Obscure orbits of Soviet stars

Korolev - Starman
September 18, 1998

Sergei Korolev was the Soviet Union's equivalent of Wernher von Braun. The designer of the first Sputnik, he was an engineer of genius and a visionary who, as retired United States space engineer James Harford rightly says in this biography, masterminded "the Soviet drive to beat America to the moon".

Korolev faced huge problems - personal and political as much as technical. During Stalin's Great Terror of the 1930s, he was arrested, tortured and exiled to a gulag. He survived and later ended up in a special prison where engineers and scientists created new technologies under the eye of the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB). At first, Kremlin leaders did not take well his suggestions of manned space flight: "Do you want to bury a Soviet man in the unknown expanses of space in front of the whole world?" they asked.

To the end of his adventurous 59-year life, Korolev was shielded by the Soviet policy of secrecy. While Von Braun was an American icon, Korolev, even at the pinnacle of his career, remained without name or face. He was camouflaged as an anonymous chief designer. There were lots of rumours but no real facts about him, especially in the West.

There is an old parable about three of the nameless workers who built Chartres cathedral. "What are you doing?" they were asked. "Pushing the damned wheelbarrow," the first replied. "I must feed my family," the second muttered. The third replied proudly, "I am building Chartres cathedral." Korolev understood that he was both godfather and leader of the Soviet race into space.

As a young subordinate of Korolev for a period in the 1960s, I remember him well: a severe-looking, stocky figure with massive features, he was hard-working and dynamic. I last met him on the day he left his beloved design bureau for an innocuous operation that turned out to be fatal. His sudden passing under a surgeon's scalpel was treated as a top state secret. The Soviet press kept silent about it for three days: the time it took to get permission from the elderly Communist "Areopagus" to declassify the basic data of his biography.

Alas, 30-plus years after Korolev's death, it is still hard to write about him because nothing worthwhile was written about him during his life. Only after the Soviet Union's collapse did the first truly valuable work on his life appear in Russian, from the Yaroslav Golovanov. Another significant work came from Korolev's long-time associate G. S. Vetrov. Now English-speakers have access to this excellent and authoritative book by Harford, based on extensive visits to the Soviet Union since 1973 and 63 interviews with the leaders and officials of Soviet cosmonautics.

Starman concerns a cosmonaut of another sort. Yuri Gagarin was the World's Most Famous Man, the Ambassador of the Earth, Columbus of the Universe, the living embodiment of Soviet space accomplishments. He was the man whose life Korolev vowed to secure, compelling the supreme political leadership to commence the Soviet challenge in space. He was also a man of utmost personal courage.

After Gagarin's flight, he was banned from flying and the aged rulers tried to treat him not as a living man but as the priceless property of Politburo. So many official panegyrics were offered to this icon that the real Yuri Alexeevich Gagarin was lost and only a fictitious legend survived. Even now, I find it difficult to recommend any trustworthy and complete books on Gagarin in Russian. There is a lot of literature about him and almost none on Korolev, but to write about Gagarin, three decades after his death aged just 34 in an air crash, presents the same tricky job as to write on Korolev. It is very hard to recover the flesh and truth behind the legend.

Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, the two British authors of Starman, stress that: "Yuri Gagarin was no superman; he was mortal and flawed, just like the rest of us; yet he deserves his status in history: not just for the mere fact of being first into space, but also because he lived his life with decency, bravery and honour." Unlike Korolev, it is hard for me to judge this book from personal knowledge, but I am confident that the authors have done their best.

I would like to underline, however, that a western reader cannot understand the lives of Russians unless the biographer provides deep contextualisation. I believe that Harford has been the more successful in this. Korolev is the best English-language source of information on the Soviet space programme. But because of its large number of names, institutions and other details, it is not easy reading. It is perfect for space engineers, scholars and anyone especially interested in space research. Starman, by contrast, more vivid and human, deserves a very broad audience worldwide. It is not of great importance that Starman has rather more errors and misspellings of Russian names, geographical places and so on than Harford's book. Few of these errors are significant.

Alexander A. Gurshtein was chief of a division in the Institute for Space Research under what was then the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

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

Author - James Harford
ISBN - 0 471 14853 9
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £24.95
Pages - 392

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