The Korolev Factor. Would Gagarin have been the first in space without the Ukrainian scientist?

On 12 December 1939, during a 9-point storm, the Soviet steamer Indigirka, en route from Magadan to Vladivostok (far east of Russia), crashed off the coast of Japan. Of the 1173 people on board, 745 died. Among them could have been prisoner Sergei Korolev, who was supposed to be a passenger on this steamer but was late for it — fortunately for him and, perhaps, for the entire Soviet cosmonautics industry. It is likely that without his participation, Yuri Gagarin would not have flown into space on 12 April 1961, and the USSR would not have become the first space power.

…Five years later, on 7 September 1944, after the first bombardment of London with V-2 missiles, one of the leaders of the Nazi Germany missile programme, Wernher von Braun, was asked: “How would you assess the results of this launch?” The designer answered frankly: “The rocket flew perfectly, only… it fell on the wrong planet!” Like Korolev, he was also an astronautics enthusiast and tried to use the experience gained in the development of combat missiles to further use them for space exploration. Many historians acknowledge that by the beginning of 1945, the totalitarian Third Reich was the closest to creating a launch vehicle capable of reaching the orbital velocity and placing an artificial satellite into Earth orbit. But by that time, the Germans were a little too busy for spaceflight…

Space and dictatorship

Speaking about the role of the individual in history, we should not forget that it increases significantly in dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. “Leaders” and “autocrats” often dislike intelligent, independent-minded people: they are less prone to obey blindly. Therefore, autocrats try to get rid of such people in one way or another. The only exceptions are those who have been able to prove their usefulness, unique knowledge or talents in time. Having a good idea of their goal and the way to get there, and having access to resources (centrally distributed by the “leaders”), they are able to achieve a lot.

This is exactly what Sergei Korolev was. Even during World War II, he was able to prove to the Soviet leadership the strategic importance of missile development. In 1945, he was sent to the Soviet occupation zone of Germany to study in detail the German experience of designing liquid-fuel ballistic missiles. Of course, this kind of “trophy team” included many specialists who were able to “bring together” all the data obtained in different ways and assemble workable units from disparate parts. Korolev was distinguished from them by an important feature: he never forgot about his passion for astronautics and did whatever he could to further his progress on the path to the stars at every opportunity.

In Stalin’s time, such opportunities were extremely rare, but the technologies developed were still not enough to talk about a “breakthrough into space”. In the mid-1950s, the situation began to change: the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev realised that scientific and technological achievements could be turned into a powerful propaganda tool. Since then, in parallel with the development of combat missiles, Korolev’s team has been working on space rockets. Of course, all of this was done in strict secrecy, which further complicated the work. On 21 August 1957, the first successful test of the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile took place, and on 4 October, it was used to launch the first artificial Earth satellite.

And what was Korolev’s “rival” Werner von Braun doing at the time? He was doing practically the same thing, only he was doing it not in Germany, but in the United States, where he was taken as part of the so-called Operation Paperclip. And it was much easier there. First, the US government had much more resources at its disposal. Secondly, there was a powerful scientific community in the country that also influenced the authorities, which was simply unimaginable in the USSR at the time. Scientists understood the importance of astronautics not only for propaganda but also for exploring the universe, so they strongly supported the funding of the development of spacecraft, launch vehicles, satellites and interplanetary vehicles. A certain obstacle was the fact that von Braun’s activities were partially classified — not all Americans liked the fact that the country’s main specialist in the strategic industry was a foreigner, and a former Nazi at that. However, after the Communists launched the first satellite, the “chief German-American rocket scientist” was given carte blanche, and on 31 January 1958, his team sent their own Explorer 1 into Earth orbit. It happened less than dozen years before the first man landed on the Moon’s surface…

The “driving force” of Soviet cosmonautics

It is not so difficult to imagine the history of world cosmonautics without Korolev and even without von Braun. Western scientists (primarily American) would still have recognised the need for direct space exploration using automatics and manned vehicles, so the means to launch them would inevitably have appeared, albeit perhaps a little later than in real history. Almost certainly, the first satellite and the first human spacecraft would have been launched from the United States. In contrast, the Soviet rocket programme, without such a powerful “promoter” of space exploration as Sergei Korolev, would have served the needs of the army, and space launches would have begun even later – in response to the success of the Americans and after the importance of space exploration in terms of modern warfare was realised.

This scenario on the Soviet side is confirmed, for example, by the development of computing technology, which has always been in a “catch-up” state compared to the state of this industry in the US, UK, Germany or Japan. At one time, there was simply no talented, “breakthrough” scientist with connections in the highest governmental structures who would have pushed for relevant research and the allocation of funds. But the importance of nuclear physics after Hiroshima and Nagasaki was very clearly understood by the communist “leaders”, and so it was promoted in the USSR in every way possible. So, it is highly likely that without Korolev, Gagarin would have flown into space much later, and he most likely would not have been the first… and he almost certainly would not have been Gagarin.

Earlier, we wrote about the first artificial Earth satellite, also created and launched under the leadership of Sergei Korolev.