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Historical aspects of the early Soviet/Russian manned space program - page 6 / 12





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Stalin was suspicious of technical innovation and wanted to start with something that would certainly work. Korolev complied and produced a replica of the A4 within 2 yr. He then went on to mastermind the Soviet rocket and space systems, and his successes were spectacular (Table 1). By 1957, he had developed the R-7 booster (Fig. 5), which propelled a 5-ton dummy warhead 6,400 km to Kamchatka, thus making it the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This was followed by the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite; the launch of the dog Laika, the first living being in space; and his most spectacular success, the launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space. Subsequent successes in- cluded the first woman in space, Valentina Teresh- kova; the first three-person crew in space; and the first extravehicular activity (EVA). This was an amazing catalog of firsts.

A feature of the early Sputnik launches was their great mass (for example, that of Sputnik 3 was 1,300 kg or 1.3 metric tons), and this meant that the boosters had an enormous thrust, a realization that caused considerable alarm in the United States at the time. The R-7 booster with its five engines, each of which had four thrust chambers (Fig. 5, right), generated a thrust of 500 metric tons. By contrast, the Atlas booster, which was the most powerful rocket in the United States at the time, had a thrust of only 200 metric tons. Ironically, the large size of the Soviet boosters was the result of their less sophisticated nuclear technology. The ICBM was developed to propel an H bomb, which at some 5 tons was substantially heavier than the comparable weapon developed in the United States.

The military of the Soviet Union placed enormous importance on the development of an ICBM that could carry a nuclear warhead. Vassily Mishin explains in one of the documentaries (13) how the Soviet Union felt tremendously threatened because it was ringed by NATO airbases from which strategic bombers could deliver a nuclear bomb to anywhere in the Soviet Union. By contrast, the Soviet military were unable to reach the United States with a nuclear weapon, and so they saw the development of an ICBM as the only way to establish parity.

An extraordinary feature of Korolev’s program was that throughout his career he was never referred to by name because of security reasons but only as the “Chief Designer.” In fact, some of the cosmonauts who worked

Table 1. “Firsts in the Soviet space program attributable to Sergei Korolev

1957 (October 4)

First satellite in space: Sputnik 1

1957 (November 3) First living being in space: dog Laika


First spacecraft to reach another celestial body: Luna 2 lands on the moon First photographs of the dark side of the moon


1961 (April 12)

First human being in space: Yuri Gagarin

1962– 1963 1964


First spacecraft to reach Mars and Venus First woman in space: Valentina Tereshkova First 3-man crew in space


First extravehicular activity: Aleksei Leonov

directly under him were apparently not aware of his last name. A dramatic reminder of his anonymity was when Gagarin was welcomed after his historic flight by Khrushchev in an enormous ceremony on Red Square. Korolev was nowhere to be seen because it was thought that his safety could be threatened. Only when he died in 1966 was his identity officially acknowledged, and there was subsequently a tremendous outpouring of affection by the Russian people.

One of Korolev’s greatest achievements was the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957 (Fig. 6). This used an R-7 booster, although the payload was only about 80 kg. Of course, Sputnik 1 created a sensation everywhere, not least in the United States, because it could be seen crossing the sky at dusk, and, by tuning into its frequency on a small radio, anyone could hear the beep-beep. It is interesting that the Soviet author- ities completely underestimated the political fallout of Sputnik 1 (as related by Sergei Khrushchev) because the October 5 issue of Pravda relegated the launch of Sputnik to a small section on the front page. It was only when the sensation that the event occasioned in the West was recognized that the October 6 issue of Pravda carried the full story.


The events leading up to the launch of the dog Laika provide a graphic demonstration of the differences be- tween the Soviet and United States space programs at this stage. As can be imagined, there were many delays before the successful launch of Sputnik 1, and, accord- ing to Vassily Mishin, one of the key Soviet rocketeers, the living conditions at the launch site were appall- ingly bad. It was therefore with tremendous relief that everybody connected with Sputnik 1 looked forward to a period with their families in a more comfortable environment after the successful launch. However, this was not to be. To the chagrin of the launch team, they were immediately ordered back to work. Cosmonaut Grechko relates the events as follows (Ref. 5, p. 132)

I heard this from Korolev himself with my own ears. After Sputnik I Korolev went to the Kremlin and Khrushchev said to him, “We never thought that you would launch a sputnik before the Americans. But you did it. Now please launch something new in space for the next anniversary of our [October] revolution.”

The anniversary would be in one month! I’ll bet that even with today’s computers nobody would launch something into space in one month. It was, I think, the happiest month of his [Korolev’s] life. He told his staff, and his workers, that there would be no special draw- ings, no quality check, everyone would have to be guided by his own conscience. And we launched on November 3, 1957, in time for the celebration of the Revolution [because of a calendar change, the October revolution is now celebrated on November 6].

The payload of Sputnik 2 included the mongrel dog Laika, who was placed in an environmentally con- trolled chamber immediately below a replica of the Sputnik 1 sphere (Fig. 7). The physiological vari-

J Appl Physiol VOL 91 OCTOBER 2001 www.jap.org

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