Sergei Korolev: Father of the Soviet Space Program

Sergei Korolev: Father of the Soviet Space Program

Table of Contents

Sergei Korolev: Early Life

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, a Ukrainian, was born on December 30, 1906. In 1917, his mother and stepfather, an engineer and a mechanic, moved to Odesa. In 1924, Korolev graduated from the Odesa Building Special School. In 1924, he was admitted to the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, where he joined a glider club and designed his first aircraft. Two years later, Korolev transferred to Moscow’s Bauman High Technical School, the best engineering college in Russia. He became a protégé of Andrei Tupolev, the renowned aircraft designer. After Tupolev was arrested in 1930 on trumped-up charges of sabotage and treason, Korolev took over his mentor’s projects.

In 1931, Korolev and Fridrikh Tsander founded the Moscow rocketry organization GIRD (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya), or “Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion.” Like the VFR (the Society for Spaceship Travel) in Germany, and Dr. Robert H. Goddard in the United States, GIRD, by the early 1930s, was testing liquid-fueled and hybrid rockets of increasing size and sophistication. In 1933, Sergei Korolev directed the flight testing and assisted in launching Russia’s first liquid-fueled rocket, the GIRD-09. The Soviet military, seeing the potential of rockets, soon drafted Korolev and much of the GIRD into the state-run RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute).

Sergei Korolev was arrested in 1938 on a false official charge of being a “member of an anti-Soviet counter-revolutionary organization” (which would later be reduced to “saboteur of military technology”). He was imprisoned for almost six years, including a few months in a Kolyma labor camp.

Rise of the Space Race

Sergei Korolev: Father of the Soviet Space Program

Stalin paroled Sergei Korolev on July 27, 1944, primarily by the intervention of senior aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, himself a former prisoner, who requested Korolev’s services in his design bureau. Following World War II, Korolev was released from prison and sent to Germany to study the Nazi’s V-2 rocket and other technology. In August 1946, he was appointed Chief Constructor to develop a long-range ballistic missile and the next year promoted to Chief Designer.

After Stalin died in 1953, Korolev joined the Communist Party and soon won the support of communist leader Nikita Khrushchev. In 1954, the Council of Ministers approved Korolev’s proposal to launch artificial satellites into Earth orbit.

Sergei Korolev played a key role in developing the R-7 missile, which launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. The launch of Sputnik 1, overseen by Korolev, sparked a period of intense competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, known as the “Space Race.”

In 1959, Korolev participated in preparing and launching the Luna probes 1, 2, and 3 to the Moon. Based on the results of those missions, he began a campaign to send a Soviet cosmonaut to the Moon. Korolev established three largely independent efforts to achieve a Soviet lunar landing before the Americans.

The first objective was met when the Vostok spacecraft carried the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961, proving human space flight was possible. The second objective was the development of lunar vehicles that could soft-land on the Moon’s surface. The third objective was to develop a huge booster to send cosmonauts to the Moon. The Soviets failed to achieve both later goals before Apollo 11 landed the first men on the Moon.

Sergei Korolev: Father of the Soviet Space Program

In 1962, he began work on the N-1 launch vehicle, a counterpart to the American Saturn V. This rocket was designed to launch a maximum of 110,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Although the project was not officially canceled until 1971, the N-1 never made a successful flight. In the mid-1960s, Korolev did achieve other successes, such as overseeing the construction of the Zond interplanetary spacecraft, the Voskhod manned spacecraft, and the Soyuz rocket, which is still used today.

Sergei Korolev: Lasting Legacy

Korolev died in 1966 at the age of 59, but his legacy continues to be felt throughout the world of space exploration. In honor of his memory, the Soviet Union established the S. P. Korolev Medal of FAS of the USSR. This award is given to individuals who have made significant contributions to aerospace engineering. Sergei Korolev was a trailblazer who helped to open the frontier of space exploration, and his work continues to inspire scientists and engineers to this day.