One Man Launches the World Into Space

By Anthony J. Iorillo

In 1957, most people had black and white TVs. There were few channels to watch, and no way to get television across oceans. Just twelve years later, a man stepped on the moon, and the whole world could watch it live. This astonishing leap was the achievement of many people. But in my mind, no one stands taller than Sergei Korolev of the USSR, who stunned the world with Sputnik 1 on October 5, 1957.

At the time, I was at Caltech, huddled in a courtyard with classmates, when it zipped across the night sky. The satellite was too small to see. What we actually saw was the spent R7 rocket that launched it. R7’s designer, Korolev, was very anxious to be the first to orbit the Earth. Tired of waiting for a satellite from Moscow, he designed and built the 183-pound Sputnik 1 in four weeks. He gave it an elegant spherical shape and polished it to a high sheen, which he thought would show well later in museums. All it did was transmit a steady “beep”, but headlines the world over declared “RUSSIANS WON THE COMPETITION”. Buoyed by the acclaim, Korlev designed the 1,120-pound Sputnik 2. One month later, it was launched—this time with scientific instruments and a terrier named Laika, whose response, through the rigors of launch and weightlessness, would be useful for training future cosmonauts.

Meanwhile in the USA, our first attempts to orbit satellites, which weighed but a few pounds, failed. They were dubbed “KAPUTNIKS” by Pravda and “FLOPNIKS” at home. Finally, JPL succeeded with the thirty-pound Explorer 1 in January of 1958. With no rockets to match Korolev’s R7, we were off to a painfully slow start in the new “Space Race”.

Unrelenting, Korolev continued his pace of firsts. In October 1959, he launched Luna 3 and hit the moon. On April 12, 1961, he launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Both events drew raves worldwide, and our national psyche suffered. Could it be that Stalin’s tyranny had produced a technologically superior society with legions of educated-elite engineers and scientists working tirelessly to be dominant in space? We now know the answer is no, but back then, it wasn’t unthinkable. We knew precious little about what went on inside the USSR. And, certainly, no one would have imagined that such historic accomplishments relied so heavily upon the ability of one daring man. All we knew was that we were in a competition with a formidable opponent, and we seemed to be losing.

Korolev’s exploits were grand enough to motivate President Eisenhower to create NASA, and, later, President Kennedy to call for the Apollo moon landings. One brilliant Russian caused the world to focus its attention on space, and spurred the American juggernaut to action.

Sadly, Korolev didn’t live to finish the race or see the lunar landings. He had never been in good health. He had been a victim of intrigue in Stalin’s era, tortured and imprisoned in the Gulags. He died in 1966, at age 59, as a result of a botched operation. Until then, his identity was kept a state secret. He had worked in the shadows, known only as the Chief Designer. He never enjoyed public recognition, at home or abroad. And it took 30 more years for his role to become fully appreciated. He was an extraordinarily brilliant designer and leader who succeeded in spite of Stalin’s tyranny, and Soviet space efforts faltered with his passing.

Without his R7 masterpiece, and his creative ability to use it, the race into space would certainly have been far less spirited. And, arguably, mankind might still be looking forward to the day a man would alight the moon. The R7 is still in production, and has become the most used rocket in history. Even Americans buy them. Most importantly, we finally know his name. I like to think that somehow he knows all this.

Anthony J. Iorillo retired as President of Hughes Space and Communications Sector in 1994. He received a Hyland Patent Award in 1970, a NASA Spacecraft Design Award in 1971, and a Distinguished Alumnus Award from CALTECH in 1990. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1986, and named a Pioneer of National Reconnaissance in 2001.

24 thoughts on “One Man Launches the World Into Space

  1. What an intriguing story. It’s incredible to think that one man directed the entire world’s focus upward; a brilliant and brave man. Thank you for this wonderful lesson in our space program’s history. Interesting to ponder where we would be today if Korolev hadn’t been so bold . . .

  2. What an interesting account of the exploration of space. It shows how one man’s passion can inspire others to embark on whole new journey. Thank you so much Mr. Iorillo for sharing this tribute to Sergei Korlev. I’m going to take this message with me and remind myself of it when I’m feeling less than creative!

  3. Where would be today without the brilliant and inventive minds of the past?! I love hearing stories from conception to reality. It’s truly fascinating. “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” – Thanks! – Elyse

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post! This is such an interesting and inspiring story, and one I had never heard before!

  5. Thank you so much for this fascinating and intriguing perspective on Sergei Korlev. His vision and passion are astounding. It clearly points out the impact that one determined and passionate individual can achieve.

  6. Uncle Tony,

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating history of the space program. As I sat in front of my television last week to watch the launching of the last shuttle, it was so fun to see it through the eyes of all four of my children. I imagine that the awe, wonder and excitement that they were exhibiting was only a mere fraction of what you, Korlev and our entire country was feeling back then. By reading this, I am inspired to keep reminding my children to stay curious, continue being creative, appreciate our history, and add a little relentlessness in there…one never knows what our future holds. Incredible! xoxo

  7. How sad that this brilliant, courageous man did not live to see the successes that have happened as a result of his creative ability. Thank you for this educational post and all the information that I had never heard before. I really enjoyed reading this…I hope you write again! Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this interesting and informative article about a intelligent, yet unacknowleged genius, until now. His passion and brilliance spurred the space race which has given us so much valuable information here on earth.

  9. Thank you for the informative and educational article. People often fail to remember “how things began” and just live in the now. This article is fabulous in its rich history and perspective. I will be sharing it with my students at All Children Academics. My hope is to inspire children to ask questions about when and how things came to be!

  10. Reminded me of a great dog I knew as a child who was named after Laika the brave Russian terrier. Thanks.

  11. Thank you for this! As Shana said “People often fail to remember “how things began” and just live in the now” – Very inspiring. I will too share this today and for many more.

  12. Science rules! I work at Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. I’d like to invite Mr. Iorillo to see our collection of Russian space artifacts, including a Mir Space Station toilet and Soyuz Descent Module. Thanks for emphasizing the importance of science and advancing our knowledge toward discoveries that will help people!

  13. Love this. It’s such a testament to how many people come before those who get credit since science and large achievements are usually based upon past (and anonymous or less publicized) credit. Good Job Mr. I!

  14. What an amazing man Korolev was. Even Stalin could not keep him down.I wonder why he wanted to? That, I’m sure would be another story in itself.
    You are an excellent writer Mr. Iorillo. Thank you so much for sharing this fascinating piece of history.

  15. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story! We should all take note and remember that we alone can make a huge difference so imagine what we could do together.

  16. aloha mr iorillo! your writing of the amazing beginnings of the world wide space program is beautiful and captivating!! much mahalo for sharing your experience : )

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