National Security & Defense

The Mystery Rocket Man

Sergey Korolyov (right) with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961 (Heritage Images/Getty)
Fifty years after the death of the mysterious ‘Chief Designer.’

In the early days of the space race, NASA was loomed over by an enigmatic Soviet scientist: “The Soviet program,” wrote Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, “gave off an aura of sorcery. The Soviets released practically no figures, pictures, or diagrams. And no names; it was revealed only that the Soviet program was guided by a mysterious individual known as ‘the Chief Designer.’

“But his powers were indisputable! Every time the United States announced a great space experiment, the Chief Designer accomplished it first, in the most startling fashion. In 1955 the United States announced plans to launch an artificial earth satellite by early 1958. The Chief Designer startles the world by doing it in October 1957. The United States announced plans to send a satellite into orbit around the sun in March of 1959. The Chief Designer does it in January 1959. ” For the first decade of the space race, the United States was in second place, trying desperately to catch up to the Soviets; 1966 was the year the U.S. took the lead. It was also the year the Chief Designer suddenly died. The Soviet space program never recovered. He died 50 years ago this week: January 14, 1966. He was one of the indisputable geniuses of the 20th century, but he’s almost as unknown today as when he died. His name was Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

Korolev was born in 1907; he studied to be an aeronautical engineer, and became interested in rockets as a means of propelling airplanes. In 1934 he published a treatise on the prospects of rocket-powered flight; his enormous talent for the subject was quickly recognized, and by 1936, he was head of the Soviet Jet Propulsion Research Institute.

In 1938, he was denounced to the secret police by one of his competitors, Valentin Glushko. He was tortured (as Glushko had been) in the Lubyanka prison until he confessed to obstructing jet research, and was sent to a Gulag in eastern Siberia.

But then Germany invaded Russia, and Korolev was moved to a special slave-labor camp for scientists and engineers to work on military technology. His work was outstanding — the slave group he worked in developed two of the Soviet Union’s most effective bombers — and after the war, his sentence was suspended so that he could be drafted into the Red Army’s new rocket program. Korolev was set to work duplicating the Nazi V-2 rocket.

In fact, his V-2 knockoff — the R-2 — was a substantial improvement over the original. His success bought him some leeway with his superiors, who permitted him to work full-time developing new principles of rocketry.

In 1957, he launched the R-7 Semyorka, the first-ever ICBM.

But his heart wasn’t in weaponry; it was in space. Just as the American space program was spurred on by competition with the Soviets, so Korolev persuaded the Communist party that if he wasn’t allowed to use the R-7 to launch his little Sputnik satellite, the U.S. would be first into space.

Sputnik, of course, was a big hit — with Khrushchev in particular, who permitted Korolev and his protégé Sholom Kosberg to turn their attentions to the moon. Using an improved R-7 topped by a new third-stage rocket designed by Kosberg, Korolev’s Luna 1 became the first man-made object to escape earth-orbit, and Luna 2 the first to reach the moon.

Then they launched Yuri Gagarin and the Vostok and Voskhod manned missions. Aleksei Leonov — who, under Korolev’s aegis, made the first-ever space walk, during the Voskhod 2 mission — described “the mastermind behind the Soviet space program”: “He was only ever referred to by [his] initials . . . or by the mysterious title of ‘Chief Designer.’ . . . Korolev had the reputation of being a man of the highest integrity, but also of being extremely demanding. . . . He was treated like a god.”

And then, less than a year later, Korolev was dead. His health had been bad since his time in the Gulag, which had induced heart, kidney, and gallbladder problems. But the details of his death are unclear. He went in for what was supposed to be routine polyp surgery, suffered complications, and died — possibly because of the mangling of his jaw in prison, which prevented him from being intubated.

Perhaps the only man who could have carried on Korolev’s work was Kosberg. But Kosberg had also died, also after surgical complications, almost exactly one year earlier. So instead, Korolev was succeeded by Vassily Mishin and Valentin Glushko (Glushko: the man who had denounced Korolev 30 years earlier). Korolev’s plans for a manned moon landing were pursued, but sloppily: The giant Soviet N-1 moon rocket exploded each of the four times it was launched (producing, notably, the largest non-nuclear explosion in history). Meanwhile, Apollo had landed — so, hoping to avoid international humiliation, Brezhnev ordered the Soviet lunar project canceled and its existence erased from the record. (It wasn’t rediscovered until glasnost.)

The Soviet space program never had the elegance or brilliance of its American counterpart: It was funded mainly for propaganda’s sake, carried out mostly in secret, and approached with the slipshod attitude despotism induces. Still, it’s impossible to overlook Korolev’s brilliance — nor should it be possible to ignore his contribution to our space program: Without the Chief Designer, there would have been no space race. We would have had no one to race against.

Most of all, Korolev is a reminder of the consequences of Communism. If, like NASA’s rocket geniuses Abe Silverstein and Milt Rosen, Korolev had been born in a democracy, he would never have been tortured, his health wouldn’t have been ruined, and he wouldn’t have died before his time. And space science would be ten, twenty years ahead of where it is now.

How many Korolevs are there in China’s Gulags?

— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard. He is a founder of the tech startup Dittach.


Josh GelernterJosh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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