THE MAKING OF SPUTNIK
Machinations behind the Iron Curtain
By Sergei N. Khrushchev (4 Oct 2007, ST)
Earlier that day, my father was in Kiev, Ukraine, on military business. He attended a demonstration of tanks crossing the Dnieper River, then discussed with Soviet generals the fate of defence minister Marshal Georgy Zhukov. (Zhukov was suspected of plotting to seize power, and, before forcing a decorated World War II general to resign, my father and his colleagues enlisted the support of other high-ranking generals, who all agreed with Khrushchev's plan.)
That evening, my father dined with the Ukrainian leaders. I sat at the end of the table, not paying attention to their conversation. Everybody was tired, but my father was in no hurry to sleep. Around midnight, the door opened and the secretary asked my father to take a phone call. When Khrushchev came back, he was smiling: Sputnik's launch was successful.
Soviet engineers began designing Sputnik in January 1956. The plan was to launch it with the R-7, an intercontinental ballistic missile in development since 1954. But the rest of the world paid no attention to the vague pronouncements of a possible launch that had been appearing in the Soviet press; everybody outside the Soviet Union knew the United States would launch the world's first satellite.
Soviet scientists believed the Americans would keep their plans secret until after they had succeeded in launching a satellite, so our efforts were on beating the Americans to the launch. In August and September, R-7 missiles were successfully launched twice. Work went on around the clock.
Sputnik's launch made the front page of Pravda, but just barely. The story occupied the same amount of space as a report on Zhukov's visit to Yugoslavia, and ran in a less prestigious position. There were no banner headlines or enthusiastic comments.
The reason was simple. My father and all the Soviet people thought that Sputnik's success was natural, that, step by step, we were getting ahead of the Americans. After all, we - not the Americans - had opened the world's first nuclear power plant.
The Soviet MiG set world records in the 1950s, and the Soviet Tu-104 was the most efficient airliner of its class. So Sputnik did not surprise us.
Nor did the press report Korolev's name. The KGB knew there was really no need to keep his name secret, but, as KGB chief Ivan Serov told me, the enemy's resources were limited, so let them waste their efforts trying to uncover 'non-secret' secrets.
But the world was desperate to learn his identity. The Nobel Prize committee decided to give an award to Sputnik's 'chief designer', but first it needed the name, so it requested it from the Soviet government.
My father weighed his response carefully, but his concern was not confidentiality. The Council of Chief Designers was in charge of all space projects. Korolev was the head of the council, but the other chief designers - more than a dozen - considered themselves no less significant.
My father understood the chief designers were ambitious and jealous people. If the Nobel committee were to give the award only to Korolev, my father thought, the members would fly into a rage. They would refuse to work with Korolev. A well-organised team would collapse like a house of cards, and the hopes for future space research and missile design would be dashed, threatening Soviet security.
As my father saw it, you could order scientists and engineers to work together, but you could not force them to create something.
In the end, my father told the Nobel committee that all the Soviet people had distinguished themselves in the work on Sputnik, and that they all deserved the award. Korolev was offended but kept silent. The Nobel Prize went to somebody else.
But, despite the pains my father had taken, the other designers expressed growing discontent about Korolev getting all the publicity, even if anonymously. In their 'secret' world, it was not any secret who was behind the title 'chief designer'.
The first to rebel was engine designer Valentin Glushko, whose RD-170 liquid-propellant engine is used on Russian and some American rockets. During one council meeting, Glushko said: 'My engines could send into space any piece of metal.'
Korolev was offended; his rocket was not just a piece of metal, and, after his success with Sputnik, he no longer considered Glushko his equal. The dispute was hushed up, but the resentment lingered. Soon, Glushko offered his services to other Soviet rocket designers, Mikhail Yangel and Vladimir Chelomei - Korolev's rivals.
Even my father could not make peace between them. Technically, Glushko, by government order, continued to design engines for Korolev, but the work was no good. So, despite Sputnik's initial triumph, a decade later the Soviets lost the race to the moon to the Americans.
The writer, son of former Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev, is a senior fellow at Thomas Watson Jr Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate