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.