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
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
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
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
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.