The time will come when a spacecraft carrying human beings will leave the earth and set out on a voyage to distant planets – to remote worlds. Today this may seem only an enticing fantasy, but such in fact is not the case. The launching of the first two Soviet Sputniks has already thrown a sturdy bridge from the earth into space, and the way to the stars is open.

Sergei Korolev

Sergei Korolev was a lead Soviet rocket engineer and spacecraft designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. He is regarded by many as the father of practical astronautics.

Korolev was educated at the Odessa Building Trades School, the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, and the Moscow N.E. Bauman Higher Technical School, where he studied aeronautical engineering under the celebrated designers Nikolay Yegorovich Zhukovsky and Andrey Nikolayevich Tupolev. Becoming interested in rocketry, he and F.A. Tsander formed the Moscow Group for the Study of Reactive Motion, and in 1933 the group launched the Soviet Union’s first liquid-propellant rocket.

Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov
Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov

From Prison to Space

Long before the world could benefit from Korolev’s work, he and other aerospace engineers were thrown into the Soviet prison system in 1937-1938 during the peak of Stalin’s purges. Korolev at first spent months in transit on the Trans-Siberian railway and on a prison vessel at Magadan. Stalin soon recognized the importance of aeronautical engineers in preparing for the impending war with Hitler, however, and retrieved from incarceration Korolev and other technical personnel that could help the Red Army by developing new weapons.

Korolev shortly after his arrest, 1938
Korolev shortly after his arrest, 1938. Photo credits: USSR -Soviet Archives

Following the war, Korolev was released from prison and appointed Chief Constructor for the development of a long-range ballistic missile. By April 1, 1953, as Korolev was preparing for the first launch of the R-11 rocket, he received approval from the Council of Ministers for the development of the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7. It was Korolev’s R-7 ICBM that launched Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957. This launch served to galvanize American concern about the capability of the Soviet Union to attack the United States with nuclear weapons using ballistic missiles.

Sergei Korolev and Voskhod 1 crew Sergei Korolev (second from left) with the crew of Voskhod 1, commander Vladimir Komarov (left), engineer Konstantin Feoktistov (second from right), and doctor Boris Yegorov (right), 1964. Photo creidts: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Shutterstock.com
Sergei Korolev and Voskhod 1 crew Sergei Korolev (second from left) with the crew of Voskhod 1, commander Vladimir Komarov (left), engineer Konstantin Feoktistov (second from right), and doctor Boris Yegorov (right), 1964. Photo creidts: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Shutterstock.com

During the early 1960s, Korolev campaigned to send a Soviet cosmonaut to the moon. Following the initial reconnaissance of the moon by Lunas 1, 2, and 3, Korolev established three largely independent efforts aimed at achieving a Soviet lunar landing before the Americans. The first objective, met by Vostok and Voskhod, was to prove that human spaceflight was possible. The second objective was to develop lunar vehicles which would soft-land on the moon’s surface to ensure that a cosmonaut would not sink into the dust accumulated by four billion years of meteorite impacts. The third objective, and the most difficult to achieve, was to develop a huge booster to send cosmonauts to the moon. His design bureau began work on the N-1 launch vehicle, a counterpart to the American Saturn V, beginning in 1962. This rocket was to be capable of launching a maximum of 110,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. Although the project continued until 1971 before cancellation, the N-1 never made a successful flight.

Mockup of N1 Rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in late 1967
Mockup of N1 Rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in late 1967

Good to Know

Before his death, he was officially identified only as Glavny Konstruktor (Главный Конструктор), or the Chief Designer, to protect him from possible Cold War assassination attempts by the United States. Even some of the cosmonauts who worked with him were unaware of his last name; he only went by Chief Designer. Only following his death in 1966 was his identity revealed and he received the appropriate public recognition as the driving force behind Soviet accomplishments in space exploration

"Chief Designer" Korolev (left) with "father of the Soviet atomic bomb" Igor Kurchatov (centre) and "Chief Theoretician" Mstislav Keldysh (right), 1956
“Chief Designer” Korolev (left) with “father of the Soviet atomic bomb” Igor Kurchatov (centre) and “Chief Theoretician” Mstislav Keldysh (right), 1956 Photo credits: Keldysh Museum

Sergei Korolev Quotes—

“There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem.”

“The further conquest of space will make it possible, for example, to create systems of satellites making daily revolutions around our planet at an altitude of some 40,000 kilometers, and to assure universal communications and the relaying of radio and television transmissions. There is no such thing as an unsolvable problem.”

“The way to the stars is open.”

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