Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov—Russian Rocket Scientist

Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, featured in D. Cadbury’s new book, SpaceRace, was the man unknown to the west who built the rockets that put the first satellite into orbit, the first man in orbit about the earth, as well as several rockets to the moon. Who was Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov? Why was he unknown to the West (and to all of the people in the Soviet Union)? What drove this brilliant Soviet engineer and scientist?

Korolyov (1907 – 1966) dreamed of building rockets that would carry humans into outer space, to the moon, Mars, Venus and beyond. This nagging ambition consumed him, and when given the chance put all of his energy into the design and construction of Soviet rockets.

The race to use a rocket to first put a satellite into space, and then dogs, monkeys, and finally humans had its roots in the Nazi rocketry headed by Wernher von Braun, himself a Nazi and SS Officer. It was von Braun’s work in developing the V-2 rocket that was used to bomb London in 1944 where the race began. American and Soviet intelligence officers and troops were searching not only for von Braun, but the underground installation in Germany where the rockets were built. This sad story of the use of concentration camp prisoners to build von Braun’s rockets is well documented in Cadbury’s book, and was to a great respect overlooked by the U.S. government. It wasn’t until von Braun died that American officials acknowledged von Braun’s involvement in crimes against humanity. His records were kept secret through a progam called “Operation Paper Clip.”

The Americans were the first to get to the site where the rockets were built, and they managed to remove nearly all of them, and then they also found all of the documents—blueprints and other reports on Nazi rocket work—before the Soviets could get to them. Oddly, the location of the site where the rockets were build—Mittlewerk—was in the Soviet occupied zone, but the Soviets did not get there in time to find the rockets. Instead they found parts, and few documents, and also most of von Braun’s scientists and engineers were in American hands now.

After being sent to the Soviet gulag for a ten year sentence for crimes against the Soviet State (which he was innocent of), Korolyov was orded to Berlin to find remnants of, and build the Nazi V-2 rocket. He arrived in Berlin the day after von Braun left Germany for Boston!

Korolyov and his engineers and scientists were able to use what they found to replicate and successfully launch V-2’s in Russia. But Korolyov, while doing this work, was thinking about an improved rocket, one that was more sophisticated, and could launch a satellite. His revolutionary rocket was known as the R-7, and it was used to launch Sputnik in 1957, and Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Korolyov also launched moon probes known as luna vehicles. The first attempt, luna 1 was launched January 2, 1959, escaped the Earth’s gravitational field, but missed the moon. Luna 2, launched September 12, 1959, was the first vehicle to reach the moon, even though it crashed. Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the moon, on January 31, 1966. All of these were managed by Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov.

I recommned that you read Cadbury’s book to experience Korolyov, not only as the Chief Soviet Rocket designer, but as a Russian man that had to deal with immense pressures from the Soviet government, and even jealous colleagues. Korolyov died very young (age 59) of surgical complications. At the time, he was working on a new gigantic rocket (as big as the Saturn V). He died , and never was able to complete his work or his dream to explore the moon, Mars, Venus and beyond. When he died, he was honored by the Russian people, and was buried in Red Square at the Kremlin. The man was not known to the Russian people because Soviet officials felt that harm would come to him from the West, and it would be better to keep his identity secret. Imagine what might have happened if Korolyov had not died, but continued to direct the Soviet space program into the 1970’s.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.