Introduction: Uncovering Ukraine is a series of short stories about Ukrainians who’ve advanced technology, art and science to new heights. Check out our other articles in this series.
It is no exaggeration to say that Serhiy Korolyov was a true pioneer in world cosmonautics. He was not merely a theoretician but a decorated outer space explorer.
As a revered scientist, Serhiy was the first chief designer for the Soviet Union’s rocket and space systems and became an academician of the SRSR’s Academy of Sciences. His space leadership record was impressive, overseeing the first intercontinental ballistic missile, first Earth satellite, first manned space flight, and a manned spacewalk.
Born in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, Serhiy did not grow up in a scientist family: his father was a gymnasium teacher. But by the time Serhiy turned 17, he had designed his first glider and showed an obsessive interest in aviation. This is remarkable, considering the fact that he never attended any formal school and taught himself as best he could from home.
Serhiy’s stepfather enrolled him in a port club modeling class, and it was this experience that inspired Serhiy to build his own glider. Having learned German, he was able to consume several expert-level books on gliding and aviation in their native language.
In the fall of 1924, Serhiy Korolyov entered the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute at the Faculty of Mechanics to begin training as an aviation engineer. At the institute, people expected students to come from wealthy families. But Serhiy was poor, Ukrainian, and unashamed of his ethnicity. This made his formal training more challenging than it was for his peers.
«I wake up early, at five o’clock. I run to the editorial office, pick up the newspapers, and then rush to Solomenka, deliver them. So I earn eight rubles».Serhiy wrote to his mother
Two years after Serhiy enrolled at KPI, the institute’s aviation department closed, and any students that wanted to continue their aviation studies had to transfer to schools in Moscow. Serhiy chose the Bauman Moscow State Technical University and majored in aeromechanics specializing in aircraft construction.
To graduate, Serhiy had to demonstrate his expertise with a successful construction project, and he designed a two-seat aircraft with Andrey Tupolev as his scientific supervisor. After Serhiy completed his defense, his design entered production as the “Korolyov K4.” In its first flight, Serhiy was able to accompany the test pilot in the aircraft. Though the landing gear received damage during the landing, the test flight was successful.
Misfortune struck Serhiy when he contracted typhus and endured numerous treatment complications. He became so ill that doctors declared him an invalid. Despite his physical disabilities, he led the Moscow group scientific and technical council in the study of jet propulsion.
By September 1933, Serhiy was appointed deputy director of the Jet Institute at a remarkable 26 years old. Within a year, the institute declared they had “unjustified hopes” in his ability to lead and terminated his position. Yet he remained at the institute working as an ordinary engineer, concentrating on cruise missile development.
Hardships continued for Serhiy with the rise of Stalin. The government accused Serhiy of sabotage and sent him to Butyrka prison where he was tortured. Upon leaving prison, he was forced to work for many years in the KGB.
After Stalin’s death, Serhiy advanced once again in the academic world. When the Soviet Union launched the first artificial earth satellite into low Earth orbit in 1957, Serhiy oversaw the mission.
Thanks to Serhiy Korolyov, the Soviet Union broke countless space milestones. He led the mission that sent the first animal (a dog named Laika) into space aboard the Sputnik 2 (another spacecraft that Serhiy manufactured). He also sent the first crew into space and initiated the first radio communication between two manned spacecraft. This first human crew in space occurred on April 12, 1961, and Yuri Gagarin (the mission pilot) became a world celebrity overnight. Serhiy also led the first spacewalk mission in 1965 completed by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.
Serhiy Korolyov’s space achievements are compared with the likes of Einstein’s advances in physics, though he received little publicity for his work. During the latter half of his career, Serhiy’s name was classified, and all designs he created were credited to a “general designer.”
But today, Serhiy is well-known. Many streets, avenues, squares, and other toponyms are named in honor of Korolyov. Scientists even named Asteroid 1855 Korolyov and a Mars’ crater after him. Elon Musk declared Serhiy “one of the best” in rocket science.
The Ukrainian song “Watching the sky and thinking a thought…” inspired the young Serhiy Korolyov to achieve great things in his life. When Serhiy launched his rocket carrying the first Ukrainian cosmonaut, Pavel Popovych, he heard the grateful pilot sing his favorite song from space in his honor.
«Remember, if you do it quickly and badly, people will forget that you did it quickly and remember that you did it badly. If you do it slowly and well, people will forget that you did it slowly and remember that you did it well!»Serhiy Korolyov
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