Founded in the 9th century, it passed to Lithuania in 1320, to Poland in 1569, and to Russia as late as 1793.

Agriculture was not Korolev's calling, however. Space and space travel were popular in what became the young and dynamic Soviet Union, not least through the writings of Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, schoolteacher, scientist and inventor, a pioneer in rocket and space research. In 1903 Tsiolkovsky had published A Rocket into Cosmic Space, in which he proposed the use of liquid propellants for spaceships.

How Korolev came to Odessa in the Southern Ukraine is not clear, but while there he entered the Odessa Building Trades School, and cadged joy-rides with flying-boat pilots. At the age of 19 he designed, built and flew his own glider. His education continued at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, and in 1926 he went to study aeronautical engineering at the Moscow Higher Technical School, where his teachers included Zhukovsky and Tupolev.

There he joined a group of young rocket enthusiasts who called themselves the GERD group: the Group of Engineers Developing Rocket Propulsion. Funds were niggardly and salaries non-existent, and they often had to pay for their own materials, leading them to re-interpret their acronym as Group of Engineers Working for Nothing.

Korolev became Chief Designer of this group, and in 1933, at a site 20 miles from Moscow, they launched their first rockets, using liquid fuel. From very modest beginnings they began to develop rockets which reached 2,000 mph.

These feats soon began to interest the military, who promptly stepped in, with both beneficial and detrimental effects. The principal beneficial result was very simple: funding. On the other hand, the military had no interest in romantic trips into Space: the military wanted military rockets and rocket-powered aircraft. It was probably at this time that Korolev started to learn how to manipulate the military mind towards the direction he wanted.

The major detrimental effect arrived with a very rude shock. Korolev's sponsor was Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky, who in 1938 fell victim to one of Stalin's purges. In a secret trial, Tukhachevsky was one of several commanders of the Red Army who were convicted on charges of treason and executed. Korolev was arrested on 6 June 1938 and faced a similar show trial.

Convicted on 18 counts of treason and sabotage and labelled a Trotskyite, he was sentenced to 10 years in a labour camp and sent to the gold mines at Kolyma in Eastern Siberia with some time in transit on the Trans-Siberian Railway, followed by further time on a prison ship at Magadan. It was effectively a death sentence.

Part 2: Rescued by Hitler.

There can not be too many people who owe their lives to Adolf Hitler. For Korolev, however, the threat posed by Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia was his salvation. As war came, the prison camps were scoured for anyone who could make a significant contribution to the Soviet war effort, and that of course included aeronautical engineers and rocket scientists. Instrumental in rescuing Korolev was his old tutor Tupolev, who was himself a prisoner and had already been taken into a prison design bureau.

Not that Korolev was rehabilitated: politicians don't like admitting their mistakes, so Korolev stayed under house arrest in Moscow even as he set to work designing and testing liquid-fuel rocket boosters for aircraft.

The necessity to have more ambitious rockets was made quite plain by the success of the German V2 rocket and by the surrender of Wernher von Braun and most of his team to the welcoming arms of the USA, along with enough parts to make 100 V2 rockets. When Soviet troops reached Peenemünde they found precious little but a heavily-bombed site, a few badly-damaged rockets and a handful of technicians. The slave labour camp "Dora" at Nordhausen in the Harz mountains came in to the Russian occupation zone. V2 rockets had been assembled here, but the camp had been evacuated, along with its unfortunate workers, before the Russians arrived.

As though to rub salt in to the wounds, US General Eisenhower authorised von Braun and his team to put on three V2 launches, which took place at Cuxhaven in Summer 1945. Korolev - by now a colonel in the Red Army - was there as an observer.

All this was quite enough to spare Korolev a return to the gold mines: he must have proved his value during the war years, and now he was put in charge of the Soviet missile programme. Korolev went to Berlin to see what he could salvage.

None of my sources mention this, but the Soviets must also have discovered some remains near the V2 test-launching site at the SS camp at Blizna in Poland.

The site was about 150 miles south of Warsaw, and the remains of a great many unsuccessful launches came down 200 miles to the North-east, in the farming area around Wolka on the river Bug. It is known that the German scientists were not able to recover all the débris: almost one complete rocket was taken and dismantled by the Polish Resistance and ended up in Warsaw. Whether this rocket ended up in Russian hands is unknown, but it is safe to assume that there were more remains to be found.

It is perhaps not surprising that Korolev's personality remains largely hidden. His arrest, show trial and time in the prison camp must have taught him to keep his mouth shut. A former colleague from the immediate post-war period describes him as untrusting, hard to befriend and intolerant of lies.

By 1947 Korolev was ready to test-launch reconstructed V2 rockets at the Kapustin Yar site by the Volga. Meanwhile he worked on an improved version with an extended range of 426 miles/685km and a speed of 3,500mph/5,600kph. First designated the R1, it went into military service as the Red Army Rocket. Korolev was put in charge of all Soviet rocket development.

Hard to befriend, perhaps; but as his marriage ran into trouble, Korolev fell for a young translator who lived with her mother one floor below in the same block of flats. Within a short time the two were living together.

Part 3: Cold War.

Once again further research adds a footnote to previous knowledge: at the end of World War II, the Soviets did indeed take over the underground V2 rocket factory "Dora" at Nordhausen. Having renamed the plant "Zentralwerk" (Central Works) they imported captured German technicians to resume V2 production. The plant was however dismantled in 1946 and transferred -together with the technicians - to the Soviet Union. The Dora factory remained empty until 1948, when it was blown up.

The onset of the Cold War gave a further boost to rocket development. From its bases in Europe and the Near East, the USA could send nuclear bombers over the Soviet Union without fear of direct retaliation: at that time the USSR had no bomber capable of making the return trip over the USA. There was the need to design a rocket capable of doing that. As the Soviet nuclear warhead was twice the weight of the American one, the rocket would have to be big and efficient.

One wonders just how quickly Korolev saw a chance to go for space. At any rate he was not stinted on funds: a new launch site was constructed at Baikonur in Kazahkstan, beyond the range of Western radar. (The USA responded with U2 aircraft spying flights, which by 1956 were already over Baikonur.)

Conditions at Baikonur were fairly primitive. Summer temperatures could be as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius), the scientists and mechanics lived in railway carriages, and natural water was so scarce that they sometimes washed in bottled mineral water. For entertainment they would catch scorpions and put them in glass jars to fight to the death.

What Korolev came up with was the R7, a multistage rocket which would do the job. Unfortunately it required several days to prepare for launch, which made it less than ideal as an ICBM. But it held the promise of a space rocket.

The death of Stalin in 1953 opened new doors of opportunity for Korolev. For one, he now at last joined the Communist Party. Whether he would not have been admitted during Stalin's lifetime, or whether Korolev could not bring himself to join while Stalin lived, has to remain another unanswerable question. At any rate, membership of the Party must have been a prerequisite for favourable consideration of any independent initiatives. And in 1954 Korolev submitted a secret memo to the Government raising the prospect of launching a satellite into space.

The second opportunity came with Stalin's successor Khrushchev. With his position secured, in 1956 Khrushchev made his famous speech denouncing Stalin. It signalled a change of attitudes and tactics which later extended to Khrushchev's appearance on US television, in debate with one Richard Nixon. For Korolev it made his dream of space possible.

The original plan had been for an ambitious 3,000 pound satellite packed with scientific instruments. When this fell behind schedule, the Chief Designer came up with the Primary Satellite, a 184-pound version containing a simple radio transmitter, which could be put into orbit by the R7 rocket. Khrushchev's backing ensured that the concept was approved by the Soviet Academy of Sciences in August 1957, and on 4 October 1957 the small sphere which very soon became known as Sputnik ("satellite") went up to make the first of 90 orbits, circling the Earth 16 times a day, its radio transmitter emitting a bleep that was heard everywhere.

Sputnik was visible in the night sky above Amsterdam, New York, Peking and, most importantly, Moscow. Its huge impact in terms of publicity brought prestige and glory to the Soviet Union - but not to Korolev. Khrushchev insisted that the Nobel Prize which followed was accepted on behalf of the Soviet People. Korolev was kept out of the spotlight, and stayed there.

Part 4: Into Space.

On the other hand the success of Sputnik opened the door of opportunity to the Chief Designer. Just over a year later he was able to send up a modified Sputnik: on 3 November 1957 the dog Laika became the first living thing to go into space, orbiting the Earth for the 6 days her oxygen-supply lasted.

Already Korolev was planning ahead. Laika's flight was more than another publicity coup: data sent back were to be used in preparing humans for space. At the same time as the USA was having very public V2-style failures with its rocket programme before managing to launch a satellite the size of a grapefruit, the Sputnik-3 sent up by Korolev's team weighed in at a hefty 3.5 tons. And the Chief Designer was already planning Vostok, a rocket capable of putting a man into space for ten days, with enough room in the capsule for the cosmonaut to move around. There remained the problem of choosing the man.

Korolev's requirements were simple: a small man of 75 kilos. The rest was left to a selection committee.

The Soviets, like the Americans, immediately turned to their fighter pilots. Hundreds of pilots were considered and tested and whittled down, until just 20 were left, including men like Leonov, Titov and, of course, Gagarin. Korolev called them his Little Eagles.

Geographical considerations meant that the cosmonaut would literally return to the Earth: there was no plan for a soft landing in the ocean. Instead, the cosmonaut was to be ejected out of his capsule some 400 metres above the ground and would descend by parachute. It was an early signal of the readiness to undertake extra-vehicular activity which was to remain a hallmark of the Soviet Space programme.

This meant that the prospective cosmonauts had to undertake extensive parachute training - something that was not popular amongst fighter pilots. Soon they were making 40 jumps a month, on equipment that looked somewhat rough and ready, to say the least.

In preparation there were more launches: the dogs Belka and Strelka were sent up into orbit and were successfully landed by parachute. Maket, a mannikin, was also sent up and recovered in one piece. So then it was time to send up a man.

Korolev, like his rival Wernher von Braun at NASA, considered the man in the capsule to be merely a passenger, taken along for the ride by a safe and automatic system. Like their American counterparts, the cosmonauts were deeply unhappy about that, particularly the "safe" bit. Spectacular launch failures were not the sole prerogative of the USA: Korolev's team had their failures too, though it was a long time before anyone ever heard much about them. All the same, the cosmonauts might have heard whispers about the catastrophic launch failure of the R-16 on 23 October 1960, which cost nearly 200 lives. They won out to the extent that the capsule was fitted with manual controls, and the combination code to the manual override was written on a piece of paper placed in a pocket of the spacesuit.

Spacesuit is hardly the word: the first cosmonauts, like the first astronauts, would go into space wearing what was little more than a glorified fighter pilot's flying suit. It was all anyone had at the time.

Part 5: Cosmonauts.

The cosmonauts first saw their rockets in March 1961. Yuri Gagarin had been Korolev's favourite from the start, but as they saw the assembly-line in the factory they must have realised that there were going to be enough rockets for almost all of them.

Gagarin went up in Vostok-1 on 12 April 1961, making one orbit of the Earth in a flight lasting 108 minutes. As planned, he ejected from the capsule on the way down and landed by parachute. Under agreed international rules, this would have technically disqualified his flight, so it was kept a secret for many years.

The Americans countered with Kennedy's famous speech of 25 May 1961 announcing the intention to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.

Korolev was already planning to do just that. On 4 October 1959, his Luna 3 craft had already taken the first ever photographs of the previously-unseen far side of the Moon.

Meanwhile the programme of manned orbits went ahead, and by Summer 1963 there had been four manned flights. At this point Khrushchev decided he wanted another publicity coup. Korolev provided it in the form of Valentina Tereshkova, one of four women who made it through cosmonaut training. Khrushchev is reported to have selected Tereshkova himself, for having come from a working-class background and having herself worked in a textile factory.

The coup succeeded: Tereshkova went up in Vostok-6 on 16 June 1963 and became the first woman in space. By the end of her flight she had orbited the Earth 48 times and had spent more hours in space than all the USA's astronauts put together. As a practical flight, however, it disappointed Korolev: Tereshkova had fallen asleep for some time and had not completed all the tasks set her.

To some extent, the seeds of future failure had already been sown. As far back as 1953, when Korolev was asked to focus on developing the R7 rocket as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, other projects were removed from his overview to a new design bureau in Dnepropetrovsk, headed by Korolev's assistant, Mikhail Kuzmich Yangel. Other design bureaux followed, and it was almost inevitable that they would begin to compete with one another -and with Korolev- for funds. Ironically, as the Americans combined their competing Army, Navy and Air Force projects under the aegis of NASA, the Russians were doing exactly the opposite. It was a costly mistake.

Part 6: Hero of the Soviet Union.

At the same time as Tereshkova made her giant leap for womankind, the Soviet space programme started to react to American plans rather than let the Americans react to theirs. Hearing of the Gemini programme to put a two-man capsule into orbit, Korolev was required to trump it in advance. He did so by redesigning the Vostok capsule to become the Voskhod, capable of seating two or even three cosmonauts. To do this meant compromising the safety of the occupants, and the engineers protested, particularly Feoktistov.

Korolev pulled a flanker: for the first flight of the three-man Voskhod on 12 October 1964 he offered one place to an engineer: Feoktistov. The other two were Komarov and Yegorov. Voskhod-1 made a 15-orbit flight, which was the only manned flight that year and brought the total Soviet cosmonaut hours in space to 455. The U.S. astronauts had a total of 54 hours.

The next coup followed quickly: on 18 March 1965, cosmonauts Belyayev and Leonov were launched in Voskhod 2 for a 17-orbit flight, during which Leonov made the first space walk, leaving the spacecraft and drifting out on an umbilical tether. The technical difficulties of leaving -and entering- the capsule were not publicised at the time; in using the collapsible airlock, which looked more like a shower-unit extended out of the capsule, Leonov traded on his luck.

But it was yet another record for the Soviet space programme: and characteristically, Korolev had something else up his sleeve. This was the Soyuz rocket. Derived from the R7, it used that rocket's first and second stages. Originally intended as the rocket to put a man into space, it was now ready for production and was planned for use in the race to put a man on the Moon. Its capsule had room for three cosmonauts and also boasted a separate working compartment. Meanwhile one of his design bureaux was already planning the next rocket, the N1, specifically for manned Moon missions.

Soyuz was to become the most-used rocket in the world, and Korolev's abiding memorial. The Chief Designer suffered from haemorrhoids, and in the Winter of 1965/66 he went into hospital for what should have been a routine operation.

It went wrong. Presumably septicaemia set in, and Korolyev died on 14th January 1966.

Only now was he publicly acknowledged, being awarded a burial in the Kremlin wall, as a hero of the Soviet Union. And on 31stJanuary came the launch of Luna 9, the first space vehicle to make a successful soft landing on the Moon. It looked as though Korolev's achievements would continue to keep the Soviet Union ahead.

Then on April 23 1967, cosmonaut Komarov was launched in the first manned flight of Korolev's Soyuz. But when the landing parachutes were deployed on re-entry the shroud lines became twisted, and Komarov plunged to his death. The Soviet space program was set back nearly two years. The N1 rocket never came to fruition. Coupled with the huge difference in funding between the rival USSR and USA space programmes, the leadership established by Korolev was to slip away. It was a sad end to a brave venture.

Further reading

Korolev's Triple Play: Sputniks 1, 2 and 3 by James Harford

JPEG image of Korolev at

Unpublished Drawings of the R7 rocket:

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