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Space Race

Aleksander Gurshtein

Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon. James Harford. xviii + 392 pp. John Wiley & Sons, 1997. $30.

This extraordinary Russian "engineer of action" was one of a very small handful of individuals who were instrumental in shaping the 20th-century's leap into space. Like the worker pushing a wheel barrow who proclaimed "I am building the Chartres Cathedral," Sergey Pavlovich Korolev took great pride in declaring that he was a trailblazer into the vast reaches of the space age.

In the 1960s with every Soviet newspaper applauding his achievements, Korolev remained a person without name or face. Even at the pinnacle of his career, he was an anonymous "chief designer," and details of his life were top secret. When he died suddenly at age 59, the Soviet press waited three days for the Communist Party hierarchy to declassify information about Korolev.

In the West, where concern was focused on how to beat the Soviets into space, almost nothing was known about the man who masterminded the Soviet Union's incredible breakthrough. It was only in 1995, 30 years after Korolev's death, that Yaroslav Golovanov's valuable monograph on Korolev's life appeared in Russian. And now American readers have access to James Harford's excellent English-language book on Korolev.

"Serezha" Korolev was fated, or perhaps ill-fated, to have been born in a nation that suffered revolutions, fratricidal war, social "utopian" experimentation and economic disasters. My mother, who was a child of Korolev's generation, could not remember when peace prevailed for more than a few months at a time. But for a short period after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, conditions were prime for the rapid development of science and engineering in what was then the U.S.S.R.

Of course, like most other youngsters of his generation, he supported the Soviet social "utopia." Young Korolev was a scientist, a dreamer and a hero—the ideals articulated by the post-Revolutionary society—but in the 1930s he was arrested (on specious charges of spying), tortured and exiled to a gulag in the far north. That he survived and later ended up in a "sharashka," a special prison where engineers and scientists created new technologies for the Soviet Union under the watchful eye of various soviet security agencies, is nothing short of a miracle. Only at the end of World War II were he and many others freed (but not discharged). They remained in this uncertain status until they were rehabilitated by Nikita Khrushchev.

Harford's biography covers Kovolev's life from birth, through his imprisonment, to his crowning achievements as the chief designer of the Sputnik-1. As an engineer, he thrilled the world and gave impetus to the Soviet-American race to the moon. His life was a never-ending battle to defend his vision against a mountain of technological, political and social difficulties. The Communist leaders insisted that a manned spaceship matter was too dangerous, fearing the loss of a Soviet cosmonaut in space. Korolev managed to overcome all objections.

James Harford, who worked in the U.S. space program for more than 40 years, based this book on historical research and on personal interviews with Soviet space scientists and top leaders and officials of Soviet cosmonautics. The initial interviews were conducted at international conferences with KGB-escorted Soviet space scientists. Beginning in 1973, after Harford had become the executive director of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, he made the first of many visits behind the Iron Curtain. (In an appendix, Harford lists 63 interviews.) After his 1989 retirement, Harford has at last been able to complete this wonderful, original book on Korolev. Filled with both emotion and facts, I think it is the best English-language source of information on the Soviet space program.

Are there any mistakes in the 400-page volume? Of course, there are a few that a native Russian expert (especially one who worked in the Soviet space program for decades) can point out, but these are all insignificant. Because of the many names, institutions and other details, some readers may find it a bit confusing, but the many valuable comments and useful explanations help make the reading easier.

I congratulate the author and publisher for the release of this truthful and valuable book. The distinctive features and controversies of Soviet cosmonautics are presented fairly and without prejudice. I like to look upon this book as yet another example of the good that has come in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.—Aleksander Gurshtein, Astronomy, Space Research and History of Science, Mesa State College, Grand Junction, CO

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