No, not Elvis. Not LeBron James. Sergei Pavlovich Korolev. If the name does not ring any bells, that is okay because any references to him were scrubbed from the records in his native Russia so thoroughly after 1957 that even the CIA could not identify him. Nobody working for him in the Soviet space program used his full name. They simply referred to him as the Chief, the King, or simply S.P.. Korolev’s official title (Chief Designer of OKB-1) put him on the same level as his main rival in the west, Wernher von Braun. Both were charged with developing the rockets that would put satellites, dogs, chimpanzees, and (eventually) humans into space. The truth be told, these rockets were designed to carry a different payload, nuclear warheads, but we will stick with peaceful rocketry pursuits for this article. Korolev and von Braun got in on the ground floor of the space biz by first designing missiles, but the differences in their bosses and career arcs couldn’t be more striking. Stephen Walker’s 2021 book BEYOND – The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space (HarperCollins Publishers), is a detailed account of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the ‘first human’ in the title. Gagarin’s story would be impossible to tell without contrasting the USSR-USA space race, Korolev, and von Braun.
Wernher von Braun grew up and experimented with rocketry in his native Germany. When his civilian rocket program was absorbed by the new reiche, he ended up developing the deadly V-2 rockets for Adolf Hitler during WWII. When von Braun and his team were spirited away to the United States as part of the post-war Operation Paperclip, his work during WWII was not forgotten by some as much as it was ignored. After all, Von Braun was now working for the good guys. The rocket development program von Braun and his team founded in Huntsville, Alabama became the foundation of the United States space program. With his picture plastered across the cover of Life, newspapers, and even a science themed TV show for Disney, he was hardly a secret.
Korolev’s first boss in the rocket business was Joseph Stalin. In his paranoid purge of anybody he was suspicious of (known as Stalin’s Great Terror), even his chief missile designer was suspect. After a month of brutal interrogation, Korolev ‘confessed’ to the charge of sabotage and was sent to a series of forced labor camps. By 1938, he had been transferred to the Gulag in the desolate Kolyma region of eastern Siberia. Forced to mine gold in the Maldyzk minefields, Korolev toiled in a dank tunnel a hundred feet underground, yet somehow he survived. According to Walker, “Millions would die there, from hunger, beatings, executions, exhaustion, tuberculosis, and cold. The harshest tasks were given to political prisoners rather than convicted criminals. He spent a year in Kolyma. Emaciated and exhausted, he lost all of his teeth to scurvy and he suffered from heart problems that continued to dog him in the decades afterward.” His daughter Natalya said he rarely talked about this period, but he did save his aluminum mug with his name scratched on the handle with a nail. Korolev never wore or owned anything made from gold for the rest of his life.
Intervention by his former teacher, the famous Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupulev, got Sergei transferred to a less brutal prison where he worked with engineers like himself developing missiles for the military. Ironically, he ended up working under Valentin Glushko, the former colleague who had begun Sergei’s imprisonment ordeal when he denounced Korolev. The prison experience was brutal but it left Korolev with skills to survive: He compromised when he had to, exploited others if he needed to, and he could lie, cheat, and deceive in order to get his own way. Working for Glushko was at times a hostile experience, but at least he was free to pave his own path to the future working in his chosen field, not digging for gold.
When Stalin died in 1953, Korolev’s new boss, Nikita Khrushchev, was impressed with the monster rockets that Sergie’s team had developed. The massive R-7 rocket gave Khruschev the muscle he needed to replace the millions of men that were being discharged from the USSR military force: “How dare any country. . . attack us when we are literally able to wipe these countries off the face of the earth,” was the Russian leader’s summation. Khruschev was so impressed with Korolev, he gave the rocket designer the rare privilege of a personal hotline to his Kremlin office. As his star ascended, Korolev became the USSR’s secret weapon. From 1957 up to his death in 1966, Korolev would only travel with KBG bodyguards, disappear from the list of Russian assets, and publish under a nom de plume.
As hard as the CIA tried to uncover the identity of the USSR’s ‘Mr. Rocket’, little was known about him until after he died. They actually knew more about Korolev’s R-7 rocket than they knew about the designer. In an operation worthy of an entire Mission: Impossible movie, the CIA ‘borrowed’ an R-7 rocket, disassembled it, measured it, and reassembled it without the Russians even realizing it. The upper-stage of the R-7 that had propelled the Soviet Luna probe to the Moon had been displayed at an exhibition in Mexico City in 1960. The clandestine mission described above took place when the agents intercepted the truck transporting the crated rocket to the railway freight depot. When an official Soviet seal was damaged, the local CIA office was able to avoid discovery by the Russians; the CIA reproduced an exact replica in a matter of hours. That the Soviets sent a ‘real rocket’ and not a mock up is quite remarkable. Amazingly, the whole affair did not come to light until a highly redacted report about the mission was published in 1995, thirty five years after the fact. The United States still did not know anything about the Chief, but they did have enough intel to know that when Khrushchev bragged about their rocket power, he was not making idle boasts.
The United State’s Mercury 7 astronauts had already been selected and were training for their anticipated first flight by January 1961 when the CIA reported the R-7 rocket heist findings to President Kennedy. Progress on the rocket and Mercury capsule needed to get them to space was moving forward slower than the astronauts would have liked. The Soviet version of the Mercury 7 team (called the Vanguard Six) were formed more than a year after their U.S. counterparts had begun training. Both programs recruited a large field of candidates before they were whittled down to the final grouping. The Mercury astronauts were given exclusive contracts with Life and the magazine spent pages and pages extolling the virtues of these All-American heroes. The V6 cosmonauts were not even allowed to tell their families what they were training for (although some did so knowing that any leak of information would remove them from the program).
The evaluation process for new astronauts was brutal, summed up in a nutshell by John Glenn’s press conference statement: “I didn’t know the human body had so many openings to explore.” The cosmonauts underwent similar torturous medical examinations and training regimes. The biggest difference in the training programs were found in the equipment used to test the limits of human endurance. One cosmonaut described the seat of the centrifuge used to spin them up to high Gs (gravitational pull to simulate a rocket launch) as being ‘belted down so it would not release and throw you into the wall.’ During a session in an isolation chamber pressurized with an oxygen rich atmosphere similar to the spacecraft they would fly, Valentin Bondarenko accidentally started an inferno when an alcohol pad he discarded landed on a hot plate. It was an eerie prelude to the Apollo 1 fire that would claim three NASA astronauts during a training accident in a similarly pressurized capsule six years later. Releasing the details of Bondarenko’s fatal incident may have prevented the Apollo 1 fire, but that is a point of moot speculation.
The other major differences were found in the candidates themselves. The United States recruited men shorter than 5 foot 11 inches with hundreds of hours of flight experience. The Soviets opted for even shorter pilots and if all of the flight training hours for all of the V6 team was added together, it would not have equaled flight time for one of the astronaut candidates. The cosmonaut’s resume also had to insure they had the right ‘party bonafides’. These political attributes were given almost as much credence as their flight experience.
Sergei Korolev had already learned how to play the political games necessary to advance his version of the space program. Having Khruschev in his corner only carried so much weight. The military wished he would concentrate on missiles, not satellites. A colleague, Viktor Kazansky, said Korolev told him, “This (the R-7) is not some military toy. The purpose of this rocket is to get up there,” which he emphasized by pointing at the ceiling. Walking this tightrope caused him a great deal of stress and anxiety, yet he kept his focus on moving forward. Sergei and his team prepared a secret document entitled Materials on the Preliminary Work on the Problem of the Creation of an Earth Satellite With Humans on Board (Object OD-2) in August of 1958, two full months before NASA formalized their own manned space program. In this document, Korolev laid the groundwork for a program that would satisfy the military and his own aims.
Korolev’s report explained the details of a five ton manned orbiting capsule (named the Vostok) that just happened to fit the R-7 where the nuclear warhead would normally be mounted. The part that kept the military at bay was the second version of the OD-2 the team developed. The second version (later called the Zenit) would be an unmanned observation platform that could provide photographic surveillance beyond their enemies reach. By January of 1959, the Communist Party’s Central Committee had put forward a secret decree to kick start the manned program. Their second secret decree on the same subject was issued in May of 1959, a month after the Mercury Seven had been introduced at an All-American star spangled press conference.
Up to this point, the Vanguard 6 cosmonauts had only met Korolev once, but they were never told who he was. In early 1961, the V6 were invited to the rocket team headquarters at the OKB-1 compound in Kaliningrad. The visit marked their first look at the shiny silver spheres that would be their ride into space. Sergei showed them a row of these spacecraft and invited one of the cosmonauts to step inside. Yuri Gagarin was presumed to be the top candidate for the first ride yet Korolev was still impressed when Gagarin stepped forward and removed his shoes before stepping into the Vostok. Both the Soviet and NASA programs had unmanned test flights to perform before they would attempt a manned flight (the Russians employed a mannequin and dog as test subjects while the Mercury capsule would be ridden by a chimpanzee. Both sides knew (at least hoped) they would be first to orbit a human passenger, yet neither side was completely positive about their prospects. It was a race where the Americans were running blind while the Soviets were following all the action at NASA thanks to Life and the news reports that spared no details, good or bad.
The last step for the Mercury test program was scheduled for January 31, 1961. The object was to send a chimp named Ham on a suborbital lob as the last precursor to a manned flight. The previous unmanned Mercury-Redstone (MR-1) booster test two months earlier ended abruptly when the engines shut down four inches (yes, inches) off the pad. The ‘escape tower’ designed to pull the capsule to safety in an emergency fired, but it broke free and slammed to the ground 350 yards away leaving the Mercury capsule attached to the rocket which had settled back on the launch pad. Right on cue, the automated droge parachute deployed after the escape tower had done its job, followed soon after by the main chute. Had the wind picked up, the parachute would have pulled the whole assembly over and the load of fuel on board would have made an impressive fireball. Fortunately, the winds stayed light enough to allow the whole assembly to be left in place as the batteries drained and the cryogenic oxygen was allowed to escape and evaporate through the pressure release valve. The whole episode started when two electrical cables plugged in the rocket base began the shutdown sequence because they were released in reverse order.
Ham’s liftoff went much better, until a thrust controller valve feeding liquid oxygen to the engines stuck wide open. The rocket accelerated faster, climbed higher, and drained its fuel faster than intended. Just one half second before the timer on the auto-abort sequence would self cancel, the Redstone ran out of fuel and the escape tower fired. Ham experienced G-forces greater than any astronaut in training experienced on the centrifuge on both the ascent and descent stages of the flight. The Marshall rocket team (as von Braun’s group was now known) insisted on another test flight to iron out the critical problems experienced on Ham’s flight. The NASA group argued for a manned flight next, but von Braun reminded them their previously agreed upon protocols demanded all parties agree before committing to any flight. Sheperd wasn’t happy watching ‘his’ Mercury Redstone rocket perform flawlessly with a dummy capsule on board instead of his.
The delay caused by von Braun’s ‘one more flight’edict gave Korolev the window of opportunity he needed to get his manned craft in space before the Americans. We will continue the story in part 2 of ‘The King’.
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