Space men in focus: rocket designers Wernher Von Braun and Sergei Korolev

April 12, 1961 saw the first human spaceflight, performed by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin when his Vostok spacecraft made a complete orbit of the Earth. Rob Attar spoke to Deborah Cadbury about the men who made the Space Race possible

This article was first published in April 2011

Yuri Gagarin in space helmet just before take off in Vostok © Novosti/TopFoto

As the superpower colossi powered themselves into space in the 1950s and 1960s, two men stood behind these incredible feats of science and daring. Although it was astronauts like Gagarin, Aldrin and Armstrong who captured the attention of the world, the true visionaries behind the Space Race were rocket designers Wernher Von Braun and Sergei Korolev.

It was Soviet engineer Sergei Korolev whose rockets took the first craft into space, the first animal into space and the first man into space. He was also behind the initial probe landing on the moon and the original photographic glimpse of its mysterious dark side.

German-born Von Braun was the genius behind the American space programme that for many years lived in the shadow of the Soviets before achieving the ultimate triumph when his Saturn 5 rocket propelled Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins towards the moon in 1969. Deborah Cadbury claims that “without Von Braun and Korolev’s vision and energy, the Space Race may not have happened”.

Indeed, it could almost be said that Von Braun and Korolev created the Space Race themselves. The Superpowers initially had little interest in space exploration and employed these two rocket specialists in designing missiles for defence purposes, the military necessities of the Cold War being paramount at the time.

However, neither man was prepared to abandon his dreams of space. They convinced their superiors that their experiments in the heavens also served defence purposes until gradually their work took hold of the popular imagination and space travel became a matter of national prestige. As Cadbury argues, the two men “hijacked the military for their own goals”.

Dark beginnings

There are remarkable parallels in the tales of these extraordinary rivals, not least in how they were both tainted by ugly incidents in their earlier lives. Wernher Von Braun hid a particularly unpleasant secret behind his confident and cheery demeanour. For while it was well known that during the Second World War he had masterminded the German V-2 missile programme, less well known was his involvement in using concentration camp inmates, who suffered appallingly, to build these rockets.

“Von Braun was almost a Faustian character. He was prepared to go a lot further than most people would be prepared to go to cater for his own grand vision,” says Cadbury. “He knew that concentration camp labour was used to build the V-2 rockets and furthermore on one occasion he even went to Buchenwald to help find engineers to solve certain problems.”

Von Braun was also a member of the Nazi party and of the SS and although he claimed he enrolled in the latter at the personal behest of Heinrich Himmler, there were others in his
team who notably did not join.

At the end of the war Von Braun was spirited away by the US Army, who whitewashed details of his past as part of a programme to extract German scientists known as Project Paperclip. The Army refused any requests for him to appear at international war crimes tribunals and he went to his grave in 1977 never having been brought to account. Amazingly, this former SS member was, by the 1950s, fronting popular space programmes on American television in front of 40 million admiring viewers. It was as if his past crimes had simply been erased.

Yet Wernher Von Braun could never entirely escape his past. His Nazi background prejudiced a number of US officials against him and crucially it resulted in his Jupiter plan being bypassed in favour of the US Navy’s unsuccessful Vanguard in the race to launch the world’s first man-made satellite, which was won by the Soviets with Sputnik.

“The Americans were very worried about a former Nazi launching the first satellite,” says Cadbury, “even though Jupiter could have done the job and America would have got there first. It could have changed the whole complexion of the Space race”.

The life of Von Braun’s Soviet counterpart was turned upside-down when in June 1938 the young Sergei Korolev was arrested by the Secret Police (NKVD). The charges were spurious but, probably in order to save his family, he confessed and spent seven miserable years in Kolyma gulag in Siberia, where the majority of inmates met their death.

Korolev survived but emerged with his health weakened and his marriage shattered. And the intimidation did not stop there. In the early years of his work on the Soviet missile programme, Korolev would often receive threatening calls in the middle of the night from the Secret Police. On one occasion the fearsome head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, himself called the engineer to chide him on recent rocket problems: “Another failure. And again no one is to blame? Some people are soliciting an award for you – but I think you deserve a warrant”.

Despite all this Korolev remained fervently patriotic and continued to idolise Joseph Stalin, the man whose machinations had effectively ruined his life. When he first met the Soviet leader in 1947, he even declared: “I was incredibly happy to be in the presence of Comrade Stalin”.

Korolev’s triumphs are all the more remarkable because of the obstacles he overcame. He had the slur of an ex-prisoner and yet he rose to become the chief designer of the Soviet space programme. He pulled off a series of incredible coups despite being constantly hampered by Soviet bureaucracy and grievously under funded. Cadbury explains how at times his teams “had to take apart their own wristwatches to try to get the materials they needed”.

Korolev gave his all for his dream, working himself into an early grave in 1966. Yet in his lifetime he received no recognition for his achievements – a far cry from the glamorous status accorded to his rival Von Braun. The Soviet system did not like to recognise individual achievements and the rulers also hid the identity of their chief designer because they had a paranoid fear of his being assassinated by agents of the West.

“It is bizarre that when he achieved so much, he was never brought forward as an individual,” says Cadbury. “Even for Gagarin’s great celebration in Red Square in 1961 there was no place for Korolev. His own car broke down and he was stuck trying to repair the fan belt. There was no-one to help him.” It was only after Korolev had died that Brezhnev decided to reveal the true identity of the genius behind the Soviet space programme.

Glowing tributes in Pravda and a massive state funeral belatedly catapulted Sergei Korolev into the pantheon of Soviet heroes. Across the Atlantic, The New York Times finally revealed to Von Braun the face of the man with whom he had fought for the stars.

Key moments in the space race

4 October 1957: The USSR launches Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit the earth

3 November 1957: Sputnik 2 is launched, carrying the dog Laika who is the first living  creature in orbit

12 September 1959: The Soviets launch Luna 2 which becomes the first man-made probe to land on the moon, albeit by crashing

4 October 1959: Luna 3 photographs the dark side of the moon

12 April 1961: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space, on board Vostok 1

5 May 1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space on Mercury Freedom 7

16 June 1963: On board Vostok 6, Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR becomes the first
woman in space

18 March 1965: Russian astronaut Alexei Leonov takes the first space walk from Voskhod 2. It lasts 12 minutes

3 April 1966: The Soviet Union’s Luna 10 becomes the first spacecraft to orbit the moon, as
tension in the moon race mounts

20 July 1969: Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first men to step on
the moon

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