Sergei Korolev: The Most Important Russian You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

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Podcast Transcript

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet space program was on a roll. They launched the first satellite into space. They launched the first man and woman into space. They conducted the first space walk. 

Then, around 1966, everything changed. 

The momentum they had ground to a halt, and the Americans quickly surpassed them in the space race. 

What happened?

Learn more about Sergei Korolev, the most important Russian you probably have never heard of, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There was probably nothing more emblematic of the Cold War than the space race. It was a peaceful competition where the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to show that their system was superior through accomplishments in space flight. 

It was a competition that, at least at first, the Soviets had a commanding lead. They managed to launch the first artificial satellite into orbit, Sputnik 1, in October 1957. They launched the first living thing into orbit, a dog named Laika, just a month later. (the dog, unfortunately, went on a planned one-way trip.)

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space when he made an orbit of the Earth and safely returned. 

Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space when she orbited the Earth 48 times in 1963. 

In 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first human to exit his space capsule and conduct a space walk. 

These were all very impressive accomplishments, even more so when viewed through the lens of the Cold War and the Space Race. 

In these first years of the Space Race, the United States constantly found themselves coming up second, getting one-upped by the Soviets. 

The American space program was extremely open, including all their successes and failures. The brains behind the American space program was a German rocket engineer named Werner von Braun. 

Everyone knew who Werner von Braun was. He was on the cover of Time and Life Magazines. He conducted TV interviews. Likewise, NASA was a government agency that had public congressional hearings, publicly available budget data, and public-facing administrators.

The Soviet space program, on the other hand, was a complete mystery. No one knew who ran it or who was their equivalent of Werner von Braun. This was by design. The head of the Soviet space program was such a closely held secret that most people who worked in the Soviet space program, including many cosmonauts, had no clue who the leader was. 

So, if you have never heard of Sergei Korolev before, it isn’t necessarily out of ignorance on your part. It has to do with the fact that for years, his identity was kept a secret. 

Sergei Korolev was born in 1907 in what was then the Russian Empire and what is today the nation of Ukraine. He was Russian and Belorussian on his father’s side and Greek/German on his mother’s side.

Soon after his birth, his mother and father separated, and Sergei was told that his father had died, not knowing that he actually was alive until 1929.

His life was very hard. His grandparents raised him in Kyiv, an only child with few friends. He was seven when the First World War began, and he was largely ignored with everything going on about them. 

His mother remarried a German engineer in 1916, who moved the family to Odessa. His stepfather was a positive influence on Sergei, who was able to teach him math and science, which became especially important after the Communist Revolution when schools were shut down.

After visiting an aviation show in 1913, he took an interest in aviation, which spurred his own independent study of the subject. 

In Odesa in 1923, at the age of 16, he joined the Society of Aviation and Aerial Navigation of Ukraine and the Crimea. He took flying lessons and, at the age of 17, built his own gilder.  

In 1924, he enrolled at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute to study aviation. He studied there until he was admitted to the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, where he studied under the great Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev. 

After graduation, he took a job at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, where he worked on the Tupalov TB-3 heavy bomber. He also received his pilot’s license and became interested in liquid-fueled rockets.

In 1931, he and several other rocket enthusiasts established the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion, known as GRID in Russia, the first formal institute for rocket development in the Soviet Union.

In 1932, he was appointed the head of GRID, and they quickly saw several successes. 

In August 1933, they launched their first hybrid solid/liquid propellent rocket, and in November, they launched their first totally liquid-fueled rocket.

Their group was merged with a military research group working on similar projects in 1934 to create the Reactive Scientific Research Institute, or RNII in Russian.

He was originally appointed deputy director of the institute, but after disagreeing with the direction of the institute, he saw a series of demotions. 

Everything I’ve described up until this point sounds like the resume of someone who might go on to lead a space program.  However, in 1937, events unfolded that took his life in a totally different direction.

In 1937, Stalin’s purges were targeted at the RNII. The director and associate director of the institute were arrested, tortured, forced to sign false confessions, and executed. 

Sergei himself was arrested in 1938 after someone at the RNII named him in one of the confessions extracted by torture. 

He was also denounced by Andrei Kostikov, the man who became the director of the institute after the leadership had been purged.

Sergei Korolev was tortured and sent to prison. He pleaded his case with several Comminust party officials, even sending a letter to Stalin himself.

In 1939, Lavrenti Beria, truly one of the worst people in human history, 

rose to become the head of the NKVD. He decided to retry Korolev on lesser charges, but by that time, Korolev had been sent to a gulag in far eastern Siberia. 

While in the gulag, he suffered a probably heart attack and lost his teeth due to scurvy.

In 1939, he was brought back to Moscow for retrial and was sentenced to eight years in prison. His mentor, Andrei Tupolev, got him assigned to a special prison for scientists and engineers, which was an actual thing in the Soviet Union.

In the scientist prison during the war, he was moved multiple times to avoid capture by the Germans, and he constantly lived with the fear of being executed so his knowledge wouldn’t fall into German hands. 

In 1944, he and other scientists were allowed to leave the prison, and in 1945, he was made a colonel in the Red Army. 

In the Army, he worked on rockets for the military, for which he received an award, and perhaps more importantly, he was given the task of recovering all of the German V-2 Rocket program in Peenemünde, Germany, after the Soviets captured it. 

While most of the top German rocket scientists fled to be captured by the Americans, the Soviets got the actual facility and the rockets. 

In 1946, Stalin made rocket and missile development a top priority for the country and established Scientific Research Institute No. 88. Sergei Korolev, formerly one of Stalin’s prisoners in a gulag, was appointed the chief designer of long-range missiles. 

His first job was to reassemble as many V-2 rockets as possible. He thought that it was pointless and that they should be working on their own rocket, but he was overruled, and reassembling the V-2 is what he did. 

In 1948, his request was approved, and he began work on what was dubbed the R-2. It was based on the V-2 but had twice the range. This was followed by the R-3, which had a range of 3,000 kilometers or 1,900 miles, enough to hit England.

Korolev continued working on the R series of rockets, eventually designing the R-7, which was the world’s first true intercontinental ballistic missile. The design of the R-7 began in 1954. 

Korolev was well aware of the potential of space flight as he had known some of the earliest Russian space flight theorists. 

Just six days after the commission of the R-7, Korolev asked permission to use the R-7 to launch a satellite into space. 

The Soviet authorities, now without the burden of Joseph Stalin, weren’t interested. 

So, he and other Soviet engineers began to submit articles to Soviet newspapers about the potential of space flight. 

These articles were then picked up by the Americans, who used them as evidence that the Soviets were working on launching a satellite into orbit, which in turn spurred President Eisenhower to announce the goal of launching a satellite into orbit in 1955.

Korolev used the US interest in satellites to spur Soviet interest in beating the Americans to space. In 1957, he asked the Soviet Central Committee for permission to launch a satellite, and because no one wanted to be the one to lose to the Americans, Korolev got his wish. 

Needless to say, it was a massive public relations coup for the Soviets. One of their biggest accomplishments ever. Many of the senior Soviet officials who were ambivalent about space were now all in. 

Korolev formally got his crimes under Stalin expunged, and the former criminal, in the eyes of the state, was now a national hero. 

… except for one thing. 

For security reasons, the name of the chief Soviet rocket designer was kept a secret. When Korolev’s team published a recap of the Sputnik mission in the Pravda newspaper, it was published under the pseudonym “Professor K. Sergeyev.” 

Korolev had big ideas. He felt the R-7 was powerful enough to launch a payload to the moon. In 1958, he got approval and, after a series of failures, managed to launch the first payload out of the gravitational well of the Earth and into the orbit of the Sun. Actually, it was an accident because they were trying to hit the moon and missed. 

Eventually, the Soviets took the first picture of the dark side of the moon and made the first flyby of Mars.

The Soviet space program also had a host of other successes that I listed before. 

Korolev was the guiding force of the entire Soviet space program, but no one, even inside the program, knew his name. 

Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov said, 

Long before we met him, one man dominated much of our conversation in the early days of our training: Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the mastermind behind the Soviet space program. He was only ever referred to by the initials of his first two names, SP, or by the mysterious title of “Chief Designer” or simply “Chief.” For those in the space program, there was no authority higher.

Korolev’s health began to decline in 1960 when he had a heart attack. He had a kidney problem that came from his time in the Gulag. He developed intestinal bleeding in 1962 and had issues with his gallbladder. 

In January 1966, he entered the hospital for surgery and died on the operating table on January 14th at the age of 59. There has been a great deal of mystery surrounding his death. Some say he had an undiagnosed tumor in his intestine, and other biographers said he went in for a hemorrhoid operation. 

On January 16, days after his death, the Soviet public and the rest of the world were finally told the identity of the mastermind of the Soviet space program. His ashes were interred in the walls of the Kremlin, where they remain today. 

Sergei Korolev had big plans. He envisioned orbiting space stations and putting a man on the moon. Many people think that had he lived, the Soviets could have beaten the Americans to the moon. 

However, it is highly unlikely. 

The rocket that Korolev had commissioned before he died, the N-1, never worked. Unlike the enormous F-1 engines on the American Saturn V, the N-1 required 42 smaller engines, which had much more points of failure. 

Most of the Soviet achievements in space were all based on the success of the R-7 family of rockets. Derivatives of that rocket first launched in 1957, are still being used today by the Russian space program, even though they now go by different names. 

Nonetheless, the accomplishments of Sergei Korolev can’t be understated. He was responsible for most of the major firsts in space flight, and for that reason alone, his name should be remembered, even if no one knew his name when he was alive. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review is from a boostagram sent by Stelio91 on the Fountain app. They sent 1000 sats and the following review:

I have now unlocked the Albanian Chapter of the Completionist Club. Thank you, Gary, for the array of topics and information you sprinkle into my morning drive. Looking forward to tomorrow’s episode already. Fa-le-mi-der-it!

Thanks, Stelio! I am glad to hear there is now a completionist club chapter in Albania. 

I visited Albania a few years ago on a road trip I made in the Balkans, and I enjoyed my time in Tirana. It is definitely on my list of places to return to. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.