Podcaster: Marcel-Jan Krijgsman

Marcel-Jan-KrijgsmanTitle:  How Sergey Korolev started the Space Race (Part 1)

Link : Mijn Dosis Universum (

Description: Sergey Korolev was the genius behind Sputnik and the first man in space. It was his drive to bring humans to the Moon and Mars that unleashed a space race to bring humans on the moon. Yet nobody knew him at the time, because he was a Soviet state secret.

In the 1930s he and his group for rocket devellopment designed the first Soviet liquid fuelled rocket. And he would have gone far, was it not for the Stalin Purges. He was instead send to Siberia to do slave labour. During World War II he designed militairy aircraft under Andrey Tupolev in a slave labour camp in Moscow. These were so good, that Tupolev’s group was released.

After WWII he investigated Wherner von Braun’s V-2 rockets and started to design new rockets based on them. Eventually he designed the powerful R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik. A space race between the United States and the Soviet Union started wherein Korolev was able to be one step ahead of the Americans. Luna-2 became the first human-made object on the Moon and Luna-3 surprised everybody with the first photo’s from the farside of the Moon.

Bio: Marcel-Jan Krijgsman is an amateur-astronomer and member of the Royal Netherlands Association for Meteorology and Astronomy.. He blogs (in Dutch) about spaceflight and astronomy, on a blog called Mijn Dosis Universum (, on whatever topic interests him.

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I am Marcel-Jan Krijgsman. I’m an amateur-astronomer, member of the Royal Netherlands Association for Meteorology and Astronomy. This is my second podcast here on 365 Days of Astronomy. You’ll find my first one somewhere in the archives of 2011. It’s the one about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. This time I’ve decided to do a two part podcast about the Soviet rocket and spacecraft designer Sergey Korolev. Here is part 1.

In this podcast I would like to talk about a man without whom astronauts probably wouldn’t have landed on the moon in 1969. Who knows if we would even have placed footsteps on the moon by now without him. And yet, this man was not an American, or worked with the American space program.

This very influential man did things to advance spaceflight, and yet nobody knew him at that time. And still he is not very well known, even though they have named a city after him. He has been imprissoned. He has been promoted. He was a state secret. And he had a drive to bring people to the moon and Mars.

His name is Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. He was the chief designer of the Soviet space program. The man that designed the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik and the rocket that launched the first man in orbit, Yuri Gagarin.

The reason why I think we would not have landed on the moon by 1970 without him, is because with Sputnik and Vostok 1 (Gagarin’s flight), he almost singlehandedly started the Space Race. Without the Space Race, there would not be a need to for anyone to be the first on the moon. Let alone before the end of the sixties.

But let me start with the beginning of Korolev’s life. Sergey Korolev was born in the town of Zhytomyr in the Ukraine (which was then part of Russia) on December 30th 1906. But that was according to the old style date. According to the new style date his birthday would have been Januari 12, 1907. When he was three years old, his father left his mother. And he also saw his mother very little, because she was a teacher in Kiev (140 km or 87 miles from Zhytomyr). His grandparents took care of him most of the time.

In 1916 his mother married anew with a man called Grigory Balanin. And together they moved to Odessa, a city at the Black Sea, which was to become very tumultuous in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution and the end of World War I. First the Bolsheviks took over. After fights between factions the Austrians and Germans moved in and took over the city. After these were dispelled, they wered followed up by French, Serbs, Bolsheviks again and eventually the Soviets. Between all this 11 year old Sergey managed to keep studying. What now followed, was a time of food shortages.

After the years of hunger, Korolev learned to be a roofer at a Professional Building Construction School. This school had renowed teachers that teached him about resistance of materials and physics. During that time there was a militairy seaplane detachment in the port of Odessa. And this really peaked Korolev’s interest. He swum to a jetty near the seaplane operations, to hang on the barbed wire to see the planes take off and land. At one moment a mechanic saw him and asked him to help. He didn’t need to ask Sergey twice. He was allowed to fly several times as a passenger.

Korolev went to the Kiev Polytechnical Institute to learn about aviation. As a student he designed gliders and flew them. At one flight he crashed his aircraft and cracked his ribs. He stayed two days in bed for that one. He couldn’t wait to fly again.

In 1931 he joined a group studying rocketry, called the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion, abbreviated GIRD. In 1933 they managed to fly the first Soviet liquid-fueled rocket. The militairy became interested and the group developed cruise missiles for them under a new institute called the Reaction Propulsion Institute, abbreviated as RNII.

By 1938 rocket developers in three countries were making strides. In the United States Robert H. Goddard managed to get some funding to continue his experiments on multistage liquid-fueled rockets. In Germany Wernher von Braun was working on rocket aircraft. And Korolev’s team was making progress that proved to be important in later years.

But in June of 1938 the Stalin Purges would halt all rocket and most of the other techological development in the Soviet Union, because most of the best scientists, engineers and militairy leaders were rounded up and either imprisonned or executed. The Great Purge, a campaign of political repression, was to purge the nation of counter-revolutionary elements and enemies of the people. About a million people perished in this campaign.

Fellow collegues at RNII were tortured, after which they denounced Korolev for intentionally slowing down progress of the rocketry program. Two of these collegues were shot. The third one, Valentin Glushko, was send to prison for three months. Korolev was eventually send to Siberia, to work in a gold mine in Kolyma. He spend five months here during the beastly winter. You have to imagine doing forced labour in a place where temperatures are between minus 20 and minus 40 degrees Celcius (or between -4 and -40 degrees Fahrenheit) are quite normal. Korolev had to cut trees, dig and push wheelbarrows. Adequate clothing, shelter and food was in short supply. Thousand workers died each month.

In 1939 the man who caused most of the purges, Nikolai Yezhov, was replaced as head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs by a new chief, Lavrenti Beria. And where I say he was replaced, I mean he was replaced and he disappeared. Beria retrialed Korolev and Korolev was required to go back to Moscow. By then Korolev sustained a broken yaw and he lost most of his teeth in Kolyma. And there was no transportation aranged to travel the 7000 km to Moscow. Even now if you try to find the distance between Kolyma and Moscow, Google Maps will tell you that no route has been found.

Korolev missed the last ship that would take him over the Okhotsk Sea. Which in hindsight was just as well, because the ship was lost in a heavy storm. So he had to stay in the area of Magadan for the rest of the winter with no place to sleep, no food and incredibly freezing nights. When he finally arrived in Moscow months later, he was imprisoned in a sharashka, a slave labour camp for intellectuals. Here he worked under Andrei Tupolev and the prison was actually an engineering facility. World War II was going on and the Soviets needed aircraft to fight against Nazi Germany.

Now you know what they say about slave labour: you get what you pay for. But Tupolev’s group actually designed and build two bombers that were very effective. It’s hard to imagine how these people after so many hardships worked so hard to actually build militairy aircraft of quality. In the end it led to a general pardon for all prisoners in Tupolev’s group. Even more amazing was that Korolev kept working in the same facility afterwards.

In 1945 Korolev was commisioned a colonel in the Red Army. His knowledge of rocketry would become very useful, because of the investigation of Wherner von Braun’s V-2 rockets. During World War II 3200 of these rockets were launched from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany to bomb England and territory that had been reconquered by the Allies. Apart from being a vengence weapon which they got bombed with, the V-2 was very interesting technology for the allied nations. Everyone wanted to get a piece of this.

Now it has been said that the United States managed to get the better part of the V-2 rockets. And they did manage to get their hands on a large number of intact V-2 rockets as well as Von Braun and his team. But the Soviets certainly got their share of V-2 equipment and rocket scientists, allthough these scientists hadn’t worked with Von Braun directly.

Replicas of the V-2 were made, called the R-1. Then Korolev’s group worked on an improved version, called the R-2, which had double the range of the V-2. In the 1950s rockets were developed with improved power and range. By now Stalin had died and Nikita Khrushchev was in charge of the Soviet Union. The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was going on. Khrushchev knew that his air force was outnumbered to the US Air Force. Even more so after there was a panic in the United States about a so called bomber gap and the US started producing even more bombers. Krushchev knew that the Soviets could not outproduce the US. The solution was the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. A missile that could bring a warhead to any location in the Western world.

Did Korolev deliver? Yes. Sort of. I’ll explain that in a moment. But what the R-7 rocket especially was capable of, was launching something into Earth orbit. And that was not a coincidence, because Korolev lobbied for such a mission with the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, the militairy and the politicians. Eventually he got approval to launch a satellite – if – the rocket had proven itself as an ICBM.

And not just that. It had to be capable of carrying a nuclear bomb. Now there is one thing you have to know about the Soviet version of the nuclear bomb in those days: it was much, much heavier than the American couterpart. This was because in the Soviet Union advancements in miniaturisation were rather limited. The bomb weighed several tons. So Korolev needed to design a powerful rocket. This was the R-7. Designed by Korolev’s buro OKB-1 and engines designed by Valentin Glushko (The same Valentin Glushko that had caused Korolev’s trip to Kolyma.)

Four tests with the R-7 ended in failure, but on August 21st 1957 the rocket managed to fly the whole trajectory to the peninsula of Kamchatka, after which it desintegrated at 10 km altitude. The door was now open to an artifical satellite. At first the plan was to launch a comprehensive scientific satellite called Objekt D. It weighed 1300 kg (almost 3000 lbs) and could measure almost everything about space a scientist could want in those days: solar radiation and the solar spectrum, magnetic fields, micrometeorites, ions and electric charges. But by 1956 Objekt D was completely behind schedule. Also Korolev learned from translated American aerospace magazines that there were plans to launch in the end of 1957.

So Korolev decided to launch a much simpler satellite, named Prosteyshyy sputnik. This is what we later came to know as Sputnik-1. Sputnik-1 was nothing more than a shiny sphere with a battery and a radio transmitter in it and four antennae sticking out. It had no scientific instruments at all. All the radio transmitter could do was transmit beeps. The shiny exterior was intentional. Korolev wanted the satellite to be visible from anywhere on Earth when it flew over, so nobody could deny the achievement. Another reason for the shiny exterior was to reflect light from the Sun and keep the equipment from overheating.

In the evening of October 4th 1957 a new R-7 rocket was standing ready for launch. In the launch bunker were, amongst others, Korolev of course, members of the State Commision: Vasiliy Ryabikov (a government official), Mstislav Keldysh (the mathematician behind the Soviet space program), Valentin Glushko (designer of the rocket engines), and Nikolay Pilyugin (designer of the control systems of the rocket and satellite).  Overseeing the launch were Deputy Chief Designer Leonid Voskresenskiy and Lt.-Col. Aleksandr Nosov, who was the chief of the launch control team.

At midnight, it was finally time to start the launch. At the command “Launch!” (Pusk!) Boris Chekunov, a young lieutenant, pushed the launch button. That didn’t mean the rocket left the Earth immediately. It set a series of automated actions in motion. It would take about a tense minute before ignition happened the rocket would slowly rise skywards.

The R-7 rocket looked very much like a shorter version of the Soyuz rocket that launches astronauts to the International Space Station. It had four strap-on liquid fuel rocket boosters and a core rocket stage. The boosters fell away as planned after almost 2 minutes. The core stage would go on another 3 minutes and actually made it into orbit. After 5 1/2 minutes Sputnik-1 would be separated from the rocket and be the first satellite. Telemetry seemed to tell that Sputnik-1 was in orbit. And everybody cheered. But not everything went according to plan. The failure of one system resulted in a higher kerosine consumption than normal. This meant the main engine stopped working one second earlier than planned. And this had consequences for the eventual orbit. If there was an orbit.

Korolev wanted to be sure. Better to wait. If it was in orbit, Sputnik-1 would pass over the launch site again. That would take 90 minutes during which almost nobody said a word. Then the beeps could be heared again over the radio. Sputnik-1 was definitely in orbit. And everyone once again rejoyced. Korolev could be heard saying: “I’ve been waiting all my life for this day!”

You would think the launch of the first satellite would make it to the front page headlines of Pravda, the most important newspaper of the Soviet Union. But no, only on page three one could read a rather dry recount of the launch. But everything changed when the Western world got word of it. Sputnik was on all the front pages in the United States and Europe. Some papers heralded a new era: the Space Age. Others asked why a backward state like the Soviet Union was capable of bringing a satellite into space before the United States.

Soon newspapers, news on tv and politicians reminded the American public that if the Soviet Union was capable of launching a rocket and building a nuclear bomb, they could launch nuclear bombs, targeted at the United States. Which was true. There was one thing the American public didn’t know. And that was that the R-7 was actually not that useful as an ICBM and that there were only two launchpads in the USSR from where the R-7 could be launched. It took many hours to roll-out the R-7 rocket on a train and to fuel the boosters and core stage. By the time one R-7 would be launched, an armada of American bombers could destroy the next rocket and the launchpad before another R-7 could lift off.

Still, while the R-7 was more useful for spaceflight, it did set things in motion. Other rocket designers started working on new ICBMs. And politicians of East and West started a dangerous arms race.

After the launch of Sputnik-1, Korolev and others of his team were resting for five days at the big dacha (a summer home) of Minister of Defence Bulganin, when they were ordered to come to Moscow immediately. Khrushchev asked them to launch something new before the celebration of the Revolution. A dog maybe? The revolution was only a month away. If you know anything about how spacecraft are made, you know they are not designed and build in a month.

So in a month time a satellite was build with a life support system for a dog. For this mission out of ten stray dogs Laika was selected, because she was able to sit still for long periods of time. During the flight Laika would be in a sealed cabin with an air regeneration system that would provide oxygen. Waste was collected in a bag. Food and water were dispensed in gelatinized form. One thing Sputnik-2 didn’t have was a heatshield to bring Laika back safely, because those hadn’t been developed yet.

On November 3rd 1957 Laika was strapped in her harness and placed in her padded cabin. After a few hours the 500 kg (1100 lbs) Sputnik-2 was launched into space. According to the Soviet news Laika was barking and had eaten food and survived for a week. In reality the thermal control system didn’t work properly. After three orbits the temperature had risen to 43 degrees Celcius (109 degrees Fahrenheit). Biometric telemetry failed soon after that, but Laika probably suffered from the increasing heat in the cabin.

But this was good enough for Khrushchev, who used the latest succes to rub it in the faces of the Americans. The Americans were now setting their hopes up for the Vanguard rocket that would be launched in December that year. The Vanguard project always had been rather underfunded, but now – suddenly – the eyes of the world were on them. On December 6th, Vanguard was launched, but after two seconds the rocket fell back on the launch pad and exploded. The baseball sized satellite was thrown away and bounced away from the platform. It is still on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C..

Now it was time for Wernher von Braun’s team to step in and launch the first American satellite on Februari 1st 1958: Explorer 1. Explorer 1 was a scientific satellite and it weighed only 14 kg (31 lbs). Compare that to the 1300 kg (3000 lbs) Objekt D satellite the Soviets were about to launch. It was launched April 27th 1958. But at 1 1/2 minutes into the flight strange vibrations (later called pogo oscillations) made the side boosters break away and the whole rocket desintegrated. The satellite separated from the rocket and came tumbling down. A search was set up for the satellite. Only, the helicopter pilots were not allowed to know what to look for. “Just look for anything unusual”, they were told, “and don’t attract the camels.” Eventually they found the satellite and apparently some of the instruments could still operate.

A backup copy of Object D was lauched on May 15th 1958 and Soviet space science could really begin in earnest. Except that the tape recorder failed. Now the Soviet Union was a large area of the world and there were tracking stations from west to the east of the country. But if a satellite does science in orbit, you’re still going to miss out on all the measurements that were taken above other territory than your own country. So either you store your scientific data on a device like a tape recorder or you ask to use of tracking stations outside your territory. There was a tape recorder, but it turned out that is was broken. The help of other nations was still a possibility, but Sputnik-3 wasn’t exactly open source. So with data of space above only a part of the planet Soviet scientists didn’t get definitive answers about the nature of the radiation belts they could have detected. Instead James Van Allen and his team made the discovery with data from Explorer-1 and 3.

In 1958 the space race was going on in earnest. In hindsight you could question why a nation would have to prove it’s supremacy by crashing an object on the moon, but back then the race was on and the stakes were high. Several attempts were made by the Americans and the Soviets. Korolev was informed about upcoming American moonlaunches. He made sure to have a moonprobe ready on the launchpad everytime the Americans were counting down, because he knew that his rocket could be there faster. But he also knew his rocket has problems. The cause of the pogo oscillations still wasn’t known. In the end, all moonshots in 1958 failed, including three Soviet attempts. But Korolev did learn one thing from these failures: apparently the pogo oscillations occured more with heavier payloads.

American failures were public. Officially Soviet launch failures didn’t happen. Also the names Korolev and Glushko became state secret. The leaders of the Soviet Union were affraid they might be kidnapped. And indeed, without Korolev and Glushko, the Soviet space program would have been in trouble. Korolev did not only design the rockets and spacecraft, he was driving and meddling with just about everything. Still, he was only known as the Chief Designer.

A new attempt to launch a satellite to the moon was made on January 2nd 1959. By this time temperatures at the launch complex Baikonur in Kazachstan had fallen to minus 30 degrees Celcius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). In those times launchpad crew slept in tents on the cold ground of the launch complex. And they were exhausted of the high frequency of launch attempts. But this time their work was not for naught. By now Korolev and his team had learned to dampen the pogo oscillations near the top of the rocket. This time the rocket managed to get passed the moment the side boosters had to fall away without any problems. The core rocket moved on with on the top a small upper stage. By the time the core fell away, the upper stage fired until it reached escape velocity. The first spacecraft to do so.

On top was a 156 kg (or 343 lbs) heavy moonprobe. It looked a bit like Sputnik-1, but this was definitely a science mission. It had equipment to study magnetic fields, meteoric particles, cosmic radiation and gasses around the Earth, the Moon and radiation from the Sun. And it wizzed by the Moon at only 5900 km (3666 miles). That was – by the way – because of a programming error. It actually had to hit the moon, but only thirty years later this was admitted. But it did discover solar wind: charged particles that come from the Sun. The satellite didn’t have an official name yet. Korolev named it Mechta or Dream. In Soviet newspapers it was called the First Cosmic Ship. Later it became known as Luna-1.

The race for the Moon was still on. On March 4th 1959 NASA’s Pioneer 4 went past the moon at a distance 10 times that of Luna-1. In June 1959 a new Soviet rocket to the moon went off course and to be destroyed. On September 12th 1959 a rocket lifted off from Kazachstan with what is now known as Luna-2. 36 hours later the satellite crashed in Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains. Apart from scientific instruments, that confirmed the existence of solar wind, there was a pennant, a metal sphere with pentagonal elements. It looked a bit like a metal soccer ball. On it it had the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and the words “1959 January”. The next day Khrushchev handed a copy of it to US president Dwight Eisenhower.

Luna-2 was the first human-made object on the moon. Three weeks later Korolev’s team had a new surprise: a moon probe with a camera and a plan. The probe was called: the Automatic Interplanetary Station. We still know it as Luna-3. It’s intention was to photograph the never before seen far side of the Moon. This brought up a new challenge: to keep a camera pointing at the same thing. In technical terms: you need an attitude control system. Luna-3 had thruster jets that could orient te spacecraft. But how would the spacecraft know where it was pointing? For this it had two photocells: one to detect the Sun, the other to detect the Moon. And then the spacecraft would lock on them. Gyroscopes would keep the spacecraft in the same attitude. Then the camera cover was opened and a sequence of pictures was taken. The film was developed, fixed and dried onboard and then tv images of the developed film were send to Earth.

The signals were not just received by Soviet stations, but also by the Jodrell Bank observatory in England. There Sir Bernhard Lovell managed to decipher the images and they were published in British newspapers before the Soviets could. Since then Sir Lovell was no longer invited at the USSR Academy of Sciences.

The images were rather crude, certainly by today’s standards, but good enough to identify never before seen features. We saw that the far side had less maria, or lunar seas, than the near side. One visible sea was named the Sea of Moscow. A large crater was named after Tsiolkovsky, the pioneer of rocketry and spaceflight, who by the way had inspired Korolev since the early days.

There’s an interesting story about Luna-3. A spy thriller actually. The Americans were so impressed with Luna-3, that they decided they wanted to take a closer look at it. And actually the Soviet Union send a model of Luna-3 to an exhibition in Mexico. The CIA managed to get permission from the president of Mexico to temporarely “borrow” the model of Luna-3. A truck would drive the model to the exhibition overland. On the way they managed to replace the truck driver and the truck was diverted to a timber warehouse. Stories say that the original truck driver was “escorted to a hotel room and kept there for the night”. During the night the crate that containted the spacecraft was opened and the spacecraft was photographed, disassembled and reassembled. The truck was then driven to the intended destiny and apparently the Soviets were none the wiser. Some say the model lacked the electronics and the engine, so what the CIA actually learned from this is not entirely certain.

After Luna-3 the Soviets twice tried to launch another Automatic Interplanetary Station, because the first one only photographed 70% of the far side of the moon. The first one of these failed. The second of these failed and then some. Quite early in the flight the boosters broke loose from the core rocket, flew over the bunker where the flight controllers were and crashed into the assembly hall. Apparently the rails leading from the assembly hall to the launch pad looked something like .. well.. spaghetti.

Spaceflight was still really, really hard. So who dares to fly on the first manned mission? In the next part we’ll hear how Korolev managed to safely launch a man in space, and all the other things he did and how he eventually wanted to land people on the Moon with an enormous rocket.

If you liked this episode, please send me an email at With enough encouragement I might stay away from Kerbal Space Program long enough to make the next part.

End of podcast:

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