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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tale of One Man's Shot at the Moon




Sergei Korolev, the chief designer of the Soviet space program from its infancy to his death in 1966, was so dissatisfied with the inarticulate accounts of space travel offered by the early cosmonauts that he proposed sending someone who could properly immortalize the experience: a poet, or, failing that, a journalist or a newscaster. Representatives of the latter two professions (the poet idea was quickly nixed by the Soviet authorities) were given the requisite physicals and had started training when the experiment was canceled following the death in 1967 of Vladimir Komarov, the Soyuz 1 cosmonaut whose parachute failed to open during re-entry.


It is occasional anecdotes like these into the little-known aspects of the Soviet side of the space race that make James Harford's new biography, Korolev, bearable for the layman to read. Harford, the executive director emeritus of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has a firm grasp on the technical aspects of his subject born of long years of involvement with the U.S. space program. His familiarity with the intricacies of engine design and the problems of manned and unmanned space flight comes through on every page. Unfortunately, Harford is not as strong at presenting a compelling narrative and his book suffers as a consequence.


Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (pronounced "Korolyov") was born in 1906 in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir, not far from Kiev. As a young boy, he became fascinated by the rapidly developing fieldof aeronautics, designing his first glider by the time he was 17. Upon completion of two years of schooling at Kiev Polytechnical Institute, Korolev transferred to the prestigious Moscow Higher Technical School where he worked under the supervision of Andrei Tupolev, the famed aircraft designer. He continued to design gliders and airplanes until he became involved in the 1930s with some of the pioneering projects into liquid-fueled rocketry in the Soviet Union.


In June 1938, as happened to so many others at that time in Soviet history, Korolev was arrested and forced to confess to the crime of "subversion in a new field of technology." He was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in the gulag. A year later, however, his case came up for review and, possibly after the intervention of Tupolev, he was transferred to a sharashka. The sharashkas were basically laboratory prisons, where scientists were forced to conduct research for the state, but where conditions were considerably better than in the gulag camps.


In June of 1944, Korolev was released from custody and his prior conviction expunged. The following year he was sent, with a team of other scientists, to Germany with the task of recovering every last remnant of Werner von Braun's V-2 rocket program that had not already been spirited away by the Americans.


Korolev's real genius was not as a scientist, but as an engineer. In other words, he specialized not in coming up with abstract theories, but in turning theories into testable machines. He also had a rare gift for the organization and motivation of a large team of workers. It was in recognition of his abilities in this area that he was made chief designer in the program to develop the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, a position with massive responsibilities. His job eventually encompassed the entire Soviet space program, from spy satellite launches to the never-completed manned expedition to the moon. The space center outside Moscow is now named after Korolev in recognition of his immense contribution.


Following his time in the gulag, Korolev was plagued by ill health. He died in 1966 during a minor operation which should have been routine but was complicated by old injuries inflicted during his interrogation by the NKVD, the predecessors to the KGB.


Due to the sensitive nature of his work, Korolev's name was unfamiliar to his fellow citizens at the time of his death. But this formerly unknown hero of the Soviet Union was given a state funeral by Leonid Brezhnev before being laid to rest in the Kremlin walls.


While Harford clearly has the technical background to more than competently deal with his subject, the book's main weakness stems from his inability to organize into a coherent narrative the massive amounts of material involved, much of which requires deciphering for the lay reader. As a result, the sections of the book covering the early years of Korolev's life are tedious, while some of the later sections become confused, particularly in their chronology.


Harford also overuses quotations, letting long passages from other books or from personal interviews to make even minor points for him. This has the effect of diminishing the strength of those quotes that are essential. Another of Harford's annoying tendencies is his misuse of certain words. For example, the use of "nostalgic" in this sentence: "In this modern age of computer-aided design and manufacturing, it seems nostalgic that Korolev, 40 years ago, was issuing meticulous 'notes' on what should be illustrated, and exactly how." In another instance, the Bay of Pigs invasion is referred to as a "fiasco of failure."


Most of the problems with the book could have been fixed by a good editor. It could have been organized more clearly. Points could have been made more succinctly. The language could have been cleaned up.


The overall narrative structure, however, was always going to be difficult. The book's subtitle says it all: "How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon." Framed this way, could the story end in anything but disappointment? Korolev died three years before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The Soviets never made it. From this perspective it is hard to see even the incredible list of Korolev's accomplishments -- first satellite, first man in space, first space walk, first object on the moon, etc. -- as anything other than logical steps to the American grand climax on July 20, 1969. Maybe Korolev's biggest failure was in the timing of his death: too late to be remembered solely for the spectacular flights of Sputnik and Yury Gagarin, too soon to capture the deserved glory of Mir, the Soviet's pioneering space station.


Korolev: "How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon" by James Harford. John Wiley & Sons, 392 pages, $39.