Korolev, Sergei

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Sergei Korolev

Born December 30, 1906 (Zhitomir, Ukraine)

Died January 14, 1966 (Moscow, Russia)

Russian engineer

"Not long after [Joseph] Stalin's death, Korolev came to a … meeting to report on his work. I don't want to exaggerate, but I'd say we gawked at what he showed us as if we were a bunch of sheep seeing a new gate for the first time."

Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier

During the 1950s and 1960s the former Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a space race. This competition for superiority in space exploration was part of the Cold War (1945–91), which resulted from political differences that arose between the two superpowers after World War II (1939–45). The Cold War also pitted the Soviet Union and United States against one another in an arms race to gain military domination through advanced weapons technology. In 1957 the Soviets scored a stunning victory by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial space satellite (an object that orbits in space). Realizing that the Soviet Union was now ahead in the space race, the United States immediately responded by integrating U.S. space research agencies into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and establishing an astronaut training program. Then, in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut (astronaut) Yuri Gagarin (1934–1968; see entry) made a nearly complete orbit of Earth aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1. Gagarin's flight represented yet another a technical triumph for the Soviet Union.

In the 1970s and 1980s Sergei Korolev was a legendary figure in the Russian space program. Soviet officials portrayed him as being the person who single-handedly invented the first long-range ballistic missiles, rocket launchers for spacecraft, and the artificial satellite. Russians were also told that Korolev alone was responsible for Gagarin's successful space flight. The collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1980s and early 1990s made possible more realistic information about Korolev's career. Although he is still considered an important force in the Russian space program, it is now known that he was influenced by the ideas of interplanetary flight put forth by the Russian inventor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935; see entry). Korolev also worked closely with other scientists to train the scientists and engineers who later formed the core of Russia's space program.

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was born on December 30, 1906 (January 12, 1907, in the Gregorian calendar used in Russia), in the Ukranian town of Zhitomir. As a young child he wanted to be a pilot, and by age seventeen he had designed a glider (an aircraft that relies on air currents to stay aloft). He attended the Kiev Polytechnic Institute before enrolling at the Moscow Higher Technical University. While studying at the university Korolev designed and constructed a series of gliders, the most advanced being a glider called the SK-4, which he made for flying in the stratosphere (outside Earth's atmosphere). Having become interested in rocket-propelled aircraft, he helped to organize the Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion (GIRD) in 1931. GIRD launched the Soviet Union's first liquid-propelled rockets, the GIRD-9 and GIRD-10.

Sent to prison

In 1933 the Soviet military replaced GIRD with the Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute (RNII), which developed rocket-propelled missiles and gliders. Korolev was in charge of aircraft body frames and engineer Valentin Petrovich Glushko (1908–1989) headed rocket-engine design. RNII produced Russia's first rocket-propelled manned aircraft. In 1938, even before the rocket plane could be flown, Soviet authorities sent Korolev and Glushko to the gulag (prison system). At that time Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), the Soviet premier, was waging one of many purges to imprison or execute people he considered enemies of the communist state. (Communism is a political philosophy that advocates state operation of all aspects of society. The Soviet Union had been under communist rule since the Communist Revolution in 1917.) Particular targets were members of the intelligentsia (educated people). After being arrested in March, Glushko denounced Korolev to the Soviet authorities, who arrested Korolev in September. In July 1940 Korolev was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in gold mines in Kolyma, the worst part of the gulag. Two months later another prisoner, aircraft designer Sergei Tupolev (1906–1966), saved Korolev from almost certain death from overwork and starvation.

Develops R-7 rocket

Tupolev had been recruited by Stalin to head a sharashka (bureau) in Moscow, where prisoners were used to build missiles and rockets. World War II (then a conflict waged by Germany and its allies against countries in Europe) had been underway for about a year, and Stalin was preparing for a German invasion. Tupolev recommended Korolev to work in Moscow. In 1942 Korolev was transferred to a sharashka in Kazan and served as deputy director of flight training. Then, two years later, he was given the assignment that began his career as the top Soviet rocket scientist—supervision of sixty engineers who were required to design a Soviet version of the German V-2 missile. The V-2 had a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles; see box on this page) and was ten years ahead of Soviet technology. Korolev's team was given only three days to produce a design. The results were the D-1 and D-2, two-stage, liquid-fuel rockets guided by an automatic pilot. (A two-stage rocket is fired first on takeoff and a second time after it is in the air.)

Rocket Technology Developed

In 1931 Sergei Korolev helped to organize the Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion, which launched the Soviet Union's first liquid-propelled rockets, the GIRD-9 and GIRD-10.

Efforts to develop rocket-propelled aircraft were also underway in the United States and Germany. American physicist Robert Goddard (1882–1945; see entry) had already flown liquid-propellant rockets, and German scientists with the Society for Spaceship Travel were testing liquid-fueled rockets. The Society for Spaceship Travel disbanded in 1933, and a few of those scientists—the foremost being Wernher von Braun (1912–1977; see entry)—eventually developed the V-2 missile, the forerunner of all liquid-fuel rockets. In the meantime Goddard's work remained generally unknown because Goddard insisted upon keeping his research and experiments secret. After World War II, Soviet researchers headed by Korolev used V-2 technology to develop the R-7, which became the most widely used rocket in the world.

Progress on a Soviet rocket was slow until 1945, when the war ended with the Allied defeat of Germany. (The major Allies were the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.) Russian engineers then had a chance to inspect leftover V-2 rockets in German factories. Though Korolev was still a prisoner, he was sent to Germany, where he interviewed German rocket scientists. The following year the Scientific Research Institute NII-88 was established to produce the Soviet version of the V-2. German workers were used as laborers in the rocket factory in Gordodomlya, located between Moscow and Leningrad.

Over the next decade Korolev succeeded in developing the R-7 rocket, which was launched on August 21, 1957. The rocket was a modified Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) about 100 feet (30.48 meters) in length with a weight of 300 tons (272,400 kilograms). It became the most widely used rocket in the world. On October 4, 1957, the R-7 was used to launch Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Another success associated with Korolev was Luna 3, a probe satellite that provided the first views of the far side of the Moon. In 1959 it looped around the Moon, took pictures, developed them, and radioed them back to Earth. The Luna 3 flight improved the prestige of the Soviet Union throughout the world. During this time Korolev was apparently released from prison and declared fully rehabilitated (no longer an enemy of the state).

Korolev then persuaded the Soviets to concentrate exclusively on manned spaceflight. He was authorized to oversee development of Vostok 1, the first manned spacecraft, which sent Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961. The Vostok was modified for other space exploits: the first multicrew space flight in 1964 and the first space walk in 1965. Korolev was also in charge of the Venera 3 mission, the first spacecraft to come in contact with another planet. It landed on Venus in 1966. Even though Venera 3 failed to return any information due to loss of contact with Earth, it was able to relay extensive information about interplanetary space before it crashed.

Hailed as space hero

The Soviet space program was dealt a stunning blow when Korolev died on January 24, 1966. He had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year but had concealed the news from his colleagues. Korolev was buried in Kremlin Wall, an honor reserved for Russians of exceptional distinction. Two weeks after his death the Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the Moon, taking the first close-up views of the lunar surface. Luna 9 sent back television images showing that the feared deep layers of lunar dust did not exist.

Once Korolev's role in the space program was revealed to the public, he became a hero praised for his inexhaustible energy and talent as a researcher, his engineering intuition, and his creative boldness in solving difficult tasks. He left behind a group of dedicated and highly trained scientists and engineers, many of whom are still working at space and rocket engineering research institutes and design bureaus. Another Korolev legacy was the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the large complex where all Russian spacecraft have been launched since Sputnik 1 was sent into orbit in 1957. Yet the Soviet space program essentially died with Korolev, for several complex reasons. No other scientist was able match his skills and dedication, but a more important factor was intense political rivalry within the Soviet system.

Throughout his career Korolev had competed with other rocket researchers, principally Valentin Glushko and Vladimir Nikolayev Chelomei (1914–1984). Along with Korolev, these men are now regarded as the founders of the Soviet space program. Korolev's former colleague Glushko designed innovative rockets that frequently competed with those developed by Korolev. In fact, Korolev's refusal to compromise with Glushko reportedly resulted in the loss of many years of vital new technology. Chelomei had close political ties with Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; the Soviet premier who followed Stalin), which he often used against Korolev and other scientists. Equally problematic was the Soviet military, who wanted to use rockets and spacecraft to win the arms race. Finally, the Soviet Union was running out of funds at a crucial time in the space race, which was now being won by the United States. In 1965 the United States initiated Project Gemini (see Christopher Kraft [1924–] entry), the manned space program that ultimately led to putting the first humans on the Moon (see Buzz Aldrin [1930–] and Neil Armstrong [1930–] entries). After Luna 9 the Soviets did not send any other flights to the Moon. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has trained cosmonauts for the International Space Station program (see entry).

For More Information


Harford, James. Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. New York: Wiley, 1997.


Gautier, Daniel James. "Sergei Pavlovich Korolev." As Astra. (July/August 1991): p. 27.

Heppenheimer, T.A., and Peter Gorin. "Match Race." Air and Space Smithsonian. (February/March 1996): pp. 78+.

Web Sites

"Sergei Korolev." Encyclopedia Astronautica.http://www.astronautix.com/astros/korolev.htm (accessed on June 29, 2004).

"Sergei Korolev." Russian SpaceWeb.www.russianspaceweb.com/korolev.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).

"Sergei Korolev—Sputnik Biographies." NASA.www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/sputnik/korolev.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).