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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 October 2007, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
Profile: Sergei Korolev
Sergei Korolev spent an illustrious career unknown to both his fellow countrymen and to the outside world.

Sergei Korolev. Image: Science Photo Library.
Korolev was imprisoned by Joseph Stalin on trumped-up charges

For years, the man widely regarded as the "father" of the Soviet space programme answered only to the title "Chief Designer", his identity closely guarded by the state.

By contrast, Korolev's counterpart in America, Wernher von Braun, was feted in his lifetime - appearing in Disney films about spaceflight despite a murky past as designer of Adolf Hitler's terror weapon, the V-2.

For Korolev, who had launched the first satellite and the first man into space, recognition was to come only after his death.

As an engineering graduate in Moscow during the 1930s, he co-founded an amateur rocket society with a colleague, Fridrikh Tsander, who, like Korolev, was inspired by ideas of space travel.

Their experiments with liquid fuelled rockets soon caught the eye of the military.

Never ask me about it again - I want to forget it all like a horrible dream
Sergei Korolev

After Tsander's sudden death from typhus, Korolev was persuaded to merge his rocket group with another in Leningrad, forming a new organisation under military leadership.

Korolev re-directed his research towards the development of long range missiles.

But in 1938, during Soviet President Joseph Stalin's "Great Purge", Korolev was denounced by other members of the organisation. He was arrested on trumped-up charges of sabotaging work for defence installations and membership of anti-Soviet groups.

Hard labour

His jaw broken by interrogators, he was sent to one of the most feared parts of the Gulag network of labour camps, the Kolyma region of eastern Siberia. Thousands of prisoners died each month in the freezing gold mine camps.

Sputnik satellite launches on an R-7 rocket. Image: Science Photo Library.

Korolev was worn down by 12-hour days of back-breaking work, a poor diet, the harsh climate and abuse at the hands of guards and genuine criminals.

He was later transferred to a special engineering design office for prisoners - a move which marked the rebirth of his career. By this time, he had lost all his teeth to scurvy and was given potato juice to drink in an effort to nurse him back to health.

Freed in 1946, Korolev spent his first night at home telling the adult members of his family about the ordeal.

His daughter Natalya Koroleva told Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that he finished the night by saying: "Never ask me about it again - I want to forget it all like a horrible dream."

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

Learn by imitation

At the end of WWII, a scramble began to recover the secrets of Nazi Germany's V-2 rockets.

Stalin made missile development a priority for the Soviet Union, and a new facility was established outside Moscow for the purpose. Korolev was tasked with exploiting V-2 technology to develop long-range missiles.

Never ask me about it again - I want to forget it all like a horrible dream
Sergei Korolev
Korolev's efforts led to the R-7, a two stage rocket capable of carrying nuclear warheads - it was the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile.

But Korolev did not lose his passion for space flight.

In 1952, a scientific organisation called for artificial satellites to be launched during International Geophysical Year, designated to begin in 1957.

Korolev saw his chance and campaigned for a Soviet satellite launch.

In 1956, the government approved Korolev's proposal after hearing of US plans to launch their own satellite.

The Soviet 'moon'

Built in a hurry to beat the US into space, Sputnik 1 blasted off atop a modified R-7 missile in October 1957. The launch of the world's first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union sent shock waves around the world.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded more spectacular launches from Korolev's team.

Sergei Korolev and Yuri Gagarin. Image: AP
Gagarin was the face behind space efforts, Korolev the brains

Sputnik 1 was followed by the first animal in space, the first man in space, the first woman, the first three-person mission and the first spacewalk.

By this time, Korolev commanded enormous authority. Yet, despite the grand title of Chief Designer, he was only a part of a large space and weapons industry.

Throughout his career, Korolev faced competition and jealousy, both from rival spacecraft and missile designers and from within his own team of engineers.

When Sweden's Nobel Committee decided to award their prize to the Chief Designer, and asked to know his name, Premier Khrushchev told them the entire Soviet people deserved the award.

According to Khrushchev's son Sergei, Nikita knew that if Korolev was singled out for a Nobel, precarious co-operative efforts between the chief designer and his rivals would collapse.

Lunar programme

There were also notable failures under Korolev's leadership. His early version of the Soyuz spacecraft, which first flew a few months after his death, killed its cosmonaut.

The Soviets eventually tried to compete with the US in the race to be first to land humans on the Moon.

Korolev began work on an immense rocket called the N-1, intended to carry cosmonauts on a lunar venture; but the chief designer died before he could see this plan to fruition.

After the N-1 failed several times in tests, and following Nasa's successful touchdown in the Moon's Sea of Tranquility, the Soviet lunar programme was quietly cancelled.

Korolev had been suffering from health problems for years, some stemming from his time in the Gulag. Accounts of his death differ: he either died during surgery on an intestinal tumour, or during a botched haemorrhoid operation.

A few days after Korolev passed away, his accomplishments were revealed to the world when his obituary was published in the pages of official newspaper Pravda.

In a final twist, the need for secrecy about Korolev's identity was probably a sham. Sergei Khrushchev recalls a KGB chief telling him "the enemy's resources were limited, so we let them waste their efforts trying to uncover 'non-secret' secrets".

Today, Korolev has a town named after him in Russia. Craters on the Moon and Mars, and an asteroid, also bear his name. Korolev's place in history as one of the fathers of space exploration has at last been recognised.



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