It’s July 20, 1969, and the United States is in a state of euphoria. The nation has just sent men to the Moon, realizing an incredible dream and ultimately overcoming the Soviet Union in the bitter battle for supremacy in space. But things could so easily have worked out differently. Until recently the Soviets had been leading the Space Race, but things quickly started to unravel. And it was all tied to the fate of one man.
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those first steps on the lunar surface, it was the Soviets that set the pace. The U.S.S.R. launched the first satellite, and it sent men and women into space before any other state. America was always trailing behind, so it seemed pretty likely that the first humans to make it to the Moon would be Soviets.
It goes without saying that mankind’s ambitions to explore space throughout the 20th century were tempered by challenges. There were, of course, many practical issues that needed to be solved. How, for instance, could a rocket be powered? How could such a vessel be safe for passengers, given the inhospitable conditions of space?
Issues of this nature were considered by several figures around the world. Just some of the most prominent included the German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, Frenchman Robert Esnault-Pelterie and an American called Robert Goddard. Yet before the western scientists could begin in earnest, a man from Russia was already pioneering the race into space.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was from Moscow, born into the Russian Empire in 1857 but lived to see it transition into the Soviet Union. Tsiolkovsky was a trailblazer, a man who laid the groundwork for future scientists to build upon. His thinking on the subject of space travel, in fact, influenced people all over the world.
But perhaps Tsiolkovsky’s most important disciple was a fellow Soviet citizen, Sergei Korolev. A man of immense vision, Korolev imagined a future in which mankind was capable of reaching Mars. But Korolev wasn’t merely a dreamer, and his practical innovations were at the heart of the Soviet space program.
Korolev was born in 1907 in Zhitomir, a city in present-day Ukraine. He developed a passion for aircraft and flight, eventually becoming the student of a prominent aircraft engineer named Andrei Tupolev. Noting his talents, Tupolev once praised Korolev as “a man with unlimited devotion to his job and his ideas.”
Korolev successfully trained to become a pilot, and he started designing gliders equipped with rocket engines. By 1933 his engineering talents were apparent, as he was responsible for the Soviet Union’s first ever liquid-fueled rocket launch. Yet despite his evident value to the U.S.S.R., there was trouble ahead.
In the summer of 1938 Korolev was taken into custody and brutally assaulted by Soviet authorities. They tortured him to force a confession of sabotage and treason, before sending him to a Gulag camp for a decade of forced labor. Korolev never even learned what the real reasons for his arrest actually were.
But Korolev didn’t serve his full 10-year sentence in the Gulag, and he was transferred to a prison in Moscow. Yet his five months in the camp had left their mark, he suffered a broken jaw and had lost all his teeth. He was to spend five more years imprisoned in Moscow. From here, though, he started to work on aircraft design once again.
After he was released from prison, Korolev’s standing within Soviet society was completely transformed. As World War II came to an end, he was dispatched to Germany as a colonel in the Red Army. He’d gone from a prisoner to a high-ranking official in no time, but there was a particular reason for this. The Soviets had commandeered V2 rocket technology from the Nazis — and they needed Korolev to work on it.
The Nazi rocket technology was extremely advanced for the time. It had been developed by Werner von Braun, who, in the wake of the end of World War II, offered his services to the United States. With the prospect of the imminent Cold War, this meant that America would have a technological advantage over the Soviets.
Even though the Americans had von Braun, the Soviets had Korolev — and he was an extremely gifted engineer. He worked hard, and in 1957 he was responsible for the first ever intercontinental ballistic missile launch. This feat was achieved over a year before the Americans could manage one.
James Harford is the author of the book Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. In it, he describes the Soviet scientist, “His ability to inspire large teams, as well as individuals, is proverbial. He had a roaring temper, was prone to shout and use expletives, but was quick to forgive and forget. His consuming passion was work, work, work for space exploration and for the defense of his country.”
Korolev’s work with rocket technology ensured that the Soviet authorities accepted him back into society. So, now that he was a prominent figure, he started to lobby the Communist Party to develop satellite technologies. Though party leaders were initially reluctant, news soon emerged that the United States was planning its own satellites. So, Korolev was given the green light to start work on Sputnik 1.
Sputnik 1 was launched on October 4, 1957, the first man-made object in space. It was a formidable achievement, laying the groundwork for Sputnik 2 to be launched only weeks later. This spacecraft carried Laika the dog, marking the first time a living creature had made it to space. Sadly, she didn’t survive the ordeal.
Sputnik 3 was launched in May 1958. Equipped with hi-tech appliances, this craft was more advanced than its predecessors, which served to highlight the sophistication of Soviet space technology. But Korolev still wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to go further, now aiming to make it all the way to the Moon.
Korolev’s efforts towards a Moon launch were hampered by limited finances and time. Perhaps these factors can account for the failure of his first attempt. The spacecraft Luna 1 was launched on January 2, 1959, but it missed its target. In September that same year, though, Luna 2 made it. The Soviets had sent a spacecraft to the Moon before America.
Shortly after this, Luna 3 was launched. This craft managed to take a picture of the far side of the Moon, claiming yet another victory for the Soviets. The United States had fallen way behind in the Space Race, with Korolev’s expertise proving hard to beat. And he still wasn’t content. Now, he wanted to send humans into space.
Before that could happen, though, a pair of dogs were launched into orbit. Unlike Laika, these canines — Streika and Beika — actually survived and made it back to Earth. This implied that human space travel could be possible, though it was still far from a certainty. Even so, Korolev’s dream of sending mankind to the stars was very much alive.
This incredible milestone was finally reached on April 12, 1961, after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space. With this, Gagarin was immortalized as the first person to ever escape our planet’s atmosphere. But without Korolev’s genius, history may well have turned out differently and we might have never known Gagarin’s name.
Korolev was responsible for Gagarin’s pioneering voyage, controlling the spacecraft from all the way down on Earth. And although the mission was a success, it almost resulted in disaster. Technical faults almost led to Gagarin’s spacecraft losing control, but it ultimately made it back to Earth in one piece.
With the cosmonaut safely back on Earth, news quickly spread of the Soviet triumph. It was now clear just how far behind the United States was in the Space Race. One American headline perfectly encapsulated the mood at this time. It read, “Soviets put man in space. Spokesman says U.S. asleep.”
The United States had actually been working on its own space program, but it wasn’t as successful as the Soviet Union. In fact, the best that America had done was sending a chimp into space. But U.S. president John F. Kennedy sought to change his country’s fortunes.
A number of weeks after Gagarin had returned to Earth, President Kennedy delivered a famous speech to the American people. In it, he laid out the United States’ ambition to send an American to the Moon and to bring them back again safely. At the time, however, it didn’t seem likely that the U.S. would be able to achieve this before the Soviets.
Under Korolev’s leadership, the Soviet space program achieved several more victories after Gagarin’s journey. This included sending the first ever woman into space, with Valentina Tereshkova’s voyage in 1963. So, with all these accomplishments under his belt, Korolev next turned his attention to launching a space mission with several people onboard.
This goal was reached on October 12, 1964, when Boris Yegorov, Konstantin Feoktistov and Vladimir Komarov escaped the Earth aboard the Voskhod 1. Five months later, Voskhod 2 was launched. During this mission, Alexei Leonov became the first person to undertake a spacewalk. It was yet another Soviet triumph, but now came the objective of sending a man to the Moon.
Korolev began work on the spacecraft that would permit this mission, aiming to launch in October 1967. At the time, the scientist also nurtured ambitions of sending robots to Mars and Venus. And after all his successes so far, who would’ve bet against him achieving these goals?
Beyond robotic missions, Korolev even dreamed of one day sending human beings to Mars. He also envisioned incredibly advanced technologies such as rocket engines that ran on electricity. But as things turned out, Korolev wasn’t able to see all of his ambitions realized. Instead, fate intervened.
On January 5, 1966, Korolev was sent to hospital for what was initially expected to be a straightforward procedure. But within nine days, the scientist had succumbed to complications related to colon cancer. With Korlev’s death, the Soviet space program swiftly began to falter. The course of the Space Race had been irrevocably altered.
The people of the Soviet Union had never been aware of Korolev’s contributions to the space program in his own lifetime. But with his death, his name was publicized and thousands of people showed up for his funeral. Yuri Gagarin delivered a eulogy, a fitting tribute for the man that had sent him into space.
In the aftermath of his death, Korolev’s true value to the Soviet space program was immediately apparent. Now that he was gone, a battle for control of the program began. Vasily Mishin eventually won out, but his leadership would turn out to be nothing short of disastrous.
The Soyuz 1 spacecraft was due to be launched into space on April 23, 1967. On board was Vladimir Komarov, who was one of the three cosmonauts aboard Voskhod 1 in 1964. This time, however, things went horribly wrong. The spacecraft was faulty and Komarov lost his life, marking the first time someone had been killed during a space mission.
And things were only to get worse. In 1968 Yuri Gagarin — the first man in space — lost his life during a test flight. So, within the space of two years, the Soviet space program had lost its hero in Gagarin and its brains in Korolev. Soviet space supremacy in space was waning.
The KGB investigated the incident that claimed Gagarin’s life, positing that his aircraft had nearly collided with a jet and consequently lost control. It’s not entirely clear, however, if this description of events is totally accurate. In any case, Gagarin was killed and his ashes were laid to rest on Cosmonauts’ Avenue outside the Kremlin Wall in Moscow near Korolev’s own remains.
The Soviet space program struggled on, but it had undoubtedly become a mere shadow of its former self. Scientists attempted to complete the N1 rocket that Korolev had been working on before his death, but they were unsuccessful. Perhaps if Korolev were still alive, then maybe this project would’ve been yet another triumph.
In reality, though, everything went wrong. In 1969 the Soviets conducted a couple of tests of the N1 rockets. The first one blew up, and the second was unable to even get off the ground. Meanwhile, NASA was working on its Apollo program. And as we all know, it successfully sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon.
Despite all the previous triumphs under Korolev, the Soviet Union had lost its way in the Space Race. America had sent men to the Moon, a feat that the Soviets would never achieve. It managed to complete a number of other space missions to space, but ultimately they had fallen behind the United States.
Who can say what might have happened had Korolev lived for a few more years? His sudden death totally derailed the Soviet space program, which until then had been leading the way. Maybe under Korolev’s leadership history would be very different and the Soviet Union would have won the Space Race.
Korolev’s legacy lives on today through a town in Russia named after him — and craters on the Moon and Mars — although he’s still largely a hidden figure. But Korolev was one of the most important pioneers of space exploration, a man responsible for taking mankind beyond the Earth. Perhaps now, all these decades later, his achievements should be properly recognized.