This Man Put the Entire Soviet Space Program on His Back, He Deserves Our Respect

Sergei Korolev 25 photos
Photo: Russian Federation Archives (both images)
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You may have the impression that the Soviet Union's space program was something of a joke. You know, because they failed spectacularly and at great personal expense to put a human being on the Moon before the United States. But make no mistake. This was only the case after the tragic, untimely, and super-suspect death of the Soviet's brightest rocket engineer.
The story of the life of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev is one that leaves a bitter aftertaste. A life defined by a brilliant mind for engineering that was consistently the victim of a Soviet political machine that few modern westerners truly understand. As such, and very close to his 116th birthday, let's take a deep dive into the life of the Soviet's very own Wernher Von Braun.

Sergei Korolev was born to a Belorusian mother and a Russian father in a part of the Russian Empire that is today part of modern-day Ukraine on January 12th, 1907. As a man born in the turbulent dying days of the old Russian Tsar, turbulence would be a theme in Korelev's life from that point forward. Both in the literal and the metaphorical sense.

With formal vocational studies taken in carpentry in the City of Odessa, Korolev might have been little more than a noble, working-class tradesman that formed the backbone of Eastern Europe for centuries in any prior era. But because the Wright Brothers took off from Kitty Hawk just three calendar years before his birth, Sergei Korolev found a natural affiliation for flying.

A 1913 air show by Russian Empire airmen just before the start of the First World War affirmed in no uncertain terms that the young Korolev would dedicate his life, body, and mortal soul to studying aviation. Sadly, tight restrictions on private enterprise in the newly founded Soviet Union prevented Korolev from becoming the Soviet Howard Hughes or Elon Musk.

Sergei Korolev
Photo: Russian Federal Archives
Even so, this didn't mean there weren't people who could make use of Korelev's natural affinity for building wooden model gliders in the earliest days of the Soviet state. A local seaplane base near Odessa gave Korelev unparalleled insight into how powered aircraft operated. In such a primitive form, it was easy for the young engineer to wrap his head around. To the point where he knew he could make things better.

In the meantime, Korolev first learned to fly at the very same seaplane port he'd spent his free time picking apart every aspect of an airplane's construction. By the summer of 1926, Korolev was accepted to the Bauman Moscow State Technical University in Moscow.

It was while at school that Korelev met the one who'd become his mentor, a man by the name of Andrei Tupolev. If the name sounds familiar, it's because he founded the company that gave us the Tu-95 Bear. That's on top of their credit for nearly every great Soviet/Russian strategic bomber of the last 100 years.

After graduating, Korolev found employment with the Soviet 4th Experimental Section design bureau or OPO. While not serving in any administrative role, Korolev nonetheless picked up all he could from this special and talented group of aviators from across the future Eastern Bloc.

Sergei Korolev
Photo: Russian Federal Archives
Korolev's first lead design role came from developing the TB-3 heavy bomber as part of the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) for his former professor and mentor, Mr. Tupolev. Around this time, Sergei Korolev devised his first sketches for a liquid-fueled rocket. He had little more time to develop the idea after the fact.

No sooner did the first whisps of Sergei Korolev's true calling come to form than the wrath of his first lifelong nemesis struck for the first time. That being old-fashioned Stalinist authoritarianism. By 1938, Korolev had found himself caught up in the infamous Stalinist purges. A series of senseless imprisonments and abuses, which snuffed out nearly all the Soviet state's domestic political enemies on top of a slew of collateral damage.

Korolev seldom talked about his time in Soviet Gulags, one of which was in the middle of a Siberian gold mine that doubled as a forced labor camp. One can only imagine how many years such a place can take off human life. It's been speculated he had his first in a series of heart attacks at this time.

Ultimately, Korolev was granted a transfer to a Soviet prison for scientists by the head of the Soviet NKVD. A comedically evil man by the name of Lavrentiy Beria. A man who, despite his many unspeakably heinous acts, did at least manage to secure lighter sentences for Korolev. It was at this point that, mercifully, the future most brilliant rocket engineer in the Eastern Hemisphere was given the tools to shine.

Sergei Korolev
Photo: Russian Federal Archives
As a member of the victorious Red Army as a Polkovnik (colonel), Korolev was in a prime position to assist in the re-engineering of recovered German rocket technology developed in large part by Korolev's second lifelong rival. That being, of course, the father of NASA's Saturn V rocket, Wernher Von Braun.

Korolev marveled at Von Braun's pre-eminent design with the German Military, the V2 ballistic missile. One of his first major assignments as a member of the Soviet missile program was re-engineering the V2 into a weapon the Soviets themselves could utilize in battle. This rocket was flying out of the Kapustin Yar launch complex by October 1947.

This missile, built with Korolev as the design lead, was dubbed the R1. Korolev's follow-up design, the R2, doubled that of the German V2's original design. While Wernher Von Braun toured America, retching at their cheeseburger-oriented diets and begging Walt Disney to show his rocket models on TV, Sergei Korolev was entering the engineering equivalent of beast mode, widening the gap in aerospace development in favor of the Soviets.

The fruit of Korolev's labor designing missiles resulted in his first true space-fairing booster rocket, birthed from the remarkable R-7 Semyorka line of ICBMs. Through this cornerstone, the Semyorka spawned a lineage of Russo-Soviet rockets still in service in the 2020s through the Soyuz 2 variant. But this also includes Sputnik, Luna, and Vostok-K. The first rockets to launch an artificial satellite, the first living being Laika the Dog, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, respectively.

Venera Probes
Photo: Russian Federal Archives
All these landmark achievements in spaceflight were accomplished in a four-year period between 1957 and 1961. Meanwhile, the newly formed NASA found itself perpetually behind the Soviets by all ostensible measures throughout the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Through the Luna series, the R-7 platform was the first to put Soviet hardware on the surface and in orbit around the Moon and also Mars, through the Mars 2MV-4 mission.

Even so, Korolev's exploits in sending Soviet probes to Venus were even more impressive, as the Americans have yet to match the feats of the Venera program to this day. It was all in support of a Soviet Moon program initiative that was hoped would beat the Americans, winning the space race in the process. Korolev planned to achieve this with the Soviet answer to Wernher Von Braun's Saturn V, the N1.

With a scarcely believable 30 Kuznetsov NK-15 engine in the first stage, the N1 was purported to generate an eye-watering 45,400 kN (10,200,000 lbf) of thrust at launch. Had the rocket not exploded, it would have just narrowly beaten the Saturn V for the title of the most powerful successful super-heavy booster rocket. But, of course, the timetables the Kremlin instilled on the OKB-1 design bureau that employed Sergei Korolev were enough to drive any engineer to the brink.

James Harford states in his book Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon, that Korolev was once quoted in the early 60s as saying, "Do you think that only American rockets explode!?" in response to how stringent and unforgiving his work schedule was becoming during the Luna probe's development. FYI, American rockets outgrew their propensity for exploding very soon after this outburst.

Sergei Korolev R7
Photo: Sergei Arssenev - Own work
As should shock nobody, this level of stress wreaked havoc on Korolev's health. He suffered his first confirmed stress-induced heart attack in December 1960, being diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia in 1964, followed by inflammation of his gallbladder. Had he taken a break, it's possible Korolev could have recovered from his ailments.

But no such mercy was granted until Korolev entered the hospital for a routine procedure on his large intestine. Under mysterious circumstances, and when the Soviet space program needed him the most, he died nine days later. So the story goes, his autopsy revealed cancerous growths as well, although it's not clear if this was also stress and fatigue-related.

Without their leading man to oversee the program and without conducting static rocket tests as NASA did, less competent engineers failed not to make the prized Soviet rocket not impersonate a bomb with every launch. Three and a half years later, NASA and their Saturn V succeeded at landing men on the Moon, and the Soviet/Russian space program has never been the same.

With the coming celebration of his birthday this January, we want to take a moment to remember Sergei Korolev for being a brilliant, talented, and capable mind for rocket science. But also that had he lived, the Soviets may have indeed beaten the U.S. to the Moon, and the first space race might still be going strong today. Without a 50-year gap in between.

Though he was so cruelly underappreciated in life, his achievements in spaceflight made him immortal in death. Godspeed, Mr. Korolev, this moment right here is all for you.
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