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Last Updated: Friday, 12 January 2007, 15:07 GMT
The man who mined the stars
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

As a century falls since the birth of the late Soviet space pioneer, Sergei Korolyov, BBC News looks at the stark contrast between a life spent in the mines of the Gulag or in secrecy, and his posthumous fame.

Yuri Gagarin (in uniform) with Sergei Korolyov in September 1961
If Korolyov was the space effort's brains, Gagarin was the face

Sergei Korolyov's anniversary is being celebrated in Russia and his native Ukraine with ceremonies, commemorative medals and coins, while a Progress spacecraft being sent to the International Space Station next week will be specially decorated in his honour.

On Moscow's Red Square, wreaths are being laid at his grave in the Kremlin wall, the last resting-place of the USSR's officially recognised heroes.

Inside the Kremlin itself, a function will be devoted to the memory of the man who designed the world's first satellite, Sputnik, and put the first man, Yuri Gagarin, in space.

'Not for you, Comrade'

Back in April 1961, Gagarin himself was feted on the same square after his return from making history but Korolyov was unable to join him there.

We are miners, we are underground - nobody sees or hears us
Sergei Korolyov
speaking of his scientific work

The space programme leader's car had been positioned among the last in the triumphal procession into Moscow and he and his wife were unable to wade through the crowd, Korolyov's daughter Natalya Korolyova told Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in an interview.

On another occasion devoted to Soviet space exploration, he tried to take a seat at the front of the hall and was turned away by stewards with the words: "These seats are only for those with a direct connection to this event, Comrade."

The fact is that Sergei Korolyov spent his whole career unknown to most of his fellow countrymen and unknown to the outside world.

"He was always described simply as the Chief Designer of Carrier Rockets and Spacecraft," says space historian Peter Bond.

Korolyov's name was only revealed by the Soviet state on the day of his death at the age of 59 in 1966.

But just a few decades earlier, he had faced the prospect of disappearing into complete oblivion as a victim of Stalin's repressions.

Convict N1442

Arrested in 1938 during a purge of the scientific research institute where he worked, the brilliant young scientist was sentenced to 10 years' prison on a trumped-up charge of planning anti-Soviet sabotage.

Sergei Korolyov played by actor Steve Nicolson in the BBC film Space Race
BBC film Space Race recounted Korolyov's space race with the US

His jaw broken by his interrogators, he was sent as Convict N1442 to the gold mines of one of the most feared parts of the Gulag labour camps, the Kolyma region of eastern Siberia.

An ordeal of 12-hour days of back-breaking work, poor diet, the cold and abuse at the hands of guards and the genuine criminals among the convicts wore him down.

By the time, a couple of years later, he was transferred to work in a special prisoners' design bureau in Kazan - the move which marked the rebirth of his career - he had lost all his teeth to scurvy and was suffering from other ailments.

Set free in 1946, he spent his first night at home telling the adult members of the family about his ordeal, Natalya Korolyova said.

He finished with the words "Never ask me about it again - I want to forget it all like a horrible dream."

His daughter adds that her father had developed a loathing for gold and would frequently say he hated it.

Another time, he apparently told a colleague, referring to the secrecy in which he had to work: "We are miners, we are underground - nobody sees or hears us."

Korolyov on Mars

The success of Sputnik in 1957 sent shock waves though the USSR.

He was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the glory years of the Soviet space programme
Peter Bond
space historian

"The Soviet government was stunned by the global media coverage and demanded ever more spectacular flights from Korolyov's team," Peter Bond told the BBC News website.

"This led to the first animal in orbit, the first human, the first woman, the first three-person mission and the first spacewalk."

Korolyov, he added, was only part of a large space industry which included several influential rivals and there were also many failures under his leadership, which were hidden from the public at the time.

His Soyuz spacecraft, for example, which first flew a few months after his death, killed its cosmonaut.

"Yet he was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the glory years of the Soviet space programme," according to Mr Bond, who has a book on planetary exploration, Distant Worlds, published next month.

Korolyov may have a town named after him in Russia, and craters on the Moon and Mars which bear his name, but his memory appears able to create unease at the Kremlin even now.

His time in the Gulag is the focus of Korolyov, a Russian film made to coincide with the 100th anniversary by director Yury Kara.

It was meant to be shown at the Kremlin function, Kara told Izvestiya newspaper, but it appears that it was finally dropped from the programme and replaced with a concert.


Your comments:

When I was a child, I listened to beeping from Sputnik 1 on my father's ham radio receiver. I was too young to comprehend the wave of fear it sent through the government, but it planted the seeds of a life-long fascination with spaceflight. In all these years, I believe that your article was the first mention I have heard of Korolyov's name. Thank you for revealing that the strength of his character more than equalled the magnificence of his achievements.
Ric Getter, Portland, Oregon, USA

During my training as an aero engineer in the UK, lecturers would frequently compare Russian pragmatic and reliable technology to the West's more fragile but higher performing methods. Still today, engineers receive almost no media coverage. They are the ones that make the greatest projects feasible and ultimately a success. More importance is given to the artist or architect than to the chief engineer - the one who has the nerves to do the hard core work and methodically track down all possibly known sources of failure to ensure that the project succeeds. The media still does not value this.
Thomas, Zurich, Switzerland

Sometimes great touches by talented people ignite the hope of a nation. I do believe that Korolyov did not formulate the core success for the USSR alone but all nations. Other nations should take lessons from Korolyov's story and remember that no one can cover the sun forever - even dark clouds. Thanks for BBC
Firas, UAE

Sergei Korolyov was always an inspiration for me. I was lucky to get technical education in the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) where I met people who worked with him on the Russia space program. I do not know any other person in the history who has made such an impact through his engineering brilliance and drive.
Alexander, Los Angeles, California

I don't see any "unease" neither from Kremlin, or anybody else in Russia when talking about Korolyov. Russia has already settled with its past and is proud of the achievements it made. West has to learn not be envious and not try to teach Russians how to live their lives. In many respects, as Korolyov has shown, Russians can teach West a thing or too. Korolev was a genius, as were others who worked with him. I hope that one day BBC will make a documentary that will show the other rocket designers, not only Korolyov.
Oleg, Toronto, Canada

I am a student considering majoring in engineering and Korolyov has served as the inspiration for this ambition since I first heard about him (probably from a History Channel documentary) when I was in middle school. It always strikes me how little so many Americans know of this individual (if they know of him at all) in spite of his importance. But we had our own set of heroes and Korolyov was, of course, the mastermind behind our rival - a rival we like to believe we defeated. It is unfortunate that the early years of space exploration were defined by competition fuelled by not only national pride but opposing ideologies and mutual distrust, the rivalries of governments creating walls that kept science separate - East and West. Now nations have learned to cooperate in space, setting their earthly differences aside, but now there is a lack of public interest. Perhaps, through leaning about its past, people will take more interest in the future of space exploration. They know it happened, but names are easily forgotten, if ever known, particularly in the case of my generation, growing up with space travel as a given and nothing to be excited about. While there are celebrations elsewhere today, there is, so far as I can tell, an almost complete lack of awareness here. Korolyov was unknown in life and, though he is gaining wider recognition now, he remains in the shadows of history. Anonymity is a hard thing to break.
A. M. H., New Jersey, USA

I am a South Asian Canadian. I did my higher studies in Moscow's Lumumba University. I learned of Korolyov in one of my science disciplines but I did not believe in it as the Soviets always tended to make us believe that it were the Russians who invented everything. Coming to the West I learned of the authenticity of Mendeleev's Periodic table and today BBC got rid from me another doubt that I had for years. I salute you, Comrade Korolyov!
Naeem Nabi, Milton, Canada

In a country where up to the present day the average citizen is, for all practical purposes, a non-person, it was always a rather simple matter to make out anyone a non-entity, regardless of his social or political status. This fact partly explains the futility of expecting Russia to set up a Western-style political system, especially now, when the Western democracies have entered a seemingly irreversible course of decay.
Carlos Villanueva, Warsaw, Poland

My father was inspired by the genius Korolyov, but when he was arrested it also made him realise that space engineering was a dangerous pursuit in the USSR at the time. I sometimes wonder why those with such immense power as Stalin had so often abuse it, and I am left with the sad conclusion that they do it simply because they can. The whims of mighty men, unchecked, spread devastation in their wake.
Marina Lewycka, Sheffield, UK

A towering genius whose skill in man management and organization equalled his engineering accomplishments. I remember watching a documentary about him, where he was quoted to have said, during the latter stage of his life, that all he wanted was a few more years in order to undertake and complete a manned mission to Mars. I often wonder what he might have accomplished in the United States, if he was given an unlimited budget.
Rashid, Irvine, California

During my school days (in India) many of us (including me) "sided" with the Soviet Union, and hated the Americans who were seen as scheming imperialists. I do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water, but for me, the repression and brutalities under the Soviet dictators far outweigh whatever social progress they made. Movies such as the one on Korolyov, hopefully, will educate people the world over on the dangers of totalitarianism. I have my doubts though. Even today I see politicians swearing by Stalin in India. If we do not learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them.
Rajiv, India

The fact Korolyov & his associates were able to accomplish all they did given Soviet industry and technology was 80 years behind the West says a great deal about the genius behind their many projects. That such a gifted and patriotic man could end up in a labour camp is yet another example on why the Soviet system failed.
James Varela, Sarasota, FL

Good to see a column like this on BBC. For someone like me who never heard of people like Sergei, this would be a great read. Glad to know that he is being posthumously recognized for his works.
Praveen, India

He was a great man, and he is a great hero to all peoples of former Soviet Union, however we take a great pride in the fact that he was Ukrainian. Imagine how many more Korolyovs there could be if not... gulags, etc. Because of this great man all kids wanted to be astronauts, or cosmonauts. And God save us all from any kind of revival of embarrassing Soviet past, and let us only remember how great Soviet people were and how they could move on. Thank BBC for recognizing this important and amazing personality.
Yulia, Toronto

It is good to read about the achievements of Korolyov and other Soviet Scientists now in the West. During the Cold War these achievements were ignored or underestimated. It is amazing how very little people know about them. Until recently very little mention is made of these scientific achievements. Haven worked in schools and colleges in England, I am surprised that very few people know that the first satellite, first manned flight, first space walk, first woman in space, all these happened in the former Soviet Union and not in America. Keep up the good works, BBC.
Ralph Benro, London,Uk

I am reading about Korolyov for the first time. I am deeply inspired by his commitment to succeed and make a mark on the face of history. Although I am not a scientist, his story definitely will spur me not only to forgive and forget but to make a mark despite the frustrations... Thank you
Samuel Tortiv, Abuja, Nigeria

We have lost another of these incredible, visionary people without whom many of the successes of the 20th century might have been forestalled. Korolyov should stand as a monument to all that is great in the human spirit and should serve as a model to all of us who face hard times.
Allen L. McMurrey, Dripping Springs, Texas, USA

I know a number of people who worked with and for Sergei Korolev and have heard from them how much he inspired them with his engineering leadership. I wish we had such people today cutting through the appalling fear of failure that paralyses us. Latter day space programmes are very short on ambition in comparison with his achievements and those of his contemporaries.

I hope that modern space engineers and planners are inspired by the retelling of his story, and managers take note of the need to provide real technical leadership in this difficult field. There is no-one like Korolev at ESA or NASA today - these are the agencies where the UK looks for space leadership presently.
TJ Stevenson, Chief Engineer, Leicester Uni Space Research Centre, Leicester, UK

I was 11 and in 6th grade in Atlanta, Georgia when Sputnik's success stunned the world. The schools were immediately surveyed to assess students' knowledge of science, and science classes became a part of core curriculum forevermore. Hard to believe it ever was not! Thank goodness for Sergei Korolyov and the vast improvements his accomplishments have meant for US students this last half century.
Gail Padgett, Washington, DC, US

As a child growing up in the 60s and 70s in the Soviet Union and then in the USA, I learned the name of Korolev at a pretty early age. His successes with the first rockets into space have played an important role in my choosing aerospace engineering for my career. It was nice to see him noted today on the BBC.
Dimitry, Boston, USA, formerly Leningrad, USSR

The unease with which the Kremlin looks on the poignant story of Korolyov underlines the attachment the current regime in Russia still feels for its Soviet precursors. Russia and eastern Europe in general needs to somehow settle with the ghosts of its authoritarian past.
Rimantas Aukstuolis, Hudson, Ohio USA

Saddened at the fate of this brilliant noble scientist. Stalin was the gravedigger of the Russian revolution.
M.Feinblatt, Delray Beach, Florida

It is amazing that this man has been passed over for his achievements. Here, also in the US, if you were to ask people who Von Braun was, it would be like...huh? Yet he was the brain-child whose vision (and implementation) got America to the moon and beyond. I think the relentless pursuit of material goods and money in the West far exceeds what is of real significance.
Ervin Raab, Los Angeles




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