Sergei Korolev

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Sergei Korolev

Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (Серге́й Па́влович Королёв) (December 30, 1906January 14, 1966) was the head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the space race, known only as "the chief designer" during his lifetime. He is regarded as the Soviet Union's counterpart to Wernher von Braun.

He grew up in Ukraine and was trained as an aircraft designer. However his professional strengths proved to be in organization, design integration, and strategic planning. He was caught up in the Stalinist purges of 1938, and spent some time in a Siberian gulag. After his release he went on to become a rocket designer, and was a key figure in the development of Russia's ICBM program. As the chief designer of the Soviet space program, he then oversaw the Sputnik and Vostok programs, and the plans to send a man to the Moon. He died unexpectedly at age 59 due to a botched surgical procedure.


Early life

He was born in Zhytomyr, a small city near Kiev in Ukraine, part of Imperial Russia. His parents, Maria Nikolaevna Moskalenko and Pavel Yakovlevich, had wed in an arranged marriage and the union was not a happy one. Three years after his birth the couple separated due to financial difficulties. Sergei was informed by his mother that his father had died at the time, and only later learned that Pavel had lived until 1929. The two never met after the family break-up, although Pavel later wrote to Maria to request a meeting of his son.

Sergei grew up in Nezhin, under the care of his grandparents. His mother had wanted an advanced education, and so was frequently away taking courses in Kiev. Sergei 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 Russian Revolution. The internectine struggles in continued until the Soviets assumed power in 1920. During this time period the local schools were closed and young Sergei had to continue his studies at home. In 1919 there were severe food shortages, and Sergei suffered from a bout of typhus. Even after this the family suffered through hard times, as did much of the remainder of the nation.


Korolev continued his schooling at the Odessa construction professional (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 Sergei took a keen interest in their operations.

In 1923 he joined the Society of Aviation and Aerial Navigation of Ukraine and the Crimea (OAVUK). Even this small group was a Communist Party organization, and as a member Sergei underwent indoctrination. 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 Polytechnical 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 Bauman Highest Technical School (MVTU).

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Korolev sitting in cockpit of the glider "Koktebel"

Until 1929, Korolev 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, Korolev had more opportunities to fly gliders and powered aircraft, and he reveled 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. Korolev 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.

Early Career

Having graduated, Korolev 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 acrobatics. By 1930 he became a lead engineer on Tupolev's TB-3 heavy bomber

In 1930, Korolev 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 Korolev became interested in the possibilities of liquid 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 Korolev 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 the 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 Korolev 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. Korolev 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, Sergei's wife gave birth to their daughter, Natasha. In 1936 they were able to move out of Sergei's parent's home and into their own apartment. Both parents had careers, and Korolev 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. Korolev was a charismatic leader who served primarily as a engineering project manager. He was a demanding, hard-working man, with a disciplinary style of management. Korolev personally monitored all key stages of the programs and paid meticulous attention to detail.


On June 22, 1938, during the the Great Purge, men from the NKVD entered his apartment and summarily took him away. He was accused of subversion, apparently due to his desire to work on liquid-rocket powered aircraft rather than solid rockets. Supposedly he had spent too much money on a project that the RNII did not consider a top priority. Korolev was not given a trial, but was beaten by his captors and a "confession" was thus extracted. He was sentenced to imprisonment for ten years. Korolev learned that he had been denounced by Glushko that resulted in a life long animosity between the two men as well as Korolev's constant suspicion of the other Chief Designers.

After months of transport and abuse, he finally arrived at the notorious Kolyma gulag camp in Siberia. The conditions in the camp were brutal, with harsh treatment, poor food and lack of adequate clothing and shelter against the elements. His camp is known to have produced a death rate in the tens of thousands per year, killing roughly 30 percent of the prison population per annum.

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 Korolev 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.

Sergei survived the gulag experience, but he lost all of his teeth, suffered a broken jaw, and developed a heart condition. He stayed five months in the camp (actually a surface gold mine) and spent his time there performing manual labor. Back in Moscow, however, they had decided to reinvestigate his case. As a result he was to be shipped back west. On the train trip home, however, he suffered a case of scurvy and nearly died.

Following the reinvestigation, Korolev's sentence was reduced to eight years. At this point a number of notable Russians interceded on his behalf, and he was kept from returning to the gulag. Instead he was assigned to a "sharashka", a type of penitentiary for intellectuals and the educated. These were effectively a slave-labor camp for scientists and engineers to work on projects assigned by the communist party leadership.

The Central Design Bureau 29 (KB-29, ЦКБ-29) of the NKVD, served as Tupolev's engineering facility, and Korolev was brought here to work for his old mentor. During World War II, this sharashka designed both the Tupolev Tu-2 bomber and the Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft. The group was moved several times during the war, the first time to avoid capture by advancing German forces.

In 1942 Korolev managed to be moved to another "sharashka" under the rocket engine designer Glushko. The sharashka designed rocketry plane busters. Korolev 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, Korolev (along with Tupolev, Glushko and others) was finally discharged by special government decree and his prior convictions were dismissed. The design bureau was handed over from NKVD control to the government's aviation industry commission. Still Korolev continued working with the bureau for another year, serving as deputy designer under Glushko and studying various rocket designs.

Ballistic missiles

In 1945 Korolev 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 rocketry experts, he was flown to Germany to gather information on the German V-2 rocket. The soviets placed a priority in reproducing lost documentation on the V-2, and studying the various parts and captured manufacturing facilities. In 1946 it was decided by the Soviet government to ship some 5,000 German rocket workers back to Russia, effectively kidnapping them, although they were treated relatively decently.

Stalin had decided to make missile development a national priority, and the German "recruits" were placed into a new institute created for the purpose, the NII-88. Development of ballistic missiles was put under the military control of Dimitri Ustinov, with Korolev serving as chief designer of long-range missiles. Korolev demonstrated his organizational abilities in this new facility, keeping a dysfunctional and highly-compartmentalized organization operating. The Germans at the facility were held in what was effectively a prison workshop, surrounded by barbed wire and armed female guards.

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Sergei Korolev at the Kapustin Yar firing range in 1953.

With the documents 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 landing on target. This was comparable to the German success rate, and demonstrated the unreliability of the rocket. The Russians continued to utilize the expertise of the Germans on their rocket designs until about 1952 when the first groups began to return home. (The last group returned in 1954.)

In 1947 the NII-88 group under Korolev 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. The first true ICBM, however, would be the R-7 (code-named SS-6 Sapwood). 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.

It was in 1952 that Korolev 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.

Personal life

The Soviet emigre Leonid Vladimirov relates the following description of Korolev by Glushko at about this time:

"Short of stature, heavily built, with head sitting awkward on his body, with brown eyes glistening with intelligence, he was a skeptic, a cynic and a pessimist who took the gloomiest view of the future. 'We will all vanish without a trace' was his favorite expression."

Korolev 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 Sergei and Xenia began to break up. Xenia was heavily occupied with her own career, and at about this time Sergei had an affair with a younger, pretty woman named Nina Ivanovna Kotenkova. Xenia, who still loved Sergei and was angry over the infidelity, was divorced in 1948. Sergei and Nina then were wed in 1949, but he was known to have had affairs even after his remarriage to Nina.

Space program

Korolev was key in the design and launch of , the first ever
Korolev was key in the design and launch of Sputnik 1, the first ever artificial satellite

In spite of the Soviet progress on ICBM technology, Korolev 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 U.S. government were not well disposed toward the idea of spending millions of dollars on this concept, and so it was effectively frozen for a period. However Korolev's group followed the western press, and they thought it possible to beat the U.S. to the punch. He was finally able to win over support because of competition with the U.S. 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. Korolev personally managed the assembly, and the work was very hectic. Finally on October 4th, 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 Russian revolution. This was less than a month away, on November 3rd. The result was Sputnik 2.

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R-7 with 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 and still alive though it died soon after due to heat exhaustion.

Alas 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 American's 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.


Korolev 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.

Korolev's group was also working on ambitious programs for missions to the 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.

Manned flight

Korolev's planning for the manned 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 unmanned 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 man in space. He returned to Earth via a parachute after ejecting at an altitude of 7 km.

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Two N1 Moon rockets appear on the pads at Baikonur Cosmodrome in early July 1969.

This was followed up by additional Vostok flights, culminating with 81 orbits completed with Vostok 5 and the launch of the first woman cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova on Vostok 6.

Following Vostok Korolev 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 Khruschev to cheaply produce more 'firsts' for the manned programme. Korolev was reported to have resisted the idea, since he currently lacked a rocket of sufficient capability to lift a three-man capsule into space. However Khruschev was not interested in technical excuses and let it be known that if Korolev couldn't do it, he would hand the work off to his rival Chalomei.


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 Korolev 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. Even the crew were placed on a special diet to reduce their weight. The vehicle was launched into space at close to the maximum launch weight of the Vostok rocket, requiring the consumption of the entire fuel supply.

This spacecraft made one unmanned test flight, then on October 12, 1964 a crew of three cosmonauts 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 Voskod 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 Kruschev meant that Korolev was back in favour and given charge of beating the US to landing a man on the moon.

For the moon race, Korolev's staff designed the immense N1 rocket. He also had in work the design for the Soyuz manned spacecraft, as well as the Luna vehicles that would soft landed on the Moon and unmanned missions to Mars and Venus. But, unexpectedly, he was to die before he could see his various plans brought to fruition.


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On December 3, 1960, Korolev 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 Korolev reasoned that once the Soviets lost their leadership in space, the capricious Khruschev would likely cut off the funding for his programs. So he continued to work even more intensely than before.

By 1962 Sergei Korolev's health problems were beginning to accumulate and he was suffering from numerous ailments. He had a bought of intestinal bleeding that led to him being taken to the hospital in the 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 of 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, apparently due to a botched operation. 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 haemorrhoids. His weak heart then contributed to his demise following the operation.

Under a policy initiated by Stalin then continued by his successors, the identity of Korolev was never revealed until his death. The purported reason was to "protect" him from foreign agents from the U.S.. As a result the Russian 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 Korolev with all his medals. He was buried with state honors in the Kremlin wall.

Korolev is often compared to Wernher von Braun as the leading architect of Space Race. Unlike Von Braun, Korolev 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 less advanced technology than was available in the U.S.

Korolev's successor in the Soviet space program was Vassily Mishin. Mishin was a highly competent engineer who served as Korolev's deputy and right-hand man. After Korolev 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 the rival Valentin Glushko after 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.

Awards and honors

Among his awards, he was twice bestowed the the Hero of Socialist Labor in 1956 and 1961. He was also a Lenin Prize winner in 1957, 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 Korolev in 1966 and is now called Ulitsa Akademika Koroleva (Academician Korolev Street). The memorial home-museum of akademician S.P.Korolev was established in 1975 in the house where Korolev lived since 1959 till 1966 (Moscow, 6th Ostankinsky Lane,2/28). [1] ( In 1976 he was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame. [2] ( In 1986 the USSR produced a 10k postage stamp to honor Sergei Korolev. [3] (

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 Korolev. There is now an oversized statue of SP Korolev located in the town square. RSC Energia was also renamed to S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia.

There are some astronomical features named after Korolev, including Korolev crater on the far side of the Moon and another crater on Mars. The asteroid 1855 Korolev is also named for him.



  • James Harford, Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon, 1997, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-471-14853-9.
  • Leonid Vladimirov, The Russian Space Bluff, (trans. David Floyd), 1971, The Dial Press, ISBN 0854680233.
  • Vassily P. Mishin, Why Didn't We Fly to the Moon?, JPRS-USP-91-006, November 12, 1991, pg. 10.
  • A fictionalized but historically plausible account of Korolev's last days can be found in the short story The Chief Designer ( by Andy Duncan.

See also

External links


es:Sergui Koroliov fr:Sergue Korolev it:Sergei Korolev pt:Sergei Korolev ru:Королёв, Сергей Павлович fi:Sergei Korolev


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