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Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon

James Harford · 3 HN comments
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Amazon Summary
How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive Beat America to the Moon."Fascinating . . . packed with technical and historical detail for the space expert and enthusiast alike . . . Great stuff!"-New Scientist"In this exceptional book, James Harford pieces together a most compelling and well-written tale. . . . Must reading."-Space News."Through masterful research and an engaging narrative style, James Harford gives the world its first in-depth look at the man who should rightly be called the father of the Soviet space program."-Norman R. Augustine, CEO, Lockheed Martin."In Korolev, James Harford has written a masterly biography of this enigmatic 'Chief Designer' whose role the Soviets kept secret for fear that Western agents might 'get at' him."-Daily Telegraph."Harford's fluency in Russian and his intimate knowledge of space technology give us insights that few, if any, Americans and Russians have had into this dark history of Soviet space."-Dr. Herbert Friedman, Chief Scientist, Hulburt Center for Space Research Naval Research Laboratory."Reveals the complex, driven personality of a man who, despite unjust imprisonment in the Gulag, toiled tirelessly for the Soviet military industrial complex. . . . More than just a biography, this is also a history of the Soviet space program at the height of the Cold War. . . . Highly recommended."-Library Journal."For decades the identity of the Russian Chief Designer who shocked the world with the launching of the first Sputnik was one of the Soviet Union's best-kept secrets. This book tells vividly the story of that man, Sergei Korolev, in remarkable detail, with many facts and anecdotes previously unavailable to the West."-Sergei Khrushchev, Visiting Senior Fellow, Center for Foreign Policy Development.
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This biography of the chief rocket designer of the Soviets, Sergei Korolev, is also a good introduction to the Soviet space program.

The Soviets won the first round of the space race (until the mid-60s) because of multiple factors, but mainly because of the laser-focus at the highest levels to push the technology as far as it could go. It helped a lot that they had an engineering genius heading the program (Sergey Korolev), and the top politician during that time (Nikita Khrushchev) was a forward-thinking progressive (relatively speaking - please keep it in context) who was a big fan of space.

Korolev (pronounce: Karalyov) died in the mid-60s, just before the Moon program had started to gear up for the big time. Khrushchev was ousted also during the mid-60s by retrograde bureaucrats.

With both the political and the technical leadership in turmoil, the program fell on very hard times. The didn't get enough funds, could not get proper testing done, and pushed a lot of QA to the live launches. Predictably, the results were "spectacular" - but in a bad way.

A little before that time America finally got its resolve together ("We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...") and started pouring massive amounts of financial and engineering efforts into its space program. Again predictably, the results were spectacular - but in a good way.

If your leadership is indifferent and you don't have the stuff you need, you lose. If you work hard and put all your energies into it, you win. And that applied to both sides, each in its turn. Who knew?

Good book on this topic (and related):


I wish Korolev was around these days so he could see Elon Musk's multi-engine design. I think he would like it. In a (somewhat vague) sense, I see the Falcon Heavy as late vindication for the tremendous efforts, against all odds, of the engineers who busted their asses trying to shoot the N1 into the Moon. The idea was sound, it was just not yet the right time for it.

Korolev also spent almost six years in a gulag in the 30s/40s after being denounced in what likely was likely some dude's play to replace him. He had a bitter rivalry and lots of differences in opinion with his engine designer/supplier, Valentin Glushko (who was arrested for the same made-up offense, but got to continue working on aircraft projects), whom he also held responsible for him nearly dying in the gulag. He ended up actually dying in the middle of N1 development as a late consequence of the catastrophic conditions during his imprisonment.

It really sounds absurd when put like that. And it makes me wonder what the Soviet space programme could have looked like if Korolev hadn't been imprisoned in Stalin's Great Purge.

Korolev's contribution is even more impressive when you consider that he was imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag for many years (for political reasons), suffering under living conditions which probably shortened his life.

Seriously, I can't comprehend the guy.

He starts studying liquid fuel rockets in the '30s, and does some amazing work probably trailing only the top German engineers in this field.

He's denounced by some envious low-lifer who wanted his job and is arrested (along with Valentin Glushko, another great rocket scientist) during the stalinist Great Purge at the end of the '30s, when a simple anonymous note was enough to get someone disappeared. They torture him, sentence him to death - but then he's commuted to hard labor in the gold mine, where the poisonous environment and poor conditions meant the average life expectancy was barely over one year. Loses all his teeth to scurvy.

Meanwhile his friends back in Moscow are lobbying with Lavrenti Beria (the KGB boss) to release him - they succeed and he's placed in the "easy prison" where a bunch of intellectuals were doing essentially white collar slave labor (with pencil on paper, sure, but no choice in the nature of the work) for the Soviet government. He's released towards the end of WW2.

Then Stalin figures he needs to catch up to the Germans in rocketry, so Korolev is rehabilitated, made colonel of the Red Army, and finally starts working again on his rocket engines. They copy a bunch of German designs first, use some German engineers (who were prisoners) to get them started. Then continue on their own.

He develops the first Soviet ICBMs, but that was just what paid the bills. He keeps pushing for a real space program. Launches Sputnik 1 into space. Leads the Soviet space program until the mid-60s.

When he died, he was working on plans for manned missions to Mars and beyond.

I mean, what motivates a person to keep forging ahead against such adversity? Death sentence, hard labor in the poison mine, years of imprisonment and disgrace - and then he builds and launches the world's first ever satellite. To say nothing of the fact that, like Elon Musk, he was a man of many talents: great engineer, very effective leader, and a good politician and lobbyist. It's amazing.

great book that goes into much more detail about the enigmatic Korolev who pretty much was the iron will behind the entire Soviet space program--even more so than his American counterparts von Braun/Webb etc.
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