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

By James Harford (1997, John Wiley & Sons)

The life of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev from his childhood through his years as the main driving force behind the Soviet space program.



2 stars

Read September 6th to 23rd, 1999  
    I was really looking forward to reading this book.  I have read numerous articles in Quest, the History of Spaceflight magazine concerning his role in the Soviet space program.  The impression I got was that, although he had competition in the USSR, he was essentially the person in charge of the Soviet program.  It seems that I was correct.  When Korolev died, it seemed to me that the Soviet space program disintegrated as well.  In that, I was incorrect.  Though the Moon program died after Korolev, it was begun as a political move, and once the Americans had made that trip with six landings and two more fly-arounds, the political motive vanished.  What seemed like a floundering program was actually five years dissipating the programís momentum. 

Once I started this book, however, I couldnít wait to get to the interesting parts, and then to get it over with.  Thatís not because of the material, but because of the way it was written.  This book reads like a research paper.  Harford begins with the nineteenth century Russian space pioneers, including Tsiolkovsky.  He quickly moves on to Korolevís birth, however, and with that come the many notes at the back of the book.  The author must have introduced every person who ever knew or met Korolev.  And every time someone is introduced, we take a break to learn about his history, how he came to work for Korolev, and often, what that person is doing now.  Add to this many long excerpts from interviews, and it makes the book a difficult read.

Korolev grew up in the Ukraine, but his father (separated from his mother at a very early age) was Russian, so Korolev was able to go to Russian schools without any problems.  He developed a passion for gliders and airplanes as a young teen, and developed those skills through school, even though he studied to be a bricklayer.

His ambition and drive led him into the aerospace industry, where he studied rocket engines for use on airplanes.  Imprisoned in Siberia (because of an association) during the ďStalin purgesĒ in the 1930s, he was eventually released, and sent to Germany after World War II, to study V2 technology.

It was during this time that he began developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), which eventually turned into rockets for space.  But Korolev didnít change jobs.  He was Chief Designer of one of the Soviet bureaus of development, and he had many projects.  He was in charge of programs developing ICBMs, robotic spacecraft to the Moon, Mars and Venus, spy satellites, communication satellites, manned orbital flights, and the Soviet Moon program, all at the same time, though he had to relinquish control of some of these into the 1960s. 

And through it all, he remained anonymous.  The Soviet leadership was afraid that American assassins might try to destroy the Soviet space program by removing its Chief Designer. 

Korolev was acutely aware of the need to beat the Americans.  He was the proponent of the first Sputnik, of Gagarinís flight, the first spacecraft to photograph the Moonís far side, impact the Moon, fly into interplanetary space, land on Venus, pass by Mars, and so many other firsts. 

One of the problems I had with this book is the separation of all these parallel events into chapters of their own.  I felt like I was getting whiplash, as I would follow a program into the 1960s, then be introduced to another programís inception in the 1940s.  It is a logical distinction, but I canít help but feel that there could have been another way to make it flow better.

I also object to the lack of actual details concerning Kololevís personal life.  I realize that there might not be many details out there, and his life was really his work, so there was nothing that could be characterized as a personal life in his later years.  But there were tantalizing clues, which were only given a sentence or a paragraph, or in an anecdote from interviews.  One such instance was his reconciliation with his daughter when his grandson was born.    His first wife had kept them apart for so long because of his affair with the woman who would become his second wife.  But there are no more details, which is frustrating because the author interviewed Natasha Korolev (his daughter) at length.

The anecdotes attempted to tell us what kind of person Korolev was, how he dealt with the successes and failures of his design bureau.  But there is hardly anything personal.

In other words, this book was really about Korolevís achievements in space, weapons and technology, as opposed to a real biography.  It seems as if the author wanted to make a book like the excellent ďApollo: Race to the MoonĒ, which described the engineering achievements and the engineers who took part in the US program.  Of course, the main driver in the Soviet program was Korolev.  But aside from describing how Korolev met the political and financial challenges, and kept the programs on track, there is little description of the actual missions that took place in space, their objectives, or the science that they achieved.  The author seems to like to go into technical detail by naming each engine and vehicle component by their designation, even though they are not truly important to the story.

Even the three monumental disasters that hit the Soviet space program are given in one or two lines, and their impacts on the program are barely mentioned.  First was the tangled parachutes on Soyuz 1, which killed a cosmonaut.  The second and third took place after Korolevís death, but seem important to the space program as a whole.  The explosion of the N1 Moon rocket that destroyed the launch pad and killed hundreds of people is mentioned in a short list of rocket failures.  The depressurization of the second mission to the Salyut I space station (which killed three cosmonauts) is given two sentences, despite the entire (quite lengthy) chapter devoted to the Soviet space program after Korolevís death.  All of these events, plus the first mission of Salyut I, where the cosmonauts docked, but couldnít get the door unlocked, have been described in detail in Quest, so there is no reason to gloss over them.  The details are known. 

In Russians in Space, the author describes Korolevís relationships with the cosmonauts, who are barely mentioned here.  It would have been nice to see some of his days at the cosmonaut training center.

Aside from the opening chapters describing some of Korolevís childhood, and a few phrases scattered through the book, this is not a biography.  It is a good reference book, and will stay on my bookshelf as such.  It provides excellent dialog between opposing points of view, but doesnít draw many conclusions based on the given information. 

One neat point of view came from interviews with Sergei Kruschev, son of the famous Soviet leader, and a technical expert in one of the spacecraft design bureaus at that time (but not under Korolev).  He seems to know the limits of his fatherís power, and tries to downplay a lot of the rumours (but not all) of his fatherís interventions in the space program.

Another refreshing part of the book is the description of the surgery that killed the Soviet Chief Designer at the peak of his career.  Again, there are many points of view, and it is left to the reader to decide whether the operation was botched, or if Korolev could have lived had a different surgeon been present.  The description of the funeral march to Red Square was very touching, though.

I will likely refer back to this book (which has an excellent index) whenever I read an article on the Soviet space program in Quest, but I will never read it cover to cover again.  I would skip all the ballistic missile work; in fact, all the military work altogether, though it is integral to the beginning of the space program. 


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