Sergei Korolev was unknown in his lifetime, and under-reported until glasnost. This monument to him is in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Public domain image.
For many years, Wernher von Braun was lauded as the father of manned space travel, but to a large extent this was an artifact of Soviet secrecy. The USSR was the first to most early spaceflight goals, but the the man in charge was unknown in the West and even to a very large extent within the Soviet Union too. Only after his death did his name become known. Until then he was referred to only as “Chief Designer”, a term the author has expanded to include the other giants being profiled. But Sergei Korolev was the most important and influential of them.
Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was born in Zhitomir in what is now Ukraine on January 12, 1907. His parents separated while he was very young, and he was raised by his grandparents in his mother’s home town of Nizhyn. He became interested in aeronautical engineering as he grew older, and joined an aviation society in Odessa after his mother and her new husband moved there. He began concentrating on the study of engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute followed by the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, from which he graduated in 1929.
He began working at the 4th Experimental Section design bureau and soon became interested in rockets as a way to accelerate planes. He then helped to found the first professional rocket-design organization in the world, GIRD, in 1931, and soon became the director of the group. A few years later GIRD was amalgamated with a second group based in Leningrad to form RNII; the second group had as a member the man with whom Korolev would do most of his important work in the 1950s, Valentin Glushko.
Sergei Korolev, age 31, just prior to his arrest in the Great Purge. Public domain image.
Korolev became chief engineer of RNII, but in 1938, during the Great Purge, he was arrested on the testimony of three fellow engineers. Two of them were executed during the purge, but the other was Glushko. Despite Korolev’s later protestations to the contrary and their periods of cooperation, there is reason to believe that he never forgave him for this.
He certainly had a lot to forgive. Korolev was tortured in Lubyanka Prison, found guilty in a show trial, and sent to work in a gold mine in the notorious Kolyma region of far north-eastern Russia. Conditions were brutal and the period of over a year that he spent there had effects on his health for the rest of his life.
Thankfully for the eventual Soviet space program he was sent back west to Moscow at the end of 1939 and put to work in a sharaska, one of the organized prison camps in the gulag system aimed at research and engineering for the Soviet Union. While still a prison camp, conditions there were considerably better than in Kolyma.
He was first assigned to work with famous Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, but in 1942 was moved to a project under Glushko that worked on rocket-assisted takeoff units for aircraft. Its success was enough that he was released from prison on June 27, 1944 as part of a larger amnesty for engineers in the sharashka system.
His decisive turn towards ballistic missiles may have taken place in 1945-6, when he was one of the team sent from the USSR to the newly conquered Germany to examine that country’s rocketry program. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, he became the chief designer of long-range ballistic missiles for the newly formed OKB-1 design bureau. It was there that he started to show his organizational and leadership abilities, and OKB-1 quickly developed the R-1, R-2, and R-5 missiles.
The culmination of this work was the R-7 Semyorka, the first intercontinental ballistic missile. More interesting from the standpoint of space history, though, was the fact that an ICBM can very easily serve as an orbital launch vehicle. Capitalizing on the favour that his missile work had brought him in the eyes of Nikita Khrushchev—Stalin and his purges having thankfully died in 1953, Korolev had had his previous sentence expunged in April 1957—he adapted the R-7 to lift a satellite into orbit. The intended payload was heavy and late in coming, so Korolev arranged for a small improvisation dubbed Sputnik 1. With it he inaugurated the Space Age on October 4, 1957.
For the next few years the successes came fast and thick, culminating in Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 1961. By 1964, however, an alliance between one of his allies and one of his rivals had attacked Korolev’s program. The rival was Vladimir Chelomei, who worked his way into Khrushchev’s favour by developing the UR-100 ICBM—a considerably better missile than the R-9 with which Korolev tried to counter. The ally was the aforementioned Valentin Glushko, who had designed the rocket engines used by the R-7 and its manned launching derivatives. His working relationship with Korolev came apart over a disagreement about which propellants were best for rocketry: cryogenic LOX and LH2, or storable-but-toxic N2O4 and UDMH. History has judged Korolev right, as even Glushko came around to cryogenics when it was his turn to develop a large launcher in the 1980s. Only China launches people with N2O4 and UDMH. Even so, at the time Glushko defected to Chelomei’s camp and took all his skill at developing rocket engines with him.
From 1964 to early 1966 Korolev’s political skills came to the fore as he worked to wrest back complete control of the Soviet space program from Chelomei, a task in which he was largely successful. But in that time the Russians’ manned space program foundered, partly from this internal confusion and partly because of the fall of Nikita Khrushchev and his replacement with the much-less interested Leonid Brezhnev.
Whether or not Korolev would have been able to put the program back on track is an open question. He entered hospital on January 5, 1966 for surgery on a bleeding intestinal polyp and never came back out. While under the knife, his surgeon—the Russian Minister of Health, Boris Petrovski, which shows how important Korolev had become—apparently discovered a large, malignant tumour in Korolev’s abdomen (there are contradictory reports from various sources, but this is likeliest). The surgery dragged on far longer than it should have as the surgeon attempted to deal with the unexpected development and Korolev’s poor health post-Kolyma either caused him to have a fatal heart attack or bleed out due to a sudden hemorrhage. He died on the operating table on January 14, 1966 at the age of 59.
The USSR’s manned space program came apart at the seams for a while after this, either because Korolev’s successor Vasily Mishin was incompetent or the USSR was not yet able to deal with the additional complexity of a Moon mission—opinions vary. The years from 1966 to 1974 were fraught with exploding N1s and deaths during the first Soyuz and Salyut missions. A resurgence would have to wait until the mid-1970s. Korolev was at least known by name during this time period, but observers in the West still underestimated his importance. Only the onset of glasnost in the USSR let him step out of the shadow and assume his central position in Soviet space history.