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.
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-fuelled rockets of increasing
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.
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.
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.
One of the R-2A missiles, built by
Korolevďs engineers. Thirteen of them were launched between 1957 and
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
January 14, 1966, Sergei P. Korolev died from an improperly performed
haemorrhoid 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 tumours 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.