Just as Wernher Von Braun is often credited as the individual most responsible for making the American space program a success, rocket designer Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was the single most important figure in the Soviet space program of the 1950s and 1960s.
Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, a Ukrainian, was born in Zhitomir, Russia on December 30, 1906. In 1917, his mother and his stepfather, who was an engineer and a mechanic, moved to Odessa, a port on the Black Sea. Interested in aviation since childhood, in 1924 Korolev graduated from the Odessa Building Special School. In 1924, he was admitted to the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, where he joined a glider club and designed his first aircraft. Two years later Korolev transferred to Moscow’s Bauman High Technical School, the best engineering college in Russia. He became a protégé of Andrei Tupolev, the renowned aircraft designer, and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1930.
In 1931, Korolev and Fridrikh Tsander founded the Moscow rocketry organization GIRD (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya), or “Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion.” Like the VfR (the Society for Spaceship Travel) in Germany, and Dr. Robert H. Goddard in the United States, GIRD by the early 1930s was testing liquid-fueled and hybrid rockets of increasing size and sophistication. In 1933, Sergei Korolev directed the flight testing and assisted in the launch of Russia’s first liquid-fueled rocket, the GIRD-09. The Soviet military, seeing the potential of rockets soon drafted Korolev and much of the GIRD into the state-run RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute).
RNII developed a series of rocket-propelled missiles and gliders, including, in 1936, Korolev’s RP-318, Russia’s first rocket-propelled aircraft. Before the aircraft made a rocket-propelled flight, however, Korolev and other aerospace engineers were thrown into the Soviet prison system after he was falsely denounced to the NKVD, the USSR’s secret police, on June 22, 1938. Korolev spent months on the Trans-Siberian railway and in a prison vessel at Magadan. This was followed by a year in the Kolyma gold mines in Siberia, probably the most dreaded part of the Gulag. Soviet leader Josef Stalin recognized the importance of aeronautical engineers in preparing for a possible war with Nazi Germany and retrieved Korolev and other technical personnel that 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 and coworkers from the RNII thus continued their rocket design activities for several years.
Sergei Korolev was paroled by Stalin on July 27, 1944, primarily by the intervention of senior aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, himself a prisoner, who requested Korolev’s services in his own sharashka. Following the end of World War II, Korolev was released from prison and sent to Germany to study the Nazi’s V-2 rocket and other technology. In August 1946, he was appointed Chief Constructor for development of a long-range ballistic missile and the next year promoted to Chief Designer. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Korolev joined the Communist Party and soon won the support of communist leader and fellow Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev, who saw the propaganda and military potential of a strong rocket program. On April 1, 1953, Korolev received approval from the Council of Ministers to develop the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7. The next year his proposal to launch artificial satellites into Earth orbit was also approved.
It was Korolev’s R-7 missile that launched man’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. Sputnik galvanized American concern about the capability of the Soviet Union to attack the United States with nuclear weapons using ballistic missiles and began the “Space Race” between the USSR and the USA. In 1959, Korolev participated in the preparation and launch of the Luna probes 1, 2, and 3 to the Moon. Based on the results of those missions he began a campaign to send a Soviet cosmonaut to the Moon. Korolev established three largely independent efforts aimed at achieving a Soviet lunar landing before the Americans. The first objective was met when the Vostok spacecraft carried the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, proving human space flight was possible. The second objective was the development of lunar vehicles that could soft-land on the Moon’s surface. The third objective was to develop a huge booster to send cosmonauts to the Moon. The Soviets failed to achieve both of these goals before Apollo 11 landed the first men on the Moon.
Sergei Korolev began work on the N-1 launch vehicle, a counterpart to the American Saturn V, in 1962. This rocket was to be capable of launching a maximum of 110,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Although the project was not canceled until 1971, the N-1 never made a successful flight. Korolev did achieve other successes in the mid-1960s however, such as overseeing construction of the Zond interplanetary spacecraft, the Voskhod manned spacecraft and the Soyuz rocket, which is still used today.
On January 14, 1966, Sergei P. Korolev died during what should have been a minor operation, probably due to damage to his immune system during his years of imprisonment. He was buried with state honors in the wall of the Kremlin. In his lifetime he was given the title of “Hero of Labor” in 1956 and 1961, posthumously he was given the Lenin Award in 1971 and the Tsiolkovsky Gold Medal. To honor his memory the Soviet Union established the S. P. Korolev Medal of FAS of the USSR.
Korolev’s life and accomplishments were state secrets while he lived because of his importance in the Cold War and Space Race with the United States. Korolev himself was classified as top secret, and his name became publicly known only after his death. Though his health had been deteriorating since 1960, his death was a blow to the Soviet space program: a loss that in many ways was irreplaceable. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev’s many pioneering achievements in space exploration include:
-Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite (launched on October 4, 1957)
-The world’s first space passenger, the dog Laika, launched on Sputnik 2 a month later
-The Luna series, the first unmanned vehicles to orbit and land softly on the moon
-The Vostok series of spacecraft (launched from 1960 to 1963), which were the first manned spacecraft and featured Gagarin’s first manned mission on April 12, 1961
-And the Voskhod program (1964 to 1966) the world’s first multi-person spacecraft, which included the first spacewalk on March 18, 1965
Korolev’s legacy includes a city named after him (formerly Kalingrad, Russia), Korolev Crater on the Moon, Korolev Crater on Mars, and asteroid 1855 Korolev.