1.3: KorolevOCTOBER 18th, 1947: while the rest ofthe world is putting Europe backtogether, Sergei Korolev and his team ofrocket engineers are preparing tolaunch the first V2 rocket from Sovietterritory. There are some 50 peopleunder Korolev‟s direct authority, butbeing an „enemy of the state‟ withspecial status, he is not legally in chargeof anybody and his name does notappear on any documents.It would be very easy at this point to portray Mr Korolev as a man with incredibleknowledge of rocket systems, a man who stood head and shoulders above hispeers in the rocket industry. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn‟t. However great hemay have been with rockets, he appears to have been even greater at mobilisingthe people who worked for him.
1.3: KorolevKorolev always spoke as if he knew exactly what to donext, even perhaps when he secretly didn‟t. He had thering of authority and credibility that made him a naturalleader, and consequently people fell in line with himinstantly, including (I suspect) people who knew evenmore about rocketry than he did. That appears to havemade all the difference.The V2 stands about 12 metres tall – twice the height of atelephone pole – and weighs nearly thirteen tonnes. Twothirds of that weight is fuel. The weapon at the top? Justhalf a tonne of chemical explosive. It‟s enough to blow upa city block, to be sure, but I hope you see my point thatrockets are extremely inefficient creatures, weighingtwenty or thirty times as much as the cargo they carry.
1.4: The Soviet V2Barely a minute after ignition, the entire eight tonnes offuel has been spent and the empty rocket casing is fiftykilometres high in the sky and still climbing. Sheer inertiawill take it up to a hundred kilometres before it tumblesback to Earth and smashes itself at 400 kph into someundeserving wilderness. The entire flight, up and down,takes just five minutes.The test is declared a great success and represents thestart of Russia‟s rocket industry. Two years later, a Soviet-made replica repeats the exercise and the fortification ofthe Soviet border begins.
1.4: The Soviet V2 But the Soviet Union is a very large place, and if it is to defend itself from its enemies in Europe and America, it needs rockets far bigger than anything the Germans ever had. Therefore Korolev is ordered to develop rockets that can travel further and carry bigger explosives. Amongst other „improvements‟ he has in mind, Stalin is thinking about the atomic bomb.
1.5: The Bomb JULY 14th, 1949: Soviet scientists detonate their first experimental atomic bomb, an exercise that makes the Soviet Union as dangerous a country to live next door to as the United States. A so-called „Cold War‟ period begins, in which governments on two sides of the world threaten to destroy each other, but never quite get round to doing it, largely because none of the rockets invented during this period can travel far enough.
1.6: The Vicious SpiralIn the Soviet Union, the plan to strike the West with nuclear weapons is calledthe “3000/3000” project; a short way of saying “3000kg payloads to travel3000km”.We should take a moment to consider the scale of improvement that is requiredto go from a 200-kilometre range to a 3,000-kilometre range, and to go from half atonne of chemical warhead to 3 tonnes of nuclear warhead. It is no overstatementto call this a quantum leap in rocket technology.
1.6: The Vicious SpiralUsing a rough linear approximation to a very complex problem, we could say thatincreasing the required range fifteen-fold, and increasing the required cargoweight six-fold results in a hypothetical rocket ninety times the size of a V2. Sucha rocket will never get off the ground unless it has ninety times as many engines tofight the pull of gravity. More engines means more dead weight to lift off theground, which therefore requires more fuel, larger tanks and more engines.
1.6: The Vicious SpiralYou can see that we have entered into a vicious spiral. The vicious spiral convergesto a sensible solution for small rockets but spirals out of control for rocketsrequired to travel further than about 2000 kilometres. Translated, no rocket builtwith state-of-the-art 1950s technology can travel further than about 2000 km.For a number of years, it looked as though the 3000/3000 project was a dead end.Korolev, however, managed to come up with an ingenious solution in 1953; arocket design that was stylish as well as clever.
1.7: A rocket like no otherSince it was his seventh rocket configuration, Korolev gave it the bland name „R7‟,a gross injustice to a rocket that in the years ahead is going to become the most-launched rocket in history, and the driving force beneath spectacularachievements which Korolev can scarcely imagine in these early days.Korolev‟s solution is, in effect, to bundle five rockets together,side-by-side. One is in the middle and acts as the core stage,and the other four are attached to it as strap-on stages. Theone in the middle is longer than the four on the outside.With a pointed nose-cone at the top of the corestage, the rocket looks rather like a giant,feathered dart and is as streamlined as a rocketever gets. Even standing still on the launch-pad,its sleek, aerodynamic shape suggeststremendous speed, an impression it certainlylives up to.
1.7: A rocket like no other At launch, all five rockets will fire up simultaneously, generating twenty times the thrust of a single V2 engine. About two minutes later, the rocket quintet will be a hundred kilometres above the ground and several hundred kilometres down-range. At that point, the four strap-on rockets will shut down and fall away. Now suddenly lighter, the half-used core stage can accelerate to a much higher velocity for the remainder of the journey, smashing through the 2,000-kilometre limit. When the core stage eventually burns out, five minutes into the journey, it will be over a thousand kilometres down-range and travelling at the unheard of velocity of 20,000 kilometres per hour!
1.7: A rocket like no other At this speed, delivering a 3-tonne payload to London is not only possible, it‟s easy. The five-in-one configuration is so powerful it can even reach across the North Atlantic to New York, a distance of about 8,000 kilometres. Nedelin loves the idea. He approves the draft design immediately and arranges for a sizeable research grant to reach Korolev‟s design office. But „fleshing out‟ the design prior to construction and then testing it will not be easy. There is a need for new fuels, new engines, new casing material and of course better guidance systems. But that just barely starts the list of „news‟ that are required. New partnerships must be forged, because Korolev‟s department cannot do the whole job on its own; the project is simply too vast for that.
1.7: A rocket like no other Korolev will need to delegate much of the work to other organisations (keeping himself in overall command of course). That means there will have to be new accounting procedures to keep track of the developments and production schedules and costs. Money on a hitherto unseen scale will be changing hands. Even shipping the rocket pieces from the factory to the launch pad is going to be a formidable exercise, given the likely size of the new rocket. That means new security issues: how do you get peasants in the field to look the other way when a secret weapon trundles by on the deck of a railway car? Korolev is not simply developing a new rocket, he is developing a whole new industry; the rocket industry.
1.8: Glushko Early 1953: Korolev has a lot of experience designing rockets, but he has very little experience designing rocket engines. Therefore he is obliged to form an alliance with a fellow named Valentin Glushko at OKB-456, whose reputation in that field is beyond question (well, at this point in history anyway). Glushko‟s task is to develop engines of at least 200- tonne thrust, bigger and more powerful than any rocket engines ever built before, on either side of the Iron Curtain. Obviously, the task is going to require a fair bit of thought.But Glushko knows more about rocket propulsion systems than anyone else inthe Soviet Union at the time and is a logical ally for Korolev. The trouble, though,is that he is just as opinionated and self-centred as Korolev himself andconsequently the two men do not get on very well.
1.8: Glushko There is perhaps another, more personal reason for the quiet hostility that existed between these two men: according to some historians, it was Valentin Glushko that reported Korolev‟s name to Stalin‟s terror hunters, all those years ago, which resulted in Korolev being imprisoned for 8 years. Whether Glushko gave Korolev‟s name freely or under duress we can only guess. But it is not a good thought to have on one‟s conscience as you forge a business alliance.
1.9: KhrushchevMARCH 1953: Josef Stalin has died and NikitaKhrushchev has taken over control of the Soviet Union.No-one knows how good this new man will be, butthere is widespread optimism, founded on the simplelogic that no-one can be as bad as Stalin.Korolev soon has personal cause to like the new fellowKhrushchev. In 1954, Khrushchev annuls Korolev‟s so-called „criminal record‟ and gives him the same statusand freedom of all Soviet citizens (which, arguably, isnot very different). Paradoxically, Korolev‟s work is soimportant and so secret that he must remain ananonymous figure, unknown to anyone who does nothave direct professional contact with him. Governmentdocuments refer to him only as the Chief Designer,director of operations at an obscure department calledOKB-1. Even without the criminal label, Sergei PavlovichKorolev is still a prisoner to his beloved career.
1.10: The bigger bombOCTOBER 3rd 1953: Korolev has made considerable progresswith the R7 rocket design. At this stage it looks like the rocketwill weigh a whopping 170 tonnes, fully fifty-six times theweight of the bomb it will carry and thirteen times the size ofany other rocket then under development, anywhere in theworld. So far, everything has been running smoothly. But todaythings are about to get very messy because of work proceedingelsewhere in the Soviet defence industry.It seems that a team of nuclear engineers has perfected asuperior version of the fission bomb, a device three tonnesheavier than the original device but which releases many timesthe amount of destructive thermonuclear energy. The SovietArtillery insist that they must have it, and on this day theyorder Korolev to enlarge his rocket to carry the greater weight.
1.10: The bigger bombKorolev is not at all pleased but he is in no position to argue.Doubling the weight of the payload means doubling the size ofthe rocket. What was once 170 tonnes is now going to be 340tonnes! That of course will restart the vicious spiral of weightand thrust I outlined earlier. When the calculations arecomplete, it becomes clear that Korolev‟s rocket will need fourtimes as much thrust to get off the pad as before. This is not good news for Glushko. He‟s forced to squeeze four engines together at the bottom of each rocket stage, all feeding off the same oxidiser and reactant tanks. Instead of five engines driving the rocket off the pad, now there will be twenty, and the mess they will make of any launch pad is unthinkable.
1.11: The new padVery clearly a more robust launch pad is needed, and this raises the possibility ofrelocating to an entirely new site further to the west, away from the prying radarstations in Turkey which have been able to see all the test launches from KapustinYar and report the details to the enemy.A base in the deep south – say Kazakhstan – would be suitable because of thelower population density there (rockets have a tendency to go off course and it‟snot considered good practice to drop a nuclear payload in a populated area).Furthermore, a rocket launchedeastwards from a site close tothe equator benefits from theEarth‟s speed of rotation andgets to travel further. Korolev‟srequest is approved andconstruction work willcommence as soon as a suitablesite is found.
1.11: The new pad So far so good. But now there is another problem to address: doubling the weight of the rocket has meant that it is now so heavy it can‟t even stand up under its own weight! Korolev hands this problem over to one of his more able assistants, a man named Vladimir Pavlovich Barmin. After some analysis, Barmin returns to his boss with a solution that is as revolutionary as the rocket itself. “What we will have to do,” he would have said, “is to build a cradle for the rocket; an arrangement of mechanical arms that hold it at the waist over a flame pit and rotate out of the way as the rocket rises under its own thrust. You will need to dig a hole under the cradle. A very deep hole….”
1.12: The bulls-eye in the desertBy May there is Earth-movingequipment, wooden huts and emergingstreets. By July there are 5000 people inthis place, living and working withoutrunning water or electricity available tothem. A month later there areexplosions shattering the tightly-packed Earth and blowing clouds ofsoil into the air. There is so much grit inflight we have trouble keeping it out ofour throats and eyes. And there are somany trucks moving backwards andforwards now that their movementsneed to be co-ordinated lest there be acollision in the hazy conditions.
1.12: The bulls-eye in the desertIf we can move closer, we will see thatthey are carting soil out of the biggestmanmade hole anywhere in the SovietUnion and piling it up around theperimeter. By this time next year, thehole will be as deep as an eight-storeybasement and shaped like an invertedcone, perhaps eighty metres indiameter and thirty metres deep.Thousands of people work on thisproject. They‟re pouring concrete anderecting strange looking towers abovethe pit. Others are laying railway trackfrom the main line to the side of thispit.
1.12: The bulls-eye in the desertThis is, of course, the most importantand most secret military project goingon in the Soviet Union at the time.Nevertheless the attention ofpassengers on passing aircraft can‟thelp but be drawn to this dust-cloudon the floor of the desert. They peerdown through the haze and see whatappears to be a giant circle in the sandwith a cross of iron girders across it.Most of these observers have no ideawhat is being built out here, andexercising good communist judgment,pretend not to see it.
1.12: The bulls-eye in the desertHowever, I can imagine what anobserver might be thinking as he looksdown at this thing sticking out of thefeatureless desert like the world‟sbiggest sore thumb. He‟d be thinking“For a secret military installation, itsure is easy to see.”Sure enough, with four massive towersarching backwards away from thecentre of the hole, it looks rather like abulls-eye painted into the desert, agiant target for American bombers toaim at.
1.12: The bulls-eye in the desertIn his desire to make a rocket biggerand faster than any other rocket in theworld, Korolev had lost sight of theneed to keep things simple and – morethan anything else – to keep it out ofsight.
1.16: SputnikLate 1955: Korolev puts his assistant and close friend MikhailTikhonravov in charge of the satellite project and sets himloose on the universities, trying to stimulate interest in theidea.The academics jump into the satellite project with greatenthusiasm. They, more than anyone else, can see theopportunities for extracting good science from an objectcircling the Earth at great altitude.For example, it would be interesting to measure thecomposition of the atmosphere at such a height, and thedensity of it.Some scientists are interested in taking pictures of the Earth and seeing how wellthey agree with existing maps.
1.16: SputnikOther scientists are more interested in looking outwards intospace. They are interested in measuring the amount of naturalradiation emanating from the sun and other sources – thesame radiation which is blocked by the upper atmosphere andwhich therefore cannot be measured by instruments on theground.Whatever instruments are carried, there will be a need forconverting these measurements into some kind of signal andsending it all down to receiving stations on the Earth. Thatmeans tracking stations and decoders and mathematicianswith their huge warehouse-sized computers, calculating theposition and direction of the satellite once it is in orbit.Without this, there will be no way of knowing when to listenin to the signals and which way to point the receivers.
1.16: SputnikAs is always the case, what seems at first to be a simpleproject grows into a very serious technical challenge.The dominating problem here is communication, not with thesatellite but between the humans who are developing thesatellite.Tikhonravov has been finding it increasingly hard to integrateeveryone‟s ideas into a functional satellite when no-one apartfrom himself is allowed to see the big picture. Project secrecyhas been – as usual – absurdly tight. No experimenter hasbeen allowed to see how his experiment will fit into thesatellite and how it might interfere with instruments adjacentto it. This more than anything else has made the designprocess inefficient.
1.16: SputnikTherefore Tikhonravov is constantly sending experimentsback to the developers for modification. It‟s like the fable ofthe blind men and the elephant, each one describing the endhe has contact with – only these blind men are building theelephant!Korolev fears that the tangle of secrecy and bureaucracy willcost him his project. “We can‟t allow this project to fallbehind schedule,” he would have told his staff. “If we get thissatellite into orbit before the Americans, we will get to workon all kinds of fabulous space projects after that. But if theAmericans are first, our work will be cancelled and no-onewill even know that we ever had a satellite project.”
1.16: SputnikBy the end of 1956, Korolev had had enough. Hebrought work on the satellite to a complete halt,disbanded the construction team, shut the doorand (in effect) took the phone off the hook.Within a week he had designed a simple satelliteof his own; no scientists, no on-boardinstruments, just a radio beacon inside a sphereless than a metre in diameter. Sputnik was born.
1.18: For want of a nailIt has been a costly delay andNedelin is getting antagonistic.There has also been an attempt toget the rocket project taken out ofKorolev‟s hands. Some precociousupstart named Vladimir Chelomei,an engineer with a high opinion ofhimself that no-one else has heardof, has written to Khrushchev andurged that he be allowed to takeover the rocket project. The rocketdelays have irritated Korolev, butnothing has offended him as muchas this attempt at intervention.Launch attempts will continue, andKorolev WILL be in charge.