A few days after Yuri Gagarin returned to Earth, he stood with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow’s Red Square as thousands of people returned to celebrate his success. A very busy and largely spontaneous celebration of this Soviet achievement.
But the engineer whose first flight into space was made possible by his efforts is nowhere to be seen. It was only after the death of this senior designer in 1966 that his name, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, was revealed to the world. This genius was at the heart of Russia’s space program one of the most intimate secrets hidden in the Soviet Union.
Ukrainian-born Karaliev oversaw the design of the large R7 rocket, which launched the first satellite, the first dog, the first man, the first woman and the first astronaut to walk in space. He developed capsules, control systems, and checks that ensured the return of every astronaut to Earth throughout his life.
Only the propaganda value of his work was so great that it could consolidate the Soviet position as a superpower. But unlike his American counterpart, Wernher von Braun, the identity of the “senior designer” was considered more valuable than it could be shared with the world.
“The engineers and technicians who worked on the spacecraft do not get the credit they deserve,” said Cathleen Lewis, head of international space program at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. They are the army that really made this trip possible. “Extraordinary energy and effort is needed to save a human life in space.”
Karaliev engineers came up with very clever solutions to the challenges facing humans in space, often different from those of their American counterparts. Sometimes very simple solutions were the result of Soviet technological constraints.
The R7 launcher, for example, was based on an intercontinental ballistic missile. The size of the rocket, about 30 meters high with four boosters around it, indicated the mass of the nuclear bomb it was carrying in its warhead.
Because the Soviet nuclear weapons were larger and heavier than the American models, the rockets needed more power. This meant that when a spacecraft was to be launched with an astronaut (cosmonaut, the word the Russians had chosen for the astronaut), the spacecraft could have been larger.
“Unlike the Americans, they did not need to worry about the steps of downsizing space cargo or more compact technology,” says Lewis. “The American aviation industry had switched from vacuum tubes to transistors, but the Soviet Union was still using vacuum tubes in the mid-1960s.”
The Soviet Vostok capsule, which carried the first man and then the first woman into space, certainly had little to do with NASA’s Mercury spacecraft. The Mercury conical module, which was only slightly larger than the human inside, was a sea of switches, calibrated plates, levers, and buttons. The spacecraft was an electronic and infrastructure marvel.
The Vostok, on the other hand, looked like a very large hollow cannon with a layer of mattress inside. There was a radio in it – similar to a car radio, with a telegraph key to transmit Morse code as an auxiliary tool – and just a control panel. Above the panel was a painted earth-like sphere whose motion was regulated by an electro-mechanical computer driven by a spinning motor. This device showed the astronaut his position relative to Earth.
The absence of sophisticated means of control was another fundamental difference between the two countries. The US Mercury astronauts had to fly their spacecraft. Vostok worked automatically and according to a set of pre-set instructions, leaving not many tasks for its astronaut.
The only way they could activate the small manual controls was to type a secret code on a keyboard. The code was sealed in a letter under the seat and should only be opened if the automatic system fails. However, Karaliev and several others whispered the code numbers in Gagarin’s ear before the flight.
The design of the Vostok, which looked like a cannon, made it easier to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Mercury astronauts had to carefully position their capsule so that its temperature shield protected the capsule. However, the stock was completely covered with heat-insulating material and the weight of the part was too much to be easily in the right direction.
But when it came down to it, the Soviets had a problem. The United States planned to land in the ocean, but the Soviet astronauts had to land. “They could not slow Vostok enough, and no human could survive its descent,” says Lewis. “That is why Yuri Gagarin was ejected from the spacecraft at an altitude of 20,000 feet (6 km) and landed separately.”
For the next spacecraft, Voskhod, Karaliev engineers designed a “soft” landing system that included spring seats for astronauts and a rocket system that would light up just before the capsule hit the ground. Today, the Soyuz spacecraft uses a similar technology, although its occupants liken returning to Earth to a high-speed car crash.
And although it was not larger than the Vostok, it had to carry more than one astronaut to compete with the US spacecraft; Actually three people! And one of them was an engineer who was involved in its design.
The idea of using engineers, instead of just sending the pilot into space, was another of Karaliev’s innovations. The United States did not use the idea until the space shuttle.
The second hero of the Soviet Union, the astronaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov, began his career working on his own in the early 1960s and later piloted Soyuz twice to fly to Soviet space stations.
“The main idea of selecting astronauts from the engineering department is for these specialists to work on the rockets they have designed and built,” says Alexandrov. “They can understand why and how the rocket works and become proficient in piloting the spacecraft they designed.”
The more pessimistic also suggest that having an engineer who is both involved in creating and flying the spacecraft will make astonishing advances in quality control. In any case, both manned and self-propelled flights were successful – the Soviets sent three men into space in 1964 and the first man to walk in space, Alexei Leonov, in 1965 with a self-propelled 2 (although this was the latter mission). It also had its own unique problems).
For all that, perhaps the most enduring invention was the Soyuz rocket. The launcher used by Russia to this day looks almost identical to the R7, with simplistic Soviet-specific design in place.
With five rocket engines and 20 combustion chambers, as well as 12 smaller engines for guidance, it is essential that all engines be started at the same time. Otherwise, fuel could leak out of an unlit engine, increasing the likelihood of a catastrophic explosion.
This coincidence is achieved with the help of giant matches. When the Soyuz is in the launch position, the engineers place birch rods with two pyrotechnic electric igniters at the end into the rocket nozzles. These are then connected with brass wires.
Just before firing, the sparks ignite and the fire is transmitted through the wire. When all the fire wires are cut, it means that there is fire inside all the nozzles and the fuel valves can be opened safely. This system ensures that fuel is released only when all these giant matches are on fire.
Karaliev’s house in Moscow – which was given to him (secretly) by the Soviet government in 1959 – is now housed as a museum. This place is full of relics from the space programs he oversaw: models of airplanes and rockets, photographs of astronauts, books and specialized articles.
Outside his study, one of the walls is covered with a complete map with details of the moon’s surface. Karaliev’s dream of landing a Soviet citizen on the moon never materialized, but his designs on rockets, spacecraft, and space stations survive today. Sixty years after Yuri Gagarin first entered Earth orbit, the engineer who initiated the space race deserves worldwide fame.