Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to the Moon

By James Harford. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997

Reviewed by Charles K. Dodd

Korolev joins the growing ranks of Space Race histories (for example Walter MacDougal's The Heavens and the Earth and T. A. Heppenheimer's Countdown) that chronicle the political and technological struggle between the USA and USSR over space exploration during the 1950s and 1960s. Korolev is a fascinating and important contribution to this area, shedding important light on a heretofore little known but extremely important personality of the Space Race - Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the "Chief Designer" of the Soviet space program from its inception to his death in 1966. Although essentially a biography, Korolev also provides a useful institutional and technological history of the Soviet program. The author adds to the analysis by frequently comparing these to managerial and design practices of the program's rival, NASA, providing context and understanding while avoiding a tone of condescension.

Harford is able to do this undoubtedly because he is not a professional historian but a retired U.S. aerospace engineer motivated by a longtime interest in the Soviet space program. The author is clearly motivated to reveal a chapter in history that has thus far been veiled by the greatest of secrecy. The author sets out to both tell Korolev's story (before glasnost he was an anonymous character) and to better understand the factors, both technological and institutional, behind the glorious early successes of the Soviet space program and the increasingly problem-plagued manned spaceflight program of the mid and late 1960s, culminating in the secret (and failed) attempt to place Soviet cosmonauts on the moon. For the most part, the author's discussion and analysis of the Soviet space program at large and particularly the manned moon program is stymied by continuing secrecy by institutional and political interests still alive in the former Soviet Union today.

Harford's research is nevertheless impressive and its shortcomings are due to institutional barriers to research (particularly in Communist Party and budget records). Harford relies heavily on Russian-language documents (including popular media and personal memoirs) as well as interviews with almost all of Korolev's associates who are still alive. Harford's sources are very well documented, and he frequently points out contradictory testimony when it occurs among those interviewed. Unfortunately, as he reminds the reader, he was denied access to many high-level Soviet government and Party records. Thus he could not use primary resources to check the veracity of personal accounts and investigate some of the more Byzantine aspects of Soviet policy making and implementation (such as budgetary policy). Some might find the occasionally personalized nature of Harford's narrative annoying at times. However, he writes in a clear and straightforward style and makes good use of chronological tables (although timelines might have been better used).

It is an understatement to say that Korolev enjoyed a fascinating life. With a boyhood passion for flight and space travel, Korolev by the early 1930s had become a promising designer and engineer. In this sense his early years are not too dissimilar from those of rocket pioneers in other countries. However, Stalin's purges caught up with Korolev, and he spent several years in extremely difficult conditions throughout Siberia. This is one of the amazing aspects of the Korolev story: his ability to rise very rapidly from official disgrace and personal demoralization to become the head of the Soviet team responsible for the exploitation of German V-2 technology. By the mid-1950s Korolev had developed the very effective R-7 launcher, which would propel both Sputnik and Gargarin to world fame and Korolev to anonymous (yet key) status in the Soviet Space program. His extraordinary energy, charisma and unconventional managerial skills placed him in the position of chief designer, head administrator, some-time flight controller, and cosmonaut recruiter. Korolev was responsible for development not only of the manned Soviet programs, but many unmanned programs, including lunar and planetary probes. Despite Korolev's dominant position, he was faced with constant competition and intrigues from competing design bureaus. His untimely death in January 1966 came just as the U.S., with superior financial and technological resources, began to overtake Soviet efforts. Korolev over-committed himself in his last years, and his end was unfortunate. Fortunately, the book does not end with Korolev's death but follows with an interesting if incomplete description and analysis of Soviet attempts at a manned lunar landing during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Harford's study provides some insightful observations on the Soviet space program, for example, the initial ambivalence to Sputnik's success by Party leadership, and the later recklessness in search of space firsts during the Vostok and Voskhod programs. Perhaps the most revealing contribution of Harford's work is the degree of competition, institutional infighting and counter productive secrecy among Soviet design bureaus. Ultimately, the author points out, this led to the squandering of limited resources on parallel and redundant projects. This spelled doom for any attempt to match the U.S. effort, which enjoyed both abundant resources and a purposeful and cooperative institutional environment. One is tempted to think that without Korolev the Soviets would have accomplished even less.

I recommend this book to those interested in the Soviet space program, particularly the early years of the 1940s-1960s.

Charles Dodd, an instructor at Bellevue Community College, received his M.A. from the UW Geography program.