Russian space enthusiasts are kicking off a year of major anniversaries on Friday with ceremonies marking the centenary of the birth of Sergei Korolyov, the founder of the Soviet space program and quite possibly the man most responsible for sparking the “space race.”
September brings the 150th anniversary of the birth of pioneering spaceflight theoretician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. And the year's biggest celebrations center on Oct. 4, the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik — arguably the greatest achievement of Korolyov and his team.
Next week, Russia’s first space shot of 2007, a routine supply mission to the international space station, will carry Korolyov’s name — and a painted portrait on its external payload faring — into space. It's yet another public honor for a man who could enjoy no such honors while he was alive.
Korolyov has always been less well known than Western space pioneers such as Wernher von Braun because his identity was kept secret during his lifetime. His untimely death in 1966 took the wind out of the sails of the Soviet space program, and myths and half-truths have been wrapped around his name ever since.
Space disasters and Moscow's ultimate defeat in the race to the moon were ascribed to the absence of his magical leadership, although more cynical historians have suggested that he died at the just the right time to preserve his reputation — before mounting technical challenges, probably beyond even his skills to overcome, erased the Soviets' lead in the space race.
King of the Soviet space effort
"Korolyov" (or, in an alternate transliteration of the Russian, "Korolev") is a fairly common Russian name. It's derived from a word for "king," or "Carol" as in Charlemagne. In Russian, the name is pronounced "ka-rall-YOFF," although some at NASA insist on saying "ka-ROLL-ee-yeff."
The man who would ultimately carry the title "Chief Designer of Space Vehicles" was born into a teacher’s family in Zhitomir, now in the independent Ukraine (where festivities are also scheduled). At the age of 5, he saw his first airplane — and from then on, flight was the only career on his mind.
Slideshow: Planetary pleasures bAs a youth in Odessa he studied engineering and took part in aviation clubs. Later, he designed and flew his own glider. In Moscow he attended Russia’s top engineering school, and on the side began working on small rockets with a team of fellow enthusiasts. When the Soviet military leadership began providing funds, Korolyov’s group was delighted — but then the paranoid purges began in the mid-1930s, most members of the team were imprisoned, and many were shot.
He survived the imprisonment, including a usually fatal assignment to the infamous Kolyma gold fields in eastern Siberia, and was eventually rehabilitated. After World War II he resumed his leadership of the Soviet rocket program.
Korolyov’s strengths, fueled by his lifelong devotion to flight and eventually spaceflight, were his engineering intuition and his organizational skills. He assembled a group of specialists in propulsion, structures, communications and control systems — at first, to test captured German V-2 rockets, then to build a copy and later an improved version, then build a series of more and more powerful military missiles. But there always was an office in his factories, staffed by surviving enthusiasts from his original team in the 1930s, devoted to dreaming about outer space.
Korolyov's secret plan for space
The culmination of Korolyov’s rocketry was "Model 7" (in Russian, the "Semyorka"), the R-7 that became the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile. It was first launched on May 15, 1957, and three months later, Moscow issued a public announcement of its military power.
Korolyov had government approval to use a prototype missile left over from the weapons test program to launch a probe into orbit around Earth — which needed only about 20 percent more speed than that achieved on the military missions. By lightening the planned payload, Korolyov believed an orbital launch could be achieved prior to the long-announced American plan for its Vanguard scientific satellite.
The final weeks of preparation at the secret rocket base in Kazakhstan saw two main characters: Korolyov, referred to by the initials of his names Sergei Pavlovich ("SP"), and the Preliminary Satellite, referred to by the acronym "PS." Years later, veterans recalled with laughter how people often mixed up the two code names.
The rest is history — space history. Sputnik stunned the world and sparked the space race. Soviet prime minister Khrushchev wanted more spectaculars, and provided Korolyov with the resources to carry them out: first animal in orbit, first probe to the moon, first man in orbit (and two years later, the first woman) and many others. It took years of scrambling and spending for the United States to catch up.
The descendants of Korolyov's Semyorka still fly, in upgraded but still-recognizable form. Almost 1,800 Russian rockets of that type have been launched in the past 50 years, and another will be carrying the payload with his portrait painted on it next week. Funded and built as a weapon of mass destruction (but secretly designed from the start as an efficient space booster), the Semyorka is the most inspiring example of a "swords into plowshares" transformation ever made by humans, and for that alone its designer merits wider recognition.
Historians have speculated about whether Korolyov was one of those "indispensable men" of history, somebody with unique attributes who was able to achieve results that otherwise would never (or only much later) have been achieved. Not being a trained historian schooled in social and economic forces and flows, I think that he was, indeed, such a keystone character.
There were certainly rivals for his position — skilled and imaginative men with influential support from other Soviet officials who had their own ideas about rockets and missiles. But in hindsight, I believe that Korolyov alone among these candidates had the knack of team building, of inspiring his people to their best efforts without distractions or deviations.
And the achievement had to occur in a very narrow window of opportunity in world history, when the shock to the Western psyche could have the maximum motivation to respond overwhelmingly — and in a nonmilitary mode. (President Eisenhower deserves credit for that, after first, along with everybody else in America, totally underestimating the planetwide psychological impact of a potential Soviet space success). Sputnik had to occur neither too soon (before the United States had promised the world that it would be first) nor too late (when it would only be falsely regarded as another copy of stolen Western technology).
Korolyov at the crossroads
That’s where Korolyov stood, at the crossroads in history where a major surge into space might have been sparked due to ideological and nationalistic competition, or where a minor sideshow in small satellites might limp along for years on shoestring budgets. He shoved the world onto the higher, bolder path, and that shove resounds to this day.
Max Faget, the unsung hero of U.S. human spaceflight and perhaps the closest thing to "an American Korolyov," paid tribute to the sea change in U.S. attitude brought about by Korolyov’s successes. Faget first worked for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), and later became head of engineering for its successor, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). The difference, he joked, was in placing a vertical slash down some letters in the two acronyms.
NACA became NASA, he said with a grin, and NA¢A became NA$A — pennies changed to dollars. All that was thanks to Korolyov, he said. So in this year of anniversaries, anyone in favor of spaceflight owes a special debt to "SP." Happy birthday, Sergei Pavlovich.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on the Soviet space effort, including "Uncovering Soviet Disasters" and "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russia Space Alliance."