The Time an Engineer Accidentally Started the Space Race and Changed the Course of History

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We tend to look back on the white-hot 12 years between Sputnik I and Neil Armstrong and say, "Well of course the United States won the Space Race," but the fog of history obscures the uncertainties of how it would all end. For much of the Space Race, not only was the Soviet Union ahead, but ahead by giant leaps. This is because of a brilliant, mysterious Soviet engineer whose public identity was simply "the Chief Designer." Revealed only after his death to be a rocket scientist named Sergei Korolev, not only did he fly circles—literally—around the American space program, but he has the distinction of having tricked the Soviet leadership into kicking off what would eventually become the space race. Here is how he did it, as described by Matthew Brzezinski in his magnificent book Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.


The Soviet Union was, in short, broke, which made difficult its bitter Cold War with the United States. The Soviets simply lacked the funds to maintain the kind of massive standing army necessary to go to war with the Americans at a moment's notice. Their detonation of the atomic bomb leveled the playing field a bit, but the Americans had overwhelming air superiority that included massive B-47 bombers flying every minute. The sheer brazenness of American bomber deployment and the scope of their exercises made Soviet leadership fear that the Americans might actually be serious about war.

After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the world's powers pillaged German scientific and engineering files, prying open "high-quality steel laboratory doors" and literally stepping over the bodies of dead Germans to seize schematics, mockups, and prototypes of the most advanced rocketry program in the world. The Soviets took what they found (far less than the Americans had managed to secure) and made rapid strides, first matching the stolen German rockets and slowly surpassing them. The Chief Designer's first real breakthrough—the R-5 rocket—was one ton lighter than those of the Germans and capable of holding 60 percent more fuel while producing 60 percent more thrust. The rocket had a range of 800 miles and could hold a warhead six times that of the Hiroshima bomb. As one might imagine, this greatly interested the leadership of the Soviet Union.

When Korolev personally unveiled his rocket to members of the Soviet Presidium, he had two goals, one secret and one obvious. He very overtly wanted them to believe in rockets as a method of waging war, and the presidium was onboard almost without reservation. Marveling at the R-5, it seemed incomprehensible to them that "such a strange, fragile object could wield such power; that with one push of a button it could vaporize an entire city in an instant." Missile warfare meant that "you didn't need planes, tanks, or troops, or an invasion fleet"; all of Europe (but for Spain and Portugal) was within its range, and five missiles could "destroy all of England."

The Chief Designer's missile immediately countered the American tactical advantage in the air—and did so for bargain bin prices. And that wasn't even the best of it. The Chief Designer had a new rocket in development called the R-7: the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of achieving 450 tons of thrust. (The German rockets taken after the war had a mere 27.) The Soviet officials—Premier Nikita Khrushchev among them—were awestruck.

This is when the Chief Designer made his move to set his secret plan into motion. He brought the men into an adjacent room and unveiled a strange model on a table—something called a "satellite." He launched into an impassioned speech about humanity's quest to escape the bonds of Earth, and that with a few modifications, the R-7 could actually help achieve this dream. The Soviet leadership was unimpressed. Who cared? They wanted to bring thermonuclear devastation to Washington.

Faced with this brick wall, the Chief Designer lied. The Americans, he said, were on the verge of launching one of their very own, and how great would it be to demonstrate superior Soviet scientific strength than by beating the Americans to the punch? All it would take was launching an R-7 missile with the satellite on board instead of a warhead, he explained. Again, the bait was not taken. So he again lied—or at least, exaggerated greatly—adding that the satellite would in no way interfere with the development of the missile.

Korolev, the Chief Designer, had long dreamed of launching an "artificial moon," but had been struck down every step of the way. The problem was the Soviet bureaucracy. At every level, someone could say no to what amounted to a silly, purposeless hurling of metal into space—and at every level, they did. But now, with Khrushchev in the room, he could neutralize and bypass the entire bureaucracy.

"If the main task doesn't suffer, do it," said the Soviet premier.


The Chief Designer now had to deliver. Khrushchev believed all of Korolev's promises, and began slashing the expensive Soviet military, which would no longer be needed in this age of missile warfare. What the Chief Designer had failed to mention was that the R-7 was nowhere near ready to launch. It had serious stabilization problems, thermal problems, friction problems, fuel problems—even launch pad problems (specifically: no launch pad existed that could handle such a massive missile). Worse yet, its nose cone was incapable of surviving reentry, which rendered it worthless as a weapon. (The warhead would be destroyed on reentry.)

The first R-7 missile finally launched in 1957. It flew for less than two minutes and crashed. Though pressure was building, the Chief Designer was optimistic. First launches always failed, he knew. But the following month, the second launch failed, too. This time, it didn't launch at all, simply coughing a lot of smoke and falling silent. The launch one month later did take flight—for 33 seconds—before disintegrating.

Only three things saved Korolev from a terrible fate. First, the American rocket program was mired in the sort of bureaucratic infighting that the Chief Designer had managed to avoid. Specifically, the U.S. Army and Air Force had competing missile programs, and undercut each other at every turn, with Congress and the Defense Department each doing their parts to make things more difficult for missile designers. American officials, meanwhile, dismissed rumors of a Soviet manmade moon, and felt no pressure to launch one of their own. As Brzezinski notes in his book, "Russia couldn't possibly smuggle a suitcase bomb into the United States, went one popular punchline, because the Soviets hadn't yet perfected the suitcase." Spaceships were simply laughably beyond Soviet reach. Second, the catastrophic Budapest Uprising distracted the Soviet leadership from paying much attention to the early R-7 failures. Third was an attempted coup d'état against Khrushchev. Settling scores in the aftermath preoccupied his time, leaving the latest R-7 disaster almost unnoticed.


The fourth launch of the R-7 was a success, with a caveat: The thermal protection on its nose cone failed, destroying the dummy warhead on reentry. Still, that could be corrected, and anyway, it had no effect on the Chief Designer's real purpose: the satellite, which wouldn't have to survive reentry, as it would be fired into orbit. At last in possession of a rocket that worked, Korolev was ready to launch his satellite—only to be rejected by the state commission overseeing the R-7 program.

Their reasons were myriad. Unlike Khrushchev, the commissioners knew specifically that the satellite would delay the "main task" of getting a thermonuclear bomb over Washington, D.C. Worse, rockets weren't cheap, and there weren't enough supplies to waste an R-7 on the distracting toy of a petulant engineer. Moreover, until the R-7 nose cone was perfected, the nuclear armaments chief couldn't test a live warhead, which meant his own progress was being held up. The ground control officers didn't want to reorient their monitoring stations; their hardware was designed for weapons of war and very specific trajectories—not "satellites" and orbits.

Trajectories especially mattered because Korolev wanted his satellite seen, and this would require careful calculations using the Soviet Union's most powerful computer. He wanted it visible in the night sky over the United States. It's why he chose the construction material ("highly reflective aluminum ... polished to a mirrorlike sheen") and its shape (spherical, so that it would catch the light better). He wanted no doubt that he had done it—that he had placed an object in space and that it was actually orbiting the Earth. It had to be seen. And when it wasn't seen, he wanted it heard. This, too, annoyed Soviet officials—this time in academia. The satellite's payload would not be scientific, but rather, redundant radio transmitters that sent out little pulses. "Hearing," writes Brzezinski, "was also believing."

Korolev had no way of mollifying the Soviet bureaucracy. The nose cone problem could take months if not years to solve, leaving Korolev dead in the water, yet so close to his true goal.


Just when hope seemed lost, a second consecutive and largely perfect R-7 test went off, and Korolev again had the attention of Khrushchev. Though the nose cone melted as usual, that the rocket could be said to launch reliably was vindication for Khrushchev, who had bet his nation's security on rocketry and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Chief Designer was more Khrushchev's man than ever, and whatever the Chief Designer wanted, the Chief Designer would get. Immediately, opposition to the satellite launch scurried in opposite directions, with officials worried suddenly that: 1. The United States might launch a satellite first, and 2. Khrushchev would then demand to know who interfered with the Chief Designer's efforts to get there first.

"Simple Satellite 1"—or Sputnik, as it was called—launched on October 4, 1957. When its tracking signal was received at the mission's control room, cheers erupted, though there was hesitation: it still had to orbit the planet. It would take an hour and a half before the signal resumed, the Earth having now been circled. They had done it. "This is music no one has ever heard before," Korolev said at the time.

Few at the time understood the significance of Sputnik. It's possible Eisenhower wasn't even briefed on it the night it made its first orbit. The official White House response thereafter incorrectly credited German rocket engines for the achievement, and dismissed the very utility of a satellite, noting that its "value … to mankind will for a long time be highly problematical." The secretary of defense called it "a silly bauble." A commander of the American rocket program called it a "hunk of iron that almost anyone could launch." (In fact, it would take almost five months and multiple public failures by the American space program before they could repeat Sputnik's success.)

Whatever American officials said publicly, Sputnik's signal simply could not be downplayed or ignored. The beeps were broadcast on NBC, the evening anchor saying, "Listen now for the sound that will forever more separate the old from the new." Ham radio enthusiasts monitored it. Amateur astronomers every evening attempted to find and follow glints of light on the first artificial moon to cross the night sky. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union intended to enter a space race—it all started because one man was obsessed with getting there first. Nobody predicted that the event would eventually transform political priorities in the United States, and as Red Moon Rising details, would dominate global affairs for the next 20 years.