We Shocked the World

Nikita Khrushchev’s son recalls the night Sputnik made history.

The author’s father, Nikita Khrushchev, in 1959. Dutch National Archives

On the evening of October 4, 1957, my father was waiting for a phone call. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev was expected to call from the Tyuratam launch site (later renamed Baikonur Cosmodrome) in Kazakhstan to report the outcome of the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite.

Earlier that day, my father had been in Kiev, Ukraine, on military business. He attended a demonstration of tanks crossing the Dnieper River, then he discussed with some Soviet generals the fate of Defense Minister Marshal Georgy Zhukov. (Zhukov was suspected of plotting to seize power, and before forcing a decorated World War II general to resign, political leaders enlisted the higher-ranking generals’ support. The generals all agreed with the plan.)

That evening, in Mariyinsky Palace, now the official residence of Ukraine’s president, my father sat at the dinner table talking with the Ukrainian leaders. I settled into a chair at the end of the table, not paying much attention to the conversation. It was late and everybody was tired, but my father wasn’t in a hurry to say goodnight. Around midnight, the door cracked open and the secretary asked my father to take a phone call. When he came back in the room he was smiling, and I knew right away that the launch of Sputnik had been successful.

“A moment ago, an outstanding event happened,” my father told the room in a voice that could not quite conceal his elation. “Korolev has called me and reported that two hours ago the artificial satellite was put into orbit.”

The name Korolev didn’t mean anything to the Ukrainian leaders. My father started talking about rockets, engineers, and our achievements. The Ukrainians were agreeing politely but were not really interested. They wanted to come back to the discussions that had been interrupted by the phone call, about the region’s agriculture, finance, and other matters.

The secretary came into the room again, silently turned on a shortwave radio in the corner, and tuned it. Now, from the speakers, Sputnik’s signals came through: beep…beep…beep. My father listened intently, then the signals grew gradually softer as Sputnik went over the horizon. The session was over, as well as the conversation. My father apologized, said it was late, and went to bed.

The author, whose father was first secretary for the Soviet Communist Paty from 1953 to 1964, relaxes in his office at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Watson Institute for International Studies

The next day, Pravda and other Soviet newspapers published on the front page a 50-line, two-column official announcement from the TASS news agency. It began: “The design and development of artificial Earth-orbiting satellites have been done for several years in the Soviet Union.”

Engineers had begun designing Sputnik in January 1956. The plan was to launch it with the R-7, the intercontinental ballistic missile that Korolev’s team had been working on since 1954. Like later Soviet missiles, the R-7 had military purposes as its primary application and space research as its secondary application. On February 26, 1956, my father and I (I was a student at the Moscow Electric Power Institute—in American terms, an engineering college) had visited Korolev’s design office in Podlipki and viewed missiles, including a full-size model of the R-7. At the end of the visit, we listened to a brief talk on the possibility of the R-7 launching an artificial satellite. Having a fondness for technological innovations, my father got interested in that, but he warned Korolev, “The main priority is security of the country.”

TASS at the time had been reporting that satellite launches were scheduled in connection with the International Geophysical Year, a worldwide program of coordinated scientific observations of geophysical phenomena. Soviet newspapers had even published the frequencies of the satellites’ radio transmitters. But all of the reports were vague, with no mention of launch dates. Nobody in the rest of the world would pay attention to such pronouncements; everybody outside the Soviet Union knew the United States would soon launch the world’s first satellite.

Korolev was afraid that the Americans might be ahead. He was especially worried when he found out that the U.S. Army’s July 1957 test of the Jupiter ballistic missile had been a success. After that, he thought that the Americans would open the door to space before his R-7 had even flown. Korolev was in a hurry. The meeting of the IGY committee was scheduled for the beginning of October, at which time the American scientists intended to tell their plans for space.

Korolev believed that the Americans would keep their plans a secret until after they had succeeded in launching a satellite, so he put all his efforts into beating the Americans to it. In August and September his missile was successfully launched twice. Korolev made everybody on his team work around the clock. He wanted to launch Sputnik before the opening of the IGY meeting. And he made the deadline.

Sputnik’s launch made the front page of Pravda, but just barely. The story occupied the same amount of space as a report on Marshal Zhukov’s visit to Yugoslavia and ran in a less prestigious position on the page. There were no big headlines, no enthusiastic comments. In fact, except for the official TASS account, there was not a single line about an event that astounded the rest of the world. How could that possibly happen?

The explanation is quite simple. My father and I and all the Soviet people thought that it was natural, that step by step we were getting ahead of the Americans. After all, we—not the Americans—put into operation the world’s first nuclear power plant. It was the Soviet MiG, a prototype of a new fighter designed by A.I. Mikoyan, that set a number of world records in the 1950s. The Soviet Tu-104 was the most efficient airliner of its class. As a result, the achievement of orbiting the world’s first satellite aroused pride and delight among Soviet citizens, but not astonishment. A lot of popular books had been published in the Soviet Union about future space stations and flights to the moon and Mars. Space travel seemed quite feasible, and the readers of those books—including me—looked forward to it. We just couldn’t understand why the engineers were taking so long.

On October 5, the world press couldn’t write about anything but “the Soviet red moon.” On that day in Moscow, everybody realized what had actually happened, what a scientific and propaganda achievement the launch was: the first-in-the-world artificial satellite. On October 6, Pravda, a day late, devoted its whole front page to space. At the top was a huge headline, “The world’s first artificial satellite was made in the Soviet Union!” It was followed by comments from all over the world, with a photograph of people listening to Sputnik’s beep over the radio. On page 2, the newspaper printed an article on space research and plans for the future.

A couple of days later came a declassified picture of the satellite, an 84-kilogram (184-pound) sphere with four whip-like antennas. Then newspapers reported how many thousands of kilometers the satellite had covered, its orbital parameters, where and at what time people could see it in the sky. On October 12, Pravda ran a photograph of the satellite’s track: a thin bright strip in the pitch-black night sky over Melbourne, Australia.

What the newspapers did not report was the name of the man who designed the rocket, the chief of the design office where Sputnik was created. At that time, nobody knew the name Sergei Korolev; it was classified. The KGB knew there was really no need to keep the designer’s name a 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, and as for real secrets, the enemy’s arms were too short to reach them.

The newspapers referred to the chief of the design office as “Chief Designer,” and Korolev signed his articles in Pravda as “Engineer Sergeev.” But the world was desperate to learn his identity. The Nobel Prize committee decided to give an award to the “Chief Designer” without polling the world’s scientists, but first it needed the person’s name. The committee requested it from the Soviet government.

My father needed to think over his response. The matter was complicated, and his concern wasn’t confidentiality. The Council of Chief Designers was in charge of all space projects; the head of the council was Korolev, but the other Chief Designers—more than a dozen—considered themselves no less significant. After Sputnik, all of them had been equally awarded the Lenin Prize and other Soviet honors.

My father understood that the Chief Designers were ambitious and jealous people. If the Nobel committee were to give the award to just Korolev, my father thought, the members would fly into a rage. They would refuse to work with Korolev. A well-organized team would collapse like a house of cards, and the hopes for future space research and missile design would be dashed. That in turn would threaten the security of the country. As my father saw it, you could order scientists and engineers to work together, but you couldn’t force them to create something.

In the end, my father told the Nobel committee that all of the Soviet people had distinguished themselves in the work on Sputnik and that they all deserved the award. Sure enough, Korolev was offended, but he kept silent. The rest of the Chief Designers quietly approved of my father’s decision. The Nobel was awarded to somebody else.

But despite the pains my father had taken, the outcome he had feared came to be. The other designers expressed more and more discontent about Korolev getting all the publicity, even if anonymously. In their “secret” world, it wasn’t any secret who was behind the title “Chief Designer,” written with initial capital letters.

The first to revolt was Valentin Glushko, an engine designer who was more significant in scientific circles than Korolev. (Today, it’s Glushko’s RD-170 liquid-propellant engine that is flying 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 wasn’t 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. Korolev, furious, called Glushko a snake in the grass and refused to cooperate with him again.

Even my father couldn’t make peace between them. Technically Glushko, by government order, continued to design engines for Korolev, but the work under pressure wasn’t good. Without Glushko’s best efforts, Korolev had a hard time; as a result, he—and the Soviets—lost the race for the moon to the Americans, despite the initial triumph of Sputnik.

Translated by Lyudmila Khomenko Chillico

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