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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sputnik Visionary's Centennial

APSergei Korolyov
Sergei Korolyov's work and even his name were Soviet secrets until after his death in 1966.

Yet a century after his birth he is revered as a visionary who started the space age — the man who led the team that put the world's first satellite into orbit in 1957 and sent the first human into space.

His stature is burnished by the years of tragedy he suffered — years of torture, starvation and hard labor in gulags — before he became chief of the Soviet rocket program.

His daughter, Natalya, recalled that Korolyov, who was forced to mine for gold in a labor camp amid freezing cold and hunger, loathed gold for the rest of his days.

"He kept repeating: 'I hate gold,'" she said in an interview published Thursday in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the day before the Kremlin held a meeting to honor Korolyov on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Korolyov, an aeronautical engineer, was arrested in 1938 during Josef Stalin's Great Terror and was sentenced to hard labor for anti-Soviet activities. Stalin's henchmen broke his jaw during interrogations; he lost all his teeth, and after two years in a camp he was on the verge of death with heart and other ailments.

He only survived thanks to aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev, who asked authorities to transfer Korolyov in 1940 from his labor camp to join a design team working on new combat planes. The team worked in prison, like many other Soviet design bureaus, and it was only in 1944 that Korolyov was freed.

After the Nazi defeat, Korolyov led a team of engineers who flew to Germany to gather information on the V-2 rocket designed by Wernher von Braun, Korolyov's future rival in the U.S.-Soviet space race. Korolyov's team started by copying the German rocket, but quickly developed its own designs.

After the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile designed by Korolyov was put in service in 1956, Korolyov offered to use one to launch a satellite into orbit. Korolyov's deputy, Boris Chertok, recalled that the top brass opposed the idea as a distraction from the military program, but Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed it.

"Korolyov was primarily a designer gifted with a rare insight, but he also was an excellent organizer," Chertok said at a news conference Thursday. "He realized that any big project requires a huge amount of organizational work."

When Korolyov became aware of U.S. plans to launch the first American satellite in 1958, he shelved a project of a complex and heavy satellite in the works and opted to build a simple version quickly. On Oct. 4, 1957, Sputnik opened the Space Age.

Korolyov's name was only known to Soviet leaders and a narrow circle of space workers; anonymity that sometimes made him sad.

"We are like miners — we work underground. No one sees or hears us," he said in a conversation recalled by his daughter.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta said Khrushchev twice rejected an offer from the Nobel Prize Committee to nominate the man who designed Sputnik and the spacecraft that carried the world's first human, Yury Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961.

"We can't name one single person. It's the entire people building the new technology," Khrushchev said, the newspaper reported.

Korolyov's daughter said Korolyov was superstitious — opposing launches on Mondays and barring women from the launch pad. He also carried two small coins in his pocket and was very distressed when he did not find them on the day they took him to a hospital in January 1966.

Days later, he died of a heart attack during surgery just after turning 59.

It was the official obituary which first told the Soviet people — and the rest of the world — who Korolyov was.

His death dealt a crushing blow to the Soviet moon program, which collapsed in a series of booster explosions while the United States sent Neil Armstrong on his moonwalk in 1969.

"Our successes would have been much greater if Korolyov lived longer," Chertok said.