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Sergey Korolyov at Kapustin Yar in 1953. (credit: US Centennial of Flight Commission)

Celebrating Korolyov

Last Friday, January 12th, 2007, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man who would help energize the cold war, and later give the West fits during the 1960’s race to the Moon. Since he personally played a large role in 20th century technological history, but even his existence was a Soviet state secret during most of his life, it seems only fitting to give the man his due on this anniversary.

Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov was born on January 12th, 1907 in Zhytomyr, a small provincial center in what is now the Ukraine. (In some venues, December 30, 1906 is quoted as his birthday, but this is in the old style Russian calendar, and so the 1907 date is more accurate, and generally preferred.) To further confuse things, his name is often also transliterated as Korolev, although this is not as phonetically accurate. Korolyov had a turbulent family situation in his youth, and so spent much of his childhood in the care of his grandparents. While he was a lonely child as a result, he proved to be a good student. Korolyov developed an interest in aviation at an early age, and worked his way through college to gain a degree in aeronautical engineering, studying first in Kiev, and later in Moscow. While in Moscow, he studied under Andrey Tupolev, who would go on to design an array of high-performance aircraft for the Soviet Union.

In the 1930s, rockets drew a wave of interest around the world, and the Soviet Union was no exception. In 1931, along with Friedrich Zander, Korolyov helped form the Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion (GIRD), one of the earliest state-sponsored centers for rocket development in the USSR. In 1933, the group had their first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, seven years after Robert Goddard’s little-publicized first launch. That same year in Germany, the Society for Spaceship Travel (VfR) collapsed as its members were essentially forced to either leave the country or begin work for the Nazi government. Also in 1933, the Soviet government decided to merge GIRD with the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL) in Leningrad, in the process creating the Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute (RNII). While officially being a military group, the merged organization included a number of people who were space travel enthusiasts, including Korolyov and Valentin Glushko. Within RNII, Glushko headed rocket engine design, while Korolyov was in charge of airframes. However, this state of affairs was to last just a few years.

In 1938, Stalin’s Great Purge swept through the ranks of industry. Glushko was arrested in March, then Korolyov in September. Korolyov was accused of subversion, apparently because he wished to work on liquid-fueled rockets rather than solid-fueled rockets. Korolyov was beaten to extract a confession, then sentenced to ten years of hard labor. He later learned that he had been denounced by Glushko, creating an enduring animosity between the two men. After five months of hard labor in a gold mine, leading to lifelong health problems, Korolyov was sent back to Moscow so that his case could be re-investigated. Meanwhile, his old mentor Tupolev interceded on his behalf. Rather than being returned to certain death in the gulag, Korolyov was sent to a series of “sharashkas”—essentially slave labor camps for engineers and scientists.

After the end of World War Two, the Cold War got off to a fast start, and Stalin decided to make missile development a national priority. A new research institute, Scientific-Research Institute Number 88 (NII-88) was formed for the purpose, and Korolyov made chief designer of long-range missiles. Based in part on previous work, but more on technology from captured V-2 missiles and their engineers, Korolyov and his staff developed a series of missiles over the coming years with longer and longer ranges. This culminated with the development of the first true ICBM, the R-7 (given the codename of SS-6 Sapwood by NATO), which had a number of failures before successfully launching a dummy warhead across the USSR in 1957.

Much like von Braun in the US, Korolyov was essentially apolitical, and so tried not to let his paying customer (i.e., the military) get in the way of his dreams of space exploration. Throughout the development of the R-7, Korolyov pushed for the use of the missile to launch a satellite into Earth orbit. When the concept of launching a satellite appeared in US papers leading up to the 1957 International Geophysical Year, Korolyov was able to use competition with the West for leverage to gain political approval for the effort. Still, the Politburo was strongly influenced by the military, so Korolyov got approval for the attempt only by presenting it as part of the test program for the R-7 ICBM.

Much like von Braun in the US, Korolyov was essentially apolitical, and so tried not to let his paying customer (i.e., the military) get in the way of his dreams of space exploration.

To speed development, plans for a heavy and complex science satellite were shelved, and a very simple design selected—what Korolyov’s team called Prostreishy Sputnik (simple satellite). Consisting of little more than batteries, a temperature sensor, and radio transmitter, its development took less than a month from start to finish. On October 4, 1957, only six weeks after the first successful flight of an R-7, Sputnik 1 was launched, resulting in accolades from Khrushchev and others high in the Soviet political hierarchy, and considerable political discomfort in the West. The US quickly moved to create NASA, and to develop alternate approaches to building and launching its own satellites. Korolyov had started the space race with perseverance, political savvy, and a launch vehicle with just a single successful flight to its credit.

Korolyov’s team followed up on the first Sputnik with a series of satellites to Earth orbit, and later the Moon, Mars, and Venus. As was so often the case in those times, some of these spacecraft were successful, but a significant number failed. Still, after posting a number of space firsts, Korolyov’s team began work on human space flight. Again, friction with the military became an issue.

Korolyov’s R-7 was an impractical weapon: it could barely reach the northern states in the US, and took 20 hours to get ready for launch. Meanwhile, Korolyov’s insistence on launching a man into orbit absorbed resources that could have been used by the Soviet military. A compromise was reached, and Korolyov was told to proceed with the development of a manned spacecraft as quickly as was possible. This led to the launch of Yuri Gagarin into orbit on the 12th of April, 1961. But Korolyov’s Vostok (“East”) capsule design was required to also support unmanned reconnaissance missions. A greater, and more insidious, cost was that the Soviet military increasingly nurtured relationships with other designers to support future missile design work. The true impact of this would only make itself seen some years later.

Since 1955, Vladimir Chelomei had headed an institute called OKB-52, which focused on designing and building cruise missiles. But by the late 1950’s, it was obvious that ballistic missiles were not only more reliable than cruise missiles, but harder to defend against as well. The excitement and glamor of space exploration also provided impetus for a change in focus to rocketry, and Chelomei was able to exploit both the military’s impatience with Korolyov, as well as political connections by hiring some relatives of Khrushchev.

As a result, once the Soviet leadership had signed on to the concept of sending humans to the Moon, it found itself with two programs to accomplish this: one headed by Korolyov, and the other by Chelomei. Each program had its own patrons within the Kremlin hierarchy, and each absorbed funds at an impressive rate. Meanwhile, a technical dispute over the optimum propellant technology to be used in missiles resulted in Glushko leaving Korolyov’s team, and joining Chelomei. Since Glushko was the USSR’s premier propulsion designer, this left Korolyov without engines for his moon rocket. He had to procure rocket engines from a design bureau whose previous experience had been in turboprop aircraft engines. Due to their poor performance, Korolyov’s N-1 launch vehicle required 30 engines in the first stage, and controlling so many engines running at once was no simple task with the electronics at the time. Meanwhile, since the N-1 would never have any value as a weapon, the Soviet military refused to support (either politically or financially) testing of Korolyov’s engines.

Throughout all of this, Korolyov’s manic work schedule, and the damage done to his body during his time in the gulag, increasingly took its toll on his health. By 1964 he had already suffered one heart attack, bouts of intestinal bleeding, chronic inflammation of the gallbladder, and been diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia and hearing problems. In December of 1965, he was diagnosed with a bleeding polyp in his large intestine. He entered the hospital the following January for what was anticipated to be routine surgery, but in the process it was discovered that he had a large abdominal tumor. The surgery was at first felt to be a success, but Korolyov never recovered. The loss of blood during the operation had proved too much for his weakened heart, and he died on the 14th of January, just two days after his 59th birthday.

In the wake of Korolyov’s death, his longtime deputy Vassily Mishin was given the task of completing the Soviet drive to the moon. Yet ultimately, the program had too many inherent problems to survive. Mishin was a competent engineer, but didn’t have the charisma or political connections that Korolyov had. Chelomei’s parallel effort helped drain what funding was available, and ultimately the poorly tested engines would result in the end of the N-1 development program (and with it, Soviet dreams for a lunar landing) in a series of spectacular in-flight explosions.

Essentially, Korolyov is in some way responsible for every craft that has ever taken a cosmonaut into space.

At least in death, Korolyov finally received some overdue recognition for his accomplishments. During his life, he was only known as the “Chief Designer”, his true identity being a state secret. After Korolyov’s death, the Soviet Union gave him a hero’s funeral, and a burial in the Kremlin Wall. Since his coworkers and competitors were still alive and working, though, the traditional Soviet veil of secrecy still covered them. As a result, Korolyov’s legacy for a time was somewhat inflated. It’s only been since the collapse of the Soviet Union that all the surviving parties in the Soviet space program have been accessible, so that a well-rounded history of Korolyov, his legacy, and his times can be compiled.

Korolyov is often compared to Werner von Braun—and granted, there’s a lot of truth to this, but it misses some important points. Both men were trained as engineers, but really made their marks as managers. Both were the driving forces behind their respective lunar programs. However, in the US von Braun had plenty of company in terms of talented and influential scientists, engineers, and managers. In the USSR, on the other hand, Korolyov was by far the single dominant figure.

Realistically, the US required four major contractors to build the Saturn 5 booster and Apollo spacecraft used to reach the moon. Korolyov was essentially trying to do the same thing all within a single design bureau, and with a vastly smaller budget. As a result, Korolyov’s death wasn’t the single thing that killed the Soviet lunar program: the N-1 almost certainly wouldn’t have been ready in time anyway. But the loss of Korolyov’s energy, judgment, and connections assured that the program would not long outlive him. Ultimately, the Soviet lunar program was hamstrung by the manner in which work was allocated to the design centers. The Chief Designer of each center had essentially no constraints imposed on him. This scheme gave Korolyov wide latitude in performing his work, but also resulted in the fight for funding that kept complete success out of his grasp.

The Soviet system was brutal on an industrial scale, resulting in uncountable human casualties of the decades that Leninism ruled the country. Even a great engineer and manager like Korolyov couldn’t make it through life without being abused by the system. Still, the things that he and his coworkers were able to achieve in spite of the system and with limited funding are truly impressive. Korolyov’s R-7 booster launched Sputnik, a modified version of it launched Gagarin into orbit in Korolyov’s Vostok capsule, and a further derived version of the R-7 still flies today in order to get cosmonauts to the International Space Station in an updated version of Korolyov’s Soyuz capsule.

Essentially, Korolyov is in some way responsible for every craft that has ever taken a cosmonaut into space. This alone is a great legacy. When you consider that many of Korolyov’s achievements spurred the US space program on to greater accomplishments, one has to wonder how much exploration of space any nation would have accomplished in his absence.