In 1924 Korolev enrolled at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute in its aviation branch. He also became a glider enthusiast. In 1926 he transferred to the Bauman High Technical School in Moscow, the top engineering college in the Soviet Union. In 1928 he designed a glider, which he flew in a competition. Graduating in 1929, he joined the Central Aero and Hydraulic Institute, working under the brilliant Soviet aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev. The next year Korolev became interested in the development of liquid-fuel rocket engines. In July 1932 he was appointed head of its Jet Propulsion Group, which the next year became the Jet Propulsion Research Institute with Korolev as its deputy chief. He headed research into cruise missiles and a manned rocket-powered glider.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's Great Purges of the late 1930s included many scientists among the innocent victims, and in June 1938 Korolev was arrested and accused of subversion, apparently because he advocated development of liquid-fuel over solid-fuel systems. Sentenced to ten years in prison, he was sent to the Siberian gulag. He nearly died in the brutal conditions there, but in March 1940 he was returned to Moscow and was placed in Butyrskaya Prison. That September he was transferred to a sharashka, in effect a slave-labor camp for those held to be useful to the state. This sharashka was an aviation design bureau prison. There he worked with other aviation engineers, including Tupolev. Released in July 1944 on parole, in September 1945 Korolev traveled to Germany to study and evaluate that nation's V-2 rocket program. The next year he was appointed head of a new agency charged with developing long-range ballistic missiles based on the German World War II advances. In this research the Soviets utilized some 5,000 captive Germans who had worked on the wartime V-1 and V-2 programs.
Over the next two decades, Korolev—the Soviet counterpart to Wernher von Braun in the United States—headed the Soviet development of ballistic missiles, satellite launch vehicles, satellites, manned spacecraft, and interplanetary probes. Korolev's R-1 missile doubled the range of the German V-2 and was the first ballistic missile to have a separate warhead. His R-5, which flew successfully in 1953, had a range of 720 miles. The R-7 of 1957, with a range of 4,200 miles, was the first true intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In 1952 he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), although he was not completely rehabilitated politically until 1957.
Korolev was especially interested in the space program and proposed the R-7 rocket to lift satellites into orbit. Aware of the U.S. space program through press reports, he secured the support of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, against the opposition of military and other political leaders, for the attempt by the USSR to be the first nation to launch an object into space orbit. Korolev achieved this feat in October 1957 with Sputnik I. Beginning the next year, he planned a manned mission, achieved with the Vostok spacecraft in April 1961.
Korolev advocated a Soviet effort to land a spacecraft on the moon, and for this his team designed the immense N1 rocket and the Soyuz spacecraft as well as Luna vehicles to land on Mars. He also sought to send unmanned missions to Mars and Venus. He did not live to see his plans come to fruition. Korolev had already suffered a heart attack in 1960. His weakened heart contributed to his death on 14 January 1966, following a botched routine surgical procedure. Korolev's pivotal role in the Soviet space program was kept secret from the Soviet people and the world and was not widely known until well after his death.
Spencer C. Tucker
Vladimirov, Leonid. The Russian Space Bluff. Translated by David Floyd. New York: Dial, 1971.