How Sergei Korolev took the Soviet space programme to greater heights

Published: March 14, 2019 3:21 AM

After Yuri Gagarin’s landmark achievement of becoming the first man to travel to space, the USSR had nothing more to prove that it was the most potent space power in the world.

Sergei Korolev, soviet union, ussrSergei Korolev

By Martand Jha

The year 2019 marks 50 years of Neil Armstrong’s landing on the Moon in 1969, which made the US victorious and the USSR lose the space race. Back in the 1960s, the Soviet space programme was growing and expanding rapidly. After Yuri Gagarin’s landmark achievement of becoming the first man to travel to space, the USSR had nothing more to prove that it was the most potent space power in the world. Although the US was catching up fast, still it was no match to the Soviets. This became apparent when US President John F Kennedy accepted the Soviet dominance in outer space activities when he was announcing his decision to send a man to the Moon. Also, the timeframe for sending a manned mission to the Moon was deliberately kept around a decade, because the US knew that before that they had no chance to overtake the Soviets in the space race.

Meanwhile, the USSR sent the first woman to space, on June 16, 1963. Valentina Tereshkova was the first female Soviet cosmonaut to go to space. This was another landmark because it opened an entirely new avenue for women to pursue a career in space engineering and astronomy. The next year, 1964, brought another milestone when the Soviets launched the first ever multi-manned spacecraft called Voskhod 1. Three cosmonauts were sent into space as the USSR was trying to experiment more with respect to manned space missions. The idea must have been to stretch the limits and see what all is possible in setting new records in space missions. This is precisely why the crew in Voskhod 1 contained a pilot, a physician and a scientist on board.

The Voskhod programme was short, with only two space flights, i.e. Voskhod 1 and Voskhod 2. The Voskhod 2 space flight had left everyone in amazement when Alexei Leonov (a Soviet cosmonaut) did the first ‘spacewalk’. His 12 minutes and 9 seconds spacewalk happened on March 18, 1965. This was a big scientific achievement as new barriers were being crossed by the mankind in its endeavour to explore the space. The flip side to it was the daredevilry and risks taken by the Soviets to accomplish these tasks. Due to this, many of the Soviet missions also failed, and many fatal as well as non-fatal accidents happened. Before 1975, four soviet cosmonauts died during their space flight. The reasons for these fatalities ranged from parachute failure to decompression in the crew cabin. Despite these setbacks, the Soviets were gaining more than they lost. The biggest lost they (the USSR) had was the death of Sergei Korolev.

Korolev, whose name has been synonymous with the Soviet Space programme, was a man who largely worked behind the scenes. His identity was kept a secret to the world, and it was only after his death in 1966 that the world got to know about the genius of Korolev. Under his leadership, the Soviets managed to stamp their authority in the field of outer space. The many ‘firsts’ that the world saw as a result of space race were due to the sheer dedication and efforts of Korolev and his team of engineers. Other than space programme, Korolev oversaw the USSR’s missile programme and rocketry. A rocket engineer by profession, Korolev took the Soviet space programme to great heights. Until his death, he was formally designated as Glavny Konstruktor, or the Chief Designer, to protect him from possible Cold War assassination attempts by the US.

Although rocketry and space programmes of Russia/USSR had origins in the late 1800s with the far-sighted and at times far-fetched writings of a deaf, self-taught school teacher named Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, it was Korolev who took the Soviet space programme to the next level. The Soviet efforts in outer space after the Second World War were ironical. This is because, despite emerging as one of the two superpowers, the country had incurred tremendous loss of life and property. At that time, it was no less than a miracle for anyone to think to spend in the costly affairs of outer space technology. But the young engineers of Soviet Russia, which included Korolev as the head of the operations, were in a ‘mission mode’.

Korolev set hard deadlines for himself and his team. This made the USSR achieve many things as the first country on the planet to do so. For instance, sending the first artificial satellite (Sputnik in 1957), sending the first man to space (Gagarin in 1961), etc. His death halted the Soviet space programme to an extent that the USSR couldn’t manage to be the first country to land a man on the Moon. Many space historians attribute the victory of Cold War space race to the US because Korolev’s death impacted the USSR’s space programme negatively. A large portion of the glory, prestige and national honour of Soviet Union goes to Korolev as he made the Soviet leadership understand the importance of spending hugely in a space programme. More than anything, Korolev had great managerial skills. This aspect of his nature was highlighted by the fact that one after the other from 1957 till his death, every year the USSR was setting new benchmarks in the field of outer space.

The Soviet space programme was interlinked with their ‘five year plans’. This ensured constant supply of finances. Unlike NASA, the Soviets didn’t have a centralised space agency. The space programme had a ‘dual character’. On one hand, things like Soviet space capabilities in the arena of telecommunications and meteorology were publicised, but other part of the programme that dealt with spying, radar calibration, covert communication, navigation, geodesy and satellite interception were masqueraded as a part of scientific research.
Korolev was to the USSR what Wernher von Braun was to the US.

The author is senior research fellow at the School of International Studies, JNU

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