Donate/Purchase DVDs

Transcript Archive

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sergey Korolyov Born, January 12, 1907

Guest podcast by Lorne Ipsum,

Today is January 12th, 2007. It marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man who would help energize the cold war, and later give the West fits during the 1960's race to the moon. Since he played a large part in 20th century technological history, but even his existence was a state secret during most of his life, it seems only fitting to give the man his due on this anniversary.

Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov was born on January 12th, 1907 in Zhytomyr, a small provincial center in what is now the Ukraine. Korolyov developed an interest in aviation at an early age, and in 1931 helped form the Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion (GIRD); in 1933, the group had their first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, seven years after Robert Goddard's little-publicized first launch.

Also in 1933, the Soviet government decided to merge GIRD with the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL) in Leningrad, in the process creating the Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute (RNII). While officially being a millitary group, the merged organization included a number of people who were space travel enthusiasts -- including Korolyov and Valentin Glushko. Within RNII, Glushko headed rocket engine design, while Korolyov was in charge of airframes. But this state of affairs was to last just a few years.

In 1938, Stalin's Great Purge swept through the ranks of industry. Glushko was arrested in March, then Korolyov in September. Korolyov was accused of subversion, beaten to extract a confession, then sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. He later learned he had been denounced by Glushko, resulting in a lifelong animosity between the two men. After 5 months of hard labor in a gold mine, Korolyov was sent to a series of "sharashkas" -- essentially, slave labor camps for engineers and scientists.

After World War II, Stalin decided to make missile development a national priority. A new research institute was formed for the purpose, and Korolyov became the chief designer of long-range missiles. Based in part on previous work, but more on technology from captured V-2 missiles and some of their technicians, Korolyov and his staff developed a series of missiles over the coming years with longer and longer ranges. This culminated in the development of the first true ICBM, the R-7, which had a number of failures before successfully launching a dummy warhead across the USSR in 1957.

Much like von Braun in the U.S., Korolyov was essentially apolitical, and so tried not to let his paying customer (i.e., the military) get in the way of his dreams of space exploration. Throughout the development of the R-7, Korolyov pushed for the use of the missile to launch a satellite into Earth orbit. When the concept of launching a satellite appeared in U.S. papers leading up to the 1957 International Geophysical Year, Korolyov was able to use competition with the West for leverage to gain political approval for the effort. Still, the Politburo was strongly influenced by the military, so Korolyov got approval for the attempt only by presenting it as part of the test program for the R-7 ICBM.

To speed development, a very simple design was selected -- which Korolyov's team called Prostreishy Sputnik (simple satellite). Consisting of little more than batteries, a temperature sensor, and radio transmitter, its development took less than a month from start to finish. On October 4, 1957, only 6 weeks after the first successful flight of an R-7, Sputnik I was launched -- resulting in accolades from Khrushchev and others high in the Soviet political hierarchy, and considerable political discomfort in the West.

Korolyov's team followed up on the first Sputnik with a series of satellites to Earth orbit, and later the moon, Mars, and Venus. As was so often the case in those times, some of these spacecraft were successful, but a significant number failed. Still, after posting a number of space firsts, Korolyov's team began work on human space flight. Again, friction with the military became an issue.

Korolyov's R-7 was impractical as a weapon, and Korolyov's insistence on launching a man into orbit absorbed resources that could have been used by the Soviet military. A compromise was reached, and Korolyov was told to proceed with the development of a manned spacecraft as quickly as possible. This led to the launch of Yuri Gagarin into orbit on the 12th of April, 1961. But Korolev's Vostok ("East") capsule design was required to also support unmanned reconnaissance missions. A greater, and more insidious cost was that the Soviet military increasingly nurtured relationships with other designers to support future missile design work. The true impact of this would only make itself seen some years later.

Vladimir Chelomei had headed an institute focused on designing and building cruise missiles. But by the late 1950's, it was obvious that ballistic missiles were not only more reliable than cruise missiles, but harder to defend against as well. The excitement and glamor of space exploration also provided impetus for a change in focus to rocketry, and Chelomei was able to exploit both the military's impatience with Korolyov, as well as political connections gained by hiring some relatives of Khrushchev.

As a result, once the Soviet leadership had signed on to the concept of sending humans to the moon, it found itself with two programs to accomplish this -- one headed by Korolyov, and the other by Chelomei. Each program had its own patrons within the Kremlin hierarchy, and each absorbed funds at an impressive rate. Meanwhile, a technical dispute resulted in Glushko leaving Korolyov's team and joining Chelomei. Since Glushko was the USSR's premier propulsion designer, this left Korolyov without engines for his moon rocket. He had to procure rocket engines from a design bureau whose previous experience had been in turboprop aircraft engines. Due to their poor performance, Korolyov's N-1 launch vehicle required 30 of these engines in the first stage -- controlling so many engines running at once was no simple task with the electronics of the time. And since the N-1 would never have any value as a weapon, the Soviet military refused to support testing of Korolyov's engines.

Meanwhile, Korolyov's manic work schedule, and the damage done to his body during his time in the gulag increasingly took its toll on his health. By 1964 he had already suffered one heart attack, bouts of intestinal bleeding, chronic inflammation of the gallbladder, and been diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia and hearing problems. In December of 1964, he was diagnosed with a bleeding polyp in his large intestine. He entered the hospital the next January for routine surgery, but in the process it was discovered that he had a large abdominal tumor. The surgery was at first felt to be a success, but Korolyov could not be revived. The loss of blood during the operation had proved too much for his weakened heart, and he died on the 14th of January, just two days after his 59th birthday.

In the wake of Korolyov's death, his longtime deputy Vassily Mishin was given the task of completing the Soviet drive to the moon. Mishin was a competent engineer, but didn't have nearly the charisma or political connections that Korolyov had. Meanwhile, Chelomei's parallel development effort helped drain what funding was available, and ultimately the poorly tested engines would result in the end of the N-1 development program (and with it, the Soviets' hopes of a lunar landing) in a series of spectacular in-flight explosions.

During his life, Korolyov was only publicly known as the "Chief Designer," his true identity being a state secret. At least in death, he finally received some overdue recognition for his accomplishments. Since his coworkers and competitors were still alive and working, though, the traditional Soviet veil of secrecy still covered them. As a result, Korolyov's legacy for a time was somewhat inflated. It's only been since the collapse of the Soviet Union that all the surviving parties in the Soviet space program have been accessible, so that a well-rounded history of Korolyov, his legacy, and his times can be compiled.

No comments: