Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov (often transliterated as Sergei Korolev), (Серге́й Па́влович Королёв; Сергій Павлович Корольов), (January 12, 1907, Zhytomyr – January 14, 1966, Moscow), was the head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s.
Although trained as an aircraft designer, Korolyov's greatest strengths proved to be in design integration, organization and strategic planning. A victim of Stalin's 1938 Great Purge, he was imprisoned for almost six years, including some months in a Siberian gulag. Following his release, he became a rocket designer and a key figure in the development of the Soviet ICBM program. He was then appointed to lead the Soviet space program, given a rank of Academician (Member of Soviet Academy of Sciences), overseeing the early successes of the Sputnik and Vostok projects. By the time he died unexpectedly in 1966, his plans to compete with the United States to be the first nation to land a man on the Moon had begun to be implemented.
Before his death he was often referred to only as "Chief Designer", because his name and his pivotal role in the Soviet space program had been held to be a state secret by the Politburo. Only many years later he was publicly acknowledged as the lead man behind Soviet success in space.
Korolyov grew up in Nizhyn (Nezhin), under the care of his grandparents. His mother had wanted an advanced education, and so was frequently away taking courses in Kiev. He grew up a lonely child with few friends, but he proved a good student, especially in mathematics. In 1916 his mother married Grigory Mikhailovich Balanin, an electrical engineer, and Grigory proved a good influence on the child. Grigory moved the family to Odessa in 1917, after getting a job with the regional railway.
The year 1918 was tumultuous in Russia, with the close of the World War and the ongoing Russian Revolution. The internecine struggles continued until the Soviets assumed unchallenged power in 1920. During this period the local schools were closed and young Korolyov had to continue his studies at home. In 1919 there were severe food shortages, and Korolyov suffered from a bout of typhus. Even after this the family suffered through hard times, as did much of the remainder of the nation.
Korolyov continued his schooling at the Odessa Building Trades School (Stroyprofshkola No. 1) where he received vocational training in carpentry as well as various academics. However his primary interest was in aviation, perhaps due to the influence of an air show he had enjoyed back in 1913. He made an independent study of flight theory, and also worked in the local glider club. A detachment of military seaplanes had been stationed in Odessa, and Korolyov took a keen interest in their operations.
In 1923 he joined the Society of Aviation and Aerial Navigation of Ukraine and the Crimea (OAVUK). By joining the Odessa hydroplane squadron he had his first flying lesson, and also had many opportunities to fly as a passenger. In 1924 he personally designed a glider called the K-5, which was accepted by the OAVUK as a construction project. At about the same time he also trained to become accomplished as a gymnast, but his academic work began to suffer from his distractions with these other interests. To pursue his interests, he decided in 1924 to attend the Kiev Polytechnic Institute as they had an aviation branch. In Kiev he lived with his uncle Yuri, and he earned money to pay for his courses by performing odd jobs. His curriculum was technically-oriented, and included various engineering, physics and mathematics classes.
In 1925 he was accepted into a limited class on glider construction. He was allowed to fly the training glider on which he worked, but ended up with two broken ribs. He continued with his courses, completing his second year in 1926. In July of that year he was accepted into the Moscow N.E. Bauman Higher Technical School (MVTU).
Until 1929, Korolyov studied specialized topics in aviation at the school. He lived with his family, who had moved to Moscow, in what were typical but crowded conditions. In addition to his studies, Korolyov had more opportunities to fly gliders and powered aircraft, and he revelled in the experience. He also designed a glider in 1928, and flew it in a competition the next year. During 1929 the Communist Party had decreed that the education of engineers be accelerated to meet the country's urgent need for their skills. Korolyov could obtain a diploma by producing a practical aircraft design, and had the design completed and approved by the end of the year. His advisor was none other than Andrei Tupolev.
Having graduated, Korolyov began work at an aircraft design bureau designated OPO-4, or 4th Experimental Section. It was headed up by a Frenchman named Paul Richard and included a number of Russia's best designers. He did not stand out in this group, but while so employed he also worked privately on a pair of personal design projects. One of these was a glider design that was capable of performing aerobatics. By 1930 he became a lead engineer on Tupolev's TB-3 heavy bomber.
In 1930, Korolyov finally earned his pilot's license. The next year, on August 6, he was wed to Xenia Vincentini, a woman he had been courting since 1924. He had proposed marriage to her back then, but she declined as she wanted a higher education. It was during 1930 that Korolyov became interested in the possibilities of liquid-fueled rocket engines. As his interest was primarily in aircraft, he saw the potential for use of these engines to propel airplanes. In 1931, together with Friedrich Zander, a space travel enthusiast, he participated in the creation of the Jet Propulsion Research Group (GIRD), one of the earliest state-sponsored centers for rocket development in the USSR. In May 1932 Korolyov was appointed chief of the group.
During the following years the GIRD group developed three different propulsion systems, each more successful than the last. In 1932 the military became interested in the efforts of this group, and began providing some funding. In 1933 the group accomplished their first launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, which was called GIRD-09. This was just seven years after Robert Goddard's first little-publicized launch in 1926. In 1934 Korolyov published the work "Rocket Flight in Stratosphere".
With growing military interest in this new technology, it was decided by the government in 1933 to merge the GIRD organization with the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL) in Leningrad. The merger created the Jet Propulsion Research Institute (RNII), headed up by the military engineer Ivan Kleimenov. However this merged group contained a number of people who were enthusiastic proponents of space travel, including Valentin Glushko. Korolyov became the Deputy Chief of the institute. He led the development of cruise missiles and of a manned rocket-powered glider.
On April 10, 1935, Korolyov's wife gave birth to their daughter, Natasha. In 1936 they were able to move out of Korolyov's parent's home and into their own apartment. Both parents had careers, and Korolyov always spent long hours at his design office. By now he was chief engineer at RNII. The RNII team continued their development work on rocketry, with particular focus on the area of stability and control. They developed automated gyroscope stabilization systems that allowed stable flight along a programmed trajectory. Korolyov was a charismatic leader who served primarily as an engineering project manager. He was a demanding, hard-working man, with a disciplinary style of management. Korolyov personally monitored all key stages of the programs and paid meticulous attention to detail.
Believing that his arrest was a mistake, Korolyov wrote many appeals to the authorities, including Stalin himself. Following the fall of the NKVD head, Nikolai Yezhov, the new chief Lavrenti Beria chose to retry Korolyov on reduced charges in 1939, but by that time Korolyov was on his way from prison to a gulag camp in the far east of Siberia, where he spent several months in a gold mine in the Kolyma area before word reached him of his retrial. Towards the end of 1939 he was sent back to Moscow, but he had already sustained injuries and had lost most of his teeth due to the labor camp's brutal conditions. When he reached Moscow, Korolyov's sentence was reduced to eight years, which he did not have to serve in a labor camp.
Korolyov was assigned to a "sharashka", a type of penitentiary for intellectuals and the educated. These were effectively slave-labor camps where scientists and engineers worked on projects assigned by the Communist party leadership.
The Central Design Bureau 29 (CKB-29, ???-29) of the NKVD, served as Tupolev's engineering facility, and Korolyov was brought here to work for his old mentor. During World War II, this sharashka designed both the Tupolev Tu-2 bomber and the Petlyakov Pe-2 dive bomber. The group was moved several times during the war, the first time to avoid capture by advancing German forces.
In 1942 Korolyov managed to be moved to another "sharashka" under the rocket engine designer Valentin Glushko, which designed rocket aircraft boosters. Korolyov was kept in this sharashka and isolated from his family until 1944. He lived under constant fear of being shot for the military secrets he possessed, and was deeply affected by his time in the gulag, becoming reserved and cautious. On June 27 1944, Korolyov (along with Tupolev, Glushko and others) was finally discharged by special government decree but the charges against him were not dropped until 1957. The design bureau was handed over from NKVD control to the government's aviation industry commission. Korolyov continued working with the bureau for another year, serving as deputy designer under Glushko and studying various rocket designs.
Other members of the RNII had also been arrested and the group's military leader was executed. Every person of significance who worked at the institute was executed during 1937-8, leaving Korolyov very fortunate to have even survived. The program was set back for years and fell far behind the rapid progress taking place in Germany. Stalin's purges during this period left his military nearly decapitated, and gravely weakened the army just prior to the Nazi invasion in 1941.
In 1945, Korolyov was awarded the Badge of Honor, his first decoration, for his work on the development of rocket motors for military aircraft. The same year he was commissioned into the Red Army, with a rank of colonel. Along with other experts, he flew to Germany to recover the technology of the German V-2 rocket. The Soviets placed a priority on reproducing lost documentation on the V-2, and studying the various parts and captured manufacturing facilities. That work continued in Germany until late 1946, when the Soviet experts and some 150 German scientists and engineers were sent to Russia. Most of the German experts with the exception of Helmut Gröttrup were those involved in wartime production of V-2 and never worked directly with Wernher von Braun, while the leading German rocket scientists and Wernher von Braun himself surrendered to Americans and were transported to the US as part of Operation Paperclip.
Stalin had decided to make missile development a national priority, and a new institute was created for the purpose, the NII-88 in the suburbs of Moscow. For the German engineers, Branch 1 of NII-88 was set up on Gorodomlya Island some 200 km from Moscow. The facility was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, however Boris Chertok, chief designer of guidance and control systems, notes in his book Rockets and People,
All structures on Gorodomlya island were renovated and living conditions were quite decent for those times. At least, married specialists received separate two- or three-room apartments. Visiting the island, I could only envy them, because I and my family lived in Moscow in a shared four-room apartment, where we had two rooms of 24 square metres (260 sq.ft.) combined. Many of our specialists and workers lived in barracks without most elementary necessities. [...] This is why life on the island behind barbed wire could not compare at all to prisoner of war conditions.
Development of ballistic missiles was put under the military control of Dimitri Ustinov, with Korolyov serving as a chief designer of long-range missiles. Korolyov demonstrated his organizational abilities in this new facility, keeping a dysfunctional and highly-compartmentalized organization operating.
With the blueprints reproduced, thanks in part to disassembled V-2 rockets, the team now began producing a working replica of the rocket. This was designated the R-1, and was first tested in October 1947. A total of eleven were launched, with five hitting the target. This was comparable to the German success rate, and demonstrated the unreliability of the rocket. The Soviets continued to utilize the expertise of the Germans on V-2 technology for some time, however in the regime of secrecy surrounding the ballistic missile program Gröttrup and his team had no access to classified work of their Russian colleagues on new rocket technology as well as adequate production and testing facilities. This made impossible any meaningful further work and negatively affected the morale of the German team. In 1950 Ministry of Defence made an official decision to stop any work related to long-range rockets in the German team and repatriate the German engineers and their families. The first group was sent to Germany in December 1951, and the last in November 1953.
In 1947 the NII-88 group under Korolyov began working on more advanced designs, with improvements in range and throw weight. The R-2 doubled the range of the V-2, and was the first design to utilize a separate warhead. This was followed by the R-3, which had a range of 3,000 kilometers, and thus could target bases in England. However Glushko couldn't get the engines to develop the required thrust, and the project was canceled in 1952.
That same year work began on the R-5 (code-named SS-3 Shyster by NATO) which had a more modest 1,200 km range. This completed a successful first flight by 1953. However, the first true intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) would be the R-7 Semyorka (code-named SS-6 Sapwood by NATO). This was a two-stage rocket with a maximum payload of 5.4 tons, sufficient to carry the Soviet's bulky nuclear bomb a distance of 7,000 km. After several test failures, the R-7 successfully launched on August, 1957, sending a dummy payload to Kamchatka Peninsula.
It was in 1952 that Korolyov joined the Soviet Communist Party, a tactical necessity if he was to request money from the government for his future projects. It would not be until April 19 1957, however, that he would be fully "rehabilitated", and the government acknowledged that his sentence was unjust.
Korolyov was rarely known to drink vodka or other alcoholic beverages, and chose to live a fairly basic lifestyle. He remained a handsome and solidly built man, and was fond of women and they of him.
About 1946 the marriage of Korolyov and Vincentini began to break up. Vincentini was heavily occupied with her own career, and at about this time Korolyov had an affair with a younger woman named Nina Ivanovna Kotenkova. Vincentini, who still loved Korolyov and was angry over the infidelity, divorced him in 1948. Korolyov and Kotenkova then were wed in 1949, but he was known to have had affairs even after his remarriage to Kotenkova.
In spite of the Soviet progress on ICBM technology, Korolyov was preoccupied with the use of rockets for space travel. In 1953 he first proposed the use of the R-7 design for launching a satellite into orbit. He pushed his ideas with the Russian Academy of Sciences, including a concept for sending a dog into space. He also had to overcome resistance in the military and among party members.
In 1957, during the International Geophysical Year, the concept of launching a satellite began to appear in the American press. The US government was not well disposed toward the idea of spending millions of dollars on this concept, and so it was effectively frozen for a period. However Korolyov's group followed the Western press, and they thought it possible to beat the US to the punch. He was finally able to win over support because of competition with the United States by suggesting that the USSR should try to be the first country to launch a satellite.
The actual development of Sputnik was performed in less than a month. This was a very simple design, consisting of little more than a polished metal sphere, a transmitter, thermal measuring instruments, and batteries. Korolyov personally managed the assembly, and the work was very hectic. Finally on October 4, 1957, launched on a rocket that had only successfully launched once, the satellite was placed in orbit.
The effect of this launch was electric, and produced many political ramifications for the future. Khrushchev was pleased with this success, and decided that it should be followed up by a new achievement in time for the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution. This was less than a month away, on November 3rd. The result was Sputnik 2.
This new spacecraft would weigh six times the mass of the Sputnik 1, and would include as a payload the dog Laika. The entire vehicle was designed from scratch within four weeks, with no time for testing or quality checks. It was successfully launched on November 3rd and the dog was placed in orbit. There was no mechanism designed in this vehicle to bring the dog back to earth and so she died after roughly 6 hours in space succumbing to heat exhaustion.
This string of successes ran out with the launch of Sputnik 3. This instrument-laden spacecraft was sent into orbit on May 15th the following year. However the tape recorder that was to store the data failed after launch. As a result the discovery and mapping of the Van Allen radiation belts were left to the United States' Explorer 4 in July. What the Sputnik 3 did do, however, was to leave little doubt with the American government about the Soviet's pending ICBM capability.
Korolyov now turned his attention to reaching the Moon. A modified version of the R-7 launch vehicle would be used, with a new upper stage. The engine for this final stage was the first designed to be fired in outer space. The first three probes sent to the Moon in 1958 failed. The Luna 1 mission in 1959 was intended to impact the surface, but missed by about 6,000 km. Another probe failed and then the Luna 2 successfully impacted the surface, giving the Soviets another first. This was followed by an even greater success with Luna 3. It was launched only two years after Sputnik 1, and was the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the Moon.
Korolyov's group was also working on ambitious programs for missions to Mars and Venus, putting a man in orbit, launching communication, spy and weather satellites, and making a soft-landing on the Moon. A radio communication center needed to be built in the Crimea to control the spacecraft.
Korolyov's planning for the piloted mission had begun back in 1958, when design studies were made on the future Vostok spacecraft. It was to hold a single passenger in a space suit, and be fully automated. The capsule had an escape mechanism for problems prior to launch, and a soft-landing and ejection system during the recovery.
On May 15, 1960 an unpiloted prototype performed 64 orbits of the Earth, but failed to return. Four tests were then sent into orbit carrying dogs, of which the last two were fully successful. After gaining approval from the government, a modified version of the R-7 was used to launch Yuri Alexeevich Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, the first human in Earth orbit. He returned to Earth via a parachute after ejecting at an altitude of 7 km.
Following Vostok, Korolyov planned to move forward with Soyuz craft that would be able to dock with other craft in orbit and exchange crews. However, he was directed by Khrushchev to cheaply produce more 'firsts' for the piloted program. Korolyov was reported to have resisted the idea, since he currently lacked a rocket of sufficient capability to lift a three-person capsule into space. However, Khrushchev was not interested in technical excuses and let it be known that if Korolyov could not do it, he would give the work to his rival, Vladimir Chelomei.
Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov describes the authority Korolyov commanded at this time.
Long before we met him, one man dominated much of our conversation in the early days of our training; Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the mastermind behind the Soviet space program. He was only ever referred to by the initials of his first two names, SP, or by the mysterious title of "Chief Designer", or simply "Chief". For those on the space program there was no authority higher. Korolev had the reputation of being a man of the highest integrity, but also of being extremely demanding. Everyone around him was on tenterhooks, afraid of making a wrong move and invoking his wrath. He was treated like a god.Leonov recalls the first meeting between Korolyov and the cosmonauts.
I was looking out of the window when he arrived, stepping out of a black Zis 110 limousine. He was taller than average; I could not see his face, but he had a short neck and large head. He wore the collar of his dark-blue overcoat turned up and the brim of his hat pulled down.
"Sit down, my little eagles," he said as he strode into the room where we were waiting. He glanced down a list of our names and called on us in alphabetical order to introduce ourselves briefly and talk about our flying careers.
To complete this task his group designed the Voskhod, an incremental improvement on the Vostok. One of the difficulties in the design of the Voskhod was the need to land it via parachute. The three-person crew could not bail out and land by parachute, since the altitude would not be survivable. So the craft would need much larger parachutes in order to land safely. However, some tests with the craft resulted in failures, causing the death of some test animals. This gave Korolyov pause, but the problem was solved through the use of new parachute material.
The resulting Voskhod was a stripped-down vehicle from which any excess weight had been removed. Another modification was the addition of a backup retrofire engine, since the more powerful Voskhod rocket used to launch the craft would send it to a higher orbit than the Vostok, thus eliminating the possibility of a natural decay of the orbit and reentry in case of primary retrorocket failure. This spacecraft made one unmanned test flight, then on October 12 1964 a crew of three cosmonauts, Komarov, Yegorov and Feoktistov, was launched into space and made sixteen orbits. This craft was designed to perform a soft landing, thus eliminating a need for the ejection system. The crew was also sent into orbit without space suits, another risky move.
With the Americans planning a space walk with their Gemini program, the Soviets decided to trump them again by performing a space walk on the second Voskhod launch. After rapidly adding an airlock, the Voskhod 2 was launched on March 18, 1965, and Alexei Leonov performed the world's first space walk. The flight very nearly ended in disaster and plans for further Voskhod missions were shelved. In the meantime the change of Soviet leadership with the fall of Khrushchev meant that Korolyov was back in favor and given charge of beating the US to landing a man on the Moon.
For the Moon race, Korolyov's staff started to design the immense N1 rocket. He also had in work the design for the Soyuz manned spacecraft (which many years later went on to carry the first space tourists), as well as the Luna vehicles that would soft-land on the Moon and make unmanned missions to Mars and Venus. But, unexpectedly, he was to die before he could see his various plans brought to fruition.
On December 3, 1960, Korolyov suffered his first heart attack. During his convalescence it was also discovered that he was suffering from a kidney disorder, a condition brought on by his detention in the Soviet prison camps. He was warned by the doctors that if he continued to work as intensely as he had, he would not live long. However Korolyov reasoned that once the Soviets lost their leadership in space, the capricious Khrushchev would likely cut off the funding for his programs. So he continued to work even more intensely than before.
By 1962 Sergei Korolyov's health problems were beginning to accumulate and he was suffering from numerous ailments. He had a bout of intestinal bleeding that led to him being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. In 1964 doctors diagnosed him with cardiac arrhythmia. In February he spent ten days in the hospital after a heart problem. Shortly after he was suffering from inflammation of the gallbladder. The mounting pressure of his schedule was also taking a toll, and he was suffering from fatigue. He was also growing deaf, perhaps due to noise from rocket engine tests.
The actual circumstances of his death are somewhat uncertain. In December 1965 he was supposedly diagnosed with a bleeding polyp in his large intestine. He entered the hospital on January 5, 1966 for routine surgery. Nine days later he died. It was stated by the government that he had what turned out to be a large, cancerous tumor in his gut. But Glushko later reported that he actually died due to a poorly performed operation for hemorrhoids. According to Harford, Korolyov's family confirms the cancer story. His weak heart then contributed to his demise -- Korolyov never regained consciousness after the operation.
Under a policy initiated by Stalin and continued by his successors, the identity of Korolyov was never revealed until his death. The purported reason was to protect him from foreign agents from the United States. As a result the Soviet people didn't become aware of his accomplishments until after his death. His obituary was published in Pravda on January 16, showing a photograph of Korolyov with all his medals. Korolyov's ashes were inurned with state honors in the Kremlin wall.
Korolyov is often compared to Wernher von Braun as the leading architect of the Space Race. Unlike Von Braun, Korolyov had to compete continually with rivals, such as Vladimir Chelomei, who had their own plans for flights to the moon. He also had to work with technology which in many aspects was less advanced than what was available in the United States.
Korolyov's successor in the Soviet space program was Vasily Mishin. Mishin was a highly competent engineer who served as Korolyov's deputy and right-hand man. After Korolyov died he became Chief Designer and inherited what turned out to be a flawed N-1 program. In 1972 Mishin was fired and replaced by rival Valentin Glushko after all four N-1 launches failed. By that time the rival Americans had already made it to the Moon, and so the program was cancelled by Leonid Brezhnev.
Among his awards, he was twice bestowed the Hero of Socialist Labor in 1956 and 1961. He was also a Lenin Prize winner in 1971, and was awarded the Order of Lenin three times. In 1958 he was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences.
A street in Moscow was named after Sergei Korolyov in 1966 and is now called Ulitsa Akademika Korolyova (Academician Korolyov Street). The memorial home-museum of akademician S.P.Korolyov was established in 1975 in the house where Korolyov lived from 1959 till 1966 (Moscow, 6th Ostankinsky Lane,2/28).In 1976 he was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame.
In 1969 and 1986, the USSR issued 10k postage stamps honoring Sergei Korolyov.
The town of Kalingrad (formerly Podlipki) is the home of RSC Energia, the largest space company in Russia. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin renamed the town to Korolyov. There is now an oversized statue of S.P. Korolyov located in the town square. RSC Energia was also renamed to S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia.
The 2005 BBC docudrama "Space Race" focussed on Korolyov's work in Soviet rocketry and the space program, as well as that of Wernher von Braun in the USA. Korolyov was played by Steve Nicolson in the programme.