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Late great engineers: Sergei Korolev - designated designer

Known during his lifetime only as ‘Chief Designer,’ Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer Sergei Korolev was the technological genius behind putting the first man into space. Written by Nick Smith. 

Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov described Sergei Korolev, one of the most important rocket scientists of the 20th century, as “the mastermind behind the Soviet space programme.” And although Korolev’s name is now legend, “he was only ever referred to by the mysterious title of ‘Chief Designer.’ For those on the space programme there was no authority higher.” His true identity shrouded in secrecy until his death, the Soviet authorities kept the name of their ‘Glavny Konstruktor’ hidden from the world. They claimed it was to protect the man they once sent to the labour camps of Siberia from assassination by the Americans.

Sergei Korolev
Pioneering Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev (1907-1966)  Image: DETLEV VAN RAVENSWAAY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was born in early 1907 into the era of the Russian Empire under ‘the Last Emperor of All Russia’ Tsar Nicholas II, with both the First World War and the Russian Revolution looming in the decade that followed. The son of a Russian language teacher and a wealthy merchant, Korolev grew up in the city of Nizhyn (that’s now in Ukraine) periodically with his grandparents. A lonely child, his prodigious ability in mathematics exposed him to school bullies which, according to his biographer James Harford, only prompted Korolev to excel at his studies. On his mother’s remarriage to his stepfather – electrical engineer Grigory Balanin – the family relocated to Odessa where, suffering the effects of food shortages and typhus, Korolev sidestepped the lack of formal education created by the Russian Revolution of 1917, maintaining his studies at home under Balanin’s tutelage.

The first hint that Korolev was destined for a career in aeronautical engineering came in 1913 when, after attending an air show, the young carpentry student at the Odessa Building Trades School started work on a glider. Within a decade he had joined the Society of Aviation and Aerial Navigation of Ukraine and the Crimea (OAVUK), where he designed another glider called the K-5. After studying mathematics, physics and engineering at Kiev Polytechnic Institute, he transferred to the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, where for the remainder of the 1920s he benefited from the increasing Soviet emphasis on technology and was mentored by the influential aeronautical engineer Andrei Tupolev. By 1930, Korolev was at the 4th Experimental section design bureau OPO-4, working on the Tupolev TB-3 heavy bomber. This was also where he gained his pilot’s license and started to push aircraft to their operational limits, intrigued by what might be beyond their altitude ceiling. The following year, he helped to establish the state-sponsored rocket development establishment GIRD that, after several incarnations, became the Jet Propulsion Research Institute. Korolev eventually rose to become Deputy Chief, working on guided missiles and gyroscope stabilisation systems to maintain stability along programmed trajectories.

Immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1938 Korolev was arrested after having been denounced by the head of the institute Andrei Kostikov. Korolev was accused of deliberately slowing the organisation’s research efforts to allow its rocket programme to be overtaken by technological developments in Nazi Germany. Korolev was sent to a forced labour camp in Siberia where, in atrocious conditions he was treated brutally and lost his teeth to scurvy. While incarcerated, Korolev appealed to the General Secretary of the Communist Party Joseph Stalin, and eventually the head of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) Laventri Beria ordered Korolev’s retrial based on reduced charges. The engineer was handed down a sentence of eight years in a sharashka – an R&D laboratory operating within the Soviet Gulag labour-camp system – where, reunited with Tupolev and under constant threat of execution, he designed rocket-assisted take off boosters. As Stalin made post-war missile development a national priority, Korolev travelled to Germany where, now a colonel in the Red Army, he was charged with recovering the technology of the Nazi V-2 rocket. In the newly-established NII-88 institute, Korolev managed a team of nearly 200 German technologists in order to produce a replica of the V-2. The R-1 was the first of several generations of technology that would lead to the first ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), the R-7 Semyorka.

With the successful 1957 launch of the R-7 – ahead of competing American technology – Korolev was ‘rehabilitated,’ effectively pardoned by the state, although his identity was kept secret. Although a significant turning point in the Cold War, inspired by the orbiting possibilities of ICBMs, Korolev had raised the issue of launching a satellite into space with the Central Committee of the Communist Party three years earlier. While his first appeal fell on stony ground, his persistence in alerting the party to developments in America’s own space programme paid off. On 4th October 1957, the world’s first artificial Earth satellite – Sputnik 1 – was launched. It was a project thrown together in a month, overseen by Korolev, and put into space by a rocket that had only been used once before. While rudimentary – it was essentially little more than a battery-powered transmitter with four antennae attached – Sputnik triggered the ‘Space Race’, in which the USA and the USSR competed over a series of ‘firsts’ in spaceflight capability. Until 20th July 1969, when the US Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon, largely thanks to Korolev’s unstinting efforts the Soviet Union was the undisputed race victor.

Sergei Korolev
The launch of the Vostok 1 spacecraft carrying Yuri Gagarin on the first manned flight in space. Launched on April 12, 1961, from Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Vostok 1 made one full orbit before returning to Earth 108 minutes later. Image: SPUTNIK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The unqualified success of Sputnik 1 caused such a sensation that the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev ordered Korolev to develop its successor – the more ambitious Sputnik 2 – to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution. While this would be the second spacecraft to go into Earth orbit, it would be the first to carry a living being, a stray mongrel dog from the streets of Moscow named Laika (literally ‘barker’). While inevitably perhaps American journalists gave the canine the tag ‘Muttnik,’ the fact remains that she met with a miserable death, not euthanised before she died of oxygen depletion as the Soviet authorities claimed, but from overheating when the R-7 developed a fault. Laika is immortalised in the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow. While the instrument-laden Sputnik 3 was a relative failure, it served as a catalyst for US space exploration.

Despite the success of Sputnik, it would be the crewed Vostok series of missions that permanently inscribed Korolev’s name in the history books. This was the programme that would put the first human into orbit and send the first woman cosmonaut into space. To achieve these ambitions Korolev recruited space engineer Konstantin Feoktistov as his principal designer. As with Sputnik, Korolev worked on Vostok at a furious pace. In May 1960 an unmanned prototype was sent into orbit, but its re-entry manoeuvre failed. Two months later, the space dogs Chaika and Lishichka were launched into orbit but were killed in an explosion. Less than a month later Belka and Strelka became the first living creatures to return from space, having successfully completed 18 Earth orbits in a Vostok spacecraft. On 12th April 1961, Soviet Air Forces pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space – propelled by an R-7 – with Korolev in the role as capsule co-ordinator speaking to Gagarin in the spacecraft. On 16th June 1963, the final Vostok flight launched with cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space – on board, orbiting Earth 48 times over the course of almost three days.

There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem

Spurred on by success on the international political stage, Khrushchev ordered more propaganda milestones from Korolev in short order, including multi-crewed missions. This created tensions between the engineers and politicians, as Korolev believed that the three-person Soyuz project was several years down the track. However, Korolev’s Voskhod program, that led to another ‘first’ in the form of a space walk by Alexei Leonov on 18th March 1965, restored his favourable status with the new leader of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev, who charged Korolev with beating the United States to the Moon.

Korolev would not live to see America win the race, as outlined in US President John F Kennedy’s words of, “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” From the beginning of the 1960s, he had suffered from heart and kidney problems, exacerbated by overwork and the hardships he’d endured in the Gulags and died in January 1966 following surgery to remove a tumour from his abdomen. At the time, he was unknown to the people of Russia, who only became aware of their Chief Designer’s role in the nation’s supremacy in the space race after his obituary appeared in the newspaper Prada alongside a photograph of Korolev resplendently sporting countless medals.