The First Manned Space Flight Was the Rocket Designer’s Victory as Much as Yuri Gagarin’s

Sergei Korolev designed the entire Soviet rocket program. But nobody knew his name until after he died

Sergei Korolev was technically still a political prisoner when he began working on the Soviet rocket program. Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. And given the risks inherent to early spaceflight, he certainly deserves his place in history. But what about the man who designed the rocket that got Gagarin there?

His name was Sergei Korolev, and his influence on the Soviet space program stretched much farther than Gagarin’s 108 minutes of fame—the time it took to make a single orbit of Earth.

The flight of Vostok 1, Gagarin’s craft, “was a defining moment of the 20th century and opened up the prospect of interplanetary travel for our species,” writes Robin McKie for The Guardian. For Gagarin, it was the moment that made him a famous figurehead for the Soviet Union.

As Gagarin toured the globe, the space program's chief designer remained at home and unknown. That Sergei Korolev ran the Soviet Union’s rocket program wasn’t revealed until after his death. “Gagarin became the face of Soviet space supremacy,” McKie writes, “while Korolev was the brains. The pair made a potent team and their success brought fame to one and immense power to the other. Neither lived long enough to enjoy those rewards, however.”

Korolev was in his mid-fifties when the Vostok I went up, while Gagarin was just 27. Korolev had already survived some of the USSR’s foundational moments, according to the European Space Agency. He had all of his teeth broken during torture and served in a labor camp during the Stalinist purges, and later helped to create weapons during World War II while still technically a political prisoner. He even led a Soviet weapon development team which developed the first Scud missile.

His team went on to develop the R-7 rocket, which was powerful enough to put the Sputnik satellites (and Laika, the tragic dog aboard Sputnik 2) into orbit, before the U.S. launched its first satellite. “Korolev and the R-7 rapidly scored yet more firsts,” writes the ESA: “the first probe to the Moon, the first picture of the far side of the Moon and the first probes to Venus and Mars.”

Then came Vostok 1, which was a spy satellite that Korolev modified by replacing the picture-taking apparatus inside with an ejection seat, the ESA writes. It was launched using an improved version of the rocket Korolev had relied on to date.

A few weeks after that flight, President John F. Kennedy made the speech that launched the race to the moon. “Few observers gave American much chance of victory,” McKie writes. “The Soviet program looked unbeatable with Gagarin and Korolev as its face and brains.” But Korolev was living on borrowed time, he writes: “He had already suffered one heart attack and was now succumbing slowly to illnesses brought on by his treatment in the Gulag.”

Broken in body but not in mind, Korolev died on an operating table in January 1966. Only after his death did the Soviet people, and the world, learn who he was, as the official Communist newspaper ran a lengthy obituary and he was given a state funeral. Without him, the race to the moon was lost, McKie writes.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.