Сергей Павлович Королев (1907-1966)

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (KOR-ole-yuv) was born in Zhitomir, capital of Zhitomir Oblast, the Ukraine. It was 12 January 1907 (by the Western calendar), the dawn of the 20th century and the aviation age, and at the time, nobody could have predicted his impact on scientific progress that century. The world was still enthralled with airplanes and the Wright Brothers, and there was no reason to notice this tiny Ukrainian baby.

How the young Korolev came to Odessa in the Southern Ukraine is not clear, but while there he entered the Odessa Building Trades School, and is remembered for hitching joyrides with local flying boat pilots. At the age of 19 he designed, built and flew his own glider. Sergei was clearly not going to settle for a life as a stereotypical Ukrainian farmer.

From Odessa, he worked his way up through the racist meritocracy that was Soviet academia to the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, the most advanced school in the Ukraine for engineers and scientists. For a person who was not an ethnic Russian, there was only so far one could go by being "among the best," and Kiev was that place. However, Sergei was not "among the best," he was the best--and he was moved to Moscow Higher Technical School, where his teachers included Sergei Tupolev and Zhukovsky. After graduating, he co-founded GIRD: (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivnovo Dvisheniya, Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion). It was rocket science--and Sergei was good at it. In 1933, Sergei Korolev launched the USSR's first liquid-fuel rocket.

The military saw the promise in Korolev's work before the U.S. Army saw potential in Robert Goddard's mirror-image work in America--it took only 2 years for GIRD to be absorbed by RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute). By 1937, Korolev and RNII had developed the USSR's first rocket-propelled aircraft. Before it flew, Stalin's purges finally reached the scientific community, and Korolev was thrown in the gulag with the USSR's brightest minds. He was sent to the Korolya Gold Mines, the most feared of the gulags, and almost certainly would have died performing brainless brute labor if Stalin hadn't recognized the growing threat from Hitler and the waste of talent occurring in his prisons. Instead of performing mindless labor for long, impossible hours, all aeronautical engineers and other scientists were ordered to work towards the СССо's military goals.

Systems of sharashkas (prison design bureaux) were set up, and Korolev was again taken under the wing of Sergei Tupolev. Korolev was personally requested by Tupolev at Sharashka ЦКб-39. By all accounts, this transfer saved Korolev's life. Korolev, in dry Russian irony, remarked that he was one of a very few people whose life Hitler had saved--if it hadn't been for the war, he would have died in the mines.

At Cuxhaven in the summer of 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gloated over America's annex of Wernher Von Braun by launching three V-2 rockets at a demonstration for the USSR's top brass. A colonel in the Red Army, Korolev watched quietly, certain he could duplicate the feat. Although he saw Eisenhower, and certainly Eisenhower saw him, no American would know his identity until after his death--the USSR feared losing him so much that he became a state secret soon thereafter.

Korolev was put in charge of the Soviet rocket program, and launched the R-1, a clone of the V-2 in very short order. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the R-2 was being designed in parallel, but that Stalin wanted a V-2 of his own before the scientists tried any of this "innovation" voodoo he'd been hearing about. In any case, Korolev's R-2 was the first wholly indigenous liquid-fuel missile the USSR ever produced. Many would follow.

As the Cold War dawned, Sergei was ordered to develop an ICBM to carry the Soviet nuclear warhead over the North Pole to American strategic bomber bases. It sounds simple now, but it had never been done. He was given the reins at Baykonur Test Range (soon to become Baykonur Cosmodrome), and a blank check from Mother Russia. He produced the R-7, the world's first ICBM. This was the beginning of a long string of firsts that Sergei would reach before his American counterparts--and they had Wernher von Braun, the godfather of rocketry, in their corner!

In 1953, Stalin died, and Korolev joined the Communist Party. A year later, he submitted a secret proposal to Krushchev: Why not take the R-7 into outer space? When Nikita Khrushchev took power and denounced Stalin, Korolev knew he had an ally. By now, he was known as the Chief Designer, a demigod among Russians; when the committee-planned satellite project fell behind schedule, Korolev proposed "Primary Satellite". It would weigh 184 pounds, and fit neatly atop his R-7. In 1957, when Americans were driving cars with what they thought were "futuristic" fins, Korolev's satellite was finally finished; it looked like a swollen stainless steel potato with whiskers, and was named, innocuously, Sputnik. 184 pounds of Korolev's work--no futuristic fins needed--rocked the scientific world on October 4, 1957.

From here on out, the "Chief Designer" was never photographed, and became a terrifying and shadowy figure to the Americans at NACA. His Nobel Prize for Sputnik was accepted on behalf of all Soviet people. 13 months later, he beat the Americans again, sending Laika into orbit--the first living creature to fly into space. Korolev put a 3.5-ton Sputnik III in space before America even got a satellite up, and in the background, led the design work on Vostok, which eventually carried Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961.

In the next five years, he would be at the helm for the glory of the Soviet Space Program, winning the space race with such coups as

Unfortunately--or perhaps fortunately--Korolev didn't live to see the American Moon Landing; his time in the Gulag had left him in poor health, and he died having a hemorrhoid removed in what was supposed to be a routine procedure. History records septicaemia and/or blood loss as the cause of death. Without the "Chief Designer," the already-fractured design bureaux fell on his legacy like dogs on a scrap of filet mignon. With petty internal squabbling and politics, nobody was left to run the space program.

After his death on January 14, 1966, Sergei Korolev's name was announced to the world, he was pronounced a Hero of the Soviet Union, and he was given a burial with honors inside the walls of the Kremlin.

Thanks to Nemosyn for the editorial help, and Wyclef for the Cyrillic!

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