Sergei Pavlovich Korolev: The Soviet Space Program’s Secret Mastermind
by Gareth Branwyn
On a cold, gray morning in October 1947, outside the Soviet city of Volgograd, a group of men watch in wonder as a huge rocket rumbles skyward from a hastily erected launch pad. Two years of intense effort to piece together a German V-2 rocket have finally paid off: The first Soviet ballistic missile has taken flight.
A stocky man in a dark leather coat is particularly enthusiastic. From this moment until his death, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev will be the moving force behind the Soviet space program. In only 10 years he and his team will stun the world with the launch of Sputnik, followed by a string of other historic firsts.
Yet Sergei Korolev will be forced to live a life in secret: Others will be given credit for some of his immense accomplishments. Even after his death in 1966, accounts of Korolev’s life will be clouded by hearsay, and official histories will obscure the true story of this remarkable man.
Born in Ukraine in 1907, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev became fascinated with aircraft at a very early age, watching planes at a naval airstrip near his home. In 1928 a 21-year-old Korolev entered Bauman Technical University to study aeronautical engineering; in 1931 he co-founded GIRD (Jet Propulsion Study Group), an unofficial organization experimenting with liquid fuel rockets.
Korolev was arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1938 during Stalin’s purges and was accused of “subversion in a new field of technology.” He was initially sent to the dreaded Kolyma gold mines in Siberia. But Stalin couldn’t afford to let his rampant paranoia slow down his engines of progress, so Korolev was transferred to a special prison for scientists and engineers where he was allowed to resume his rocket research.
After World War II, the engineer was sent to Germany to study captured V-2 technology, and was put in charge of a design bureau responsible for ballistic missiles. But inspired by the writings of Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Sergei set his sights higher than the battlefield. When a colleague questioned the military readiness of his rocket design, Korolev angrily replied: “The purpose of this rocket is to get there [pointing spaceward]. This is not some military toy!”
Korolev was the inexhaustible force behind a staggering number of space projects: the first intercontinental ballistic missile, first satellite, first man in space, first spacewalk, first spacecraft to impact the Moon, first craft to Venus, first Mars flyby, first spy satellite. James Harford, executive director-emeritus of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, sums up this great engineer’s place in history: “Korolev dominated virtually the entire Soviet space program. His feats, and those of his design bureau, would have to be equated to those of dozens of U.S. space leaders, companies and NASA centers.”
Nov. 16, 1965, was to be the last launch date that Korolev would ever see. The Venera-3 probe was set on a course to Venus, to become the first craft to impact another planet. In January of 1966 Korolev checked himself into a hospital for a colon operation. Years of poor health brought on by harsh prison conditions and workaholism had taken their toll; Korolev died on the operating table. His Pravda obituary the next day was the first time Korolev was ever identified as the chief designer of Soviet space rocket systems.
Anatoly Abramov, who worked in Korolev’s design bureau, said of his former boss: “He was … an intellectual and a skilled craftsman. … While observing Korolev during our time together, I caught myself thinking he was from another planet … a character in a dream.”
The following originally appeared in Discovery Online’s “Dead Inventors” column, March 1997]