This page no longer updated from 31 October 2001. Latest version can be found at Korolev, Chelomei, and Glushko - A Work In Progress

The strangely erratic story of the unsuccessful Soviet attempts to reach the moon and fly a winged spacecraft is inextricably bound up in the deep passions and resentments of the three titans of Soviet rocketry - Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, Vladimir Nikolayev Chelomei, and Valentin Petrovich Glushko. Each with his own patrons in the Kremlin hierarchy and Politburo, each deeply scarred and mishandled by the Soviet system, each at one time or another the supervisor of the others, each very sure that their technical and management approach was the superior, the depth of their passions in their struggle for ascendancy can scarcely be imagined.

The rivalries go back to the very origins of modern rocketry. In 1921, at age 15, Glushko had an exchange of letters with Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy, the father of Soviet astronautics, that fired his imagination and left him feeling 'anointed' as Tsiolkovsky's successor. Glushko from 1929 was a leading light of the Leningrad GDL (Gas Dynamics Laboratory), builders of the earliest Russian liquid rocket engines. Korolev, an aerodynamicist, had meanwhile co-founded the Moscow rocketry organisation GIRD (Gruppa Isutcheniya Reaktivniya Dvisheniya, Group for Investigation of Reactive Motion).

Like the VfR (Verein fuer Raumschiiffahrt - Society for Spaceship Travel) in Germany, and Robert Goddard in the United States, the Russian organisations were by the early 1930's testing liquid fuelled rockets of increasing size. The VfR collapsed in 1933 as its members chose to leave the country or begin work for the Nazi government. The members that remained finally developed the A-4 (V-2) missile, the basis for all liquid fuel rockets to follow. In America, the potential of his work unrecognised, Goddard had to give up his work with the beginning of the war and developed small rockets for the Navy.

In Russia, GIRD lasted only two years before the military, seeing the potential of rockets, replaced it with the RNII (Reaction Propulsion Scientific Research Institute). RNII developed a series of rocket-propelled missiles and gliders during the 1930's, culminating in Korolev's RP-318, Russia's first rocket propelled manned aircraft, powered by Glushko's ORM-65 rocket engine.

However before the aircraft could make a rocket propelled flight, Korolev and Glushko were thrown into the Soviet prison system in 1937/1938 during the peak of Stalin's insane purges. Korolev at first spent months in transit on the Transsiberian railway and on a prison vessel at Magadan. This was followed by a year in the Kolyma gold mines, the most dreaded part of the Gulag. However Stalin soon recognised the importance of aeronautical engineers in preparing for the impending war with Hitler. A system of sharashkas (prison design bureaux) was set up to exploit the jailed talent. Korolev was saved by the intervention of senior aircraft designer Sergei Tupolev, himself a prisoner, who requested his services in the TsKB-39 sharashka. However, Korolev was not allowed to work on rockets except at night on his own time. His RP-318 finally flew on 28 February 1940, evidently without his involvement.

Meanwhile Glushko had managed to become a free man and now headed TsKB-4, a sharashka in Kazan which was developing rocket installations to improve manoeuvrability and takeoff performance of conventional aircraft. In 1942, after Tupolev's team was evacuated from Moscow to Omsk, Korolev was finally transferred to Glushko's KB where he served as Deputy Director for Flight Testing (although still officially a prisoner). But by 1944 they were both working under the direction of Chelomei, a man and eight years their junior, in development of his 10X pulse-jet powered counterpart to the V-1. Thus in three years was the stage set for the future rivalries that would shape the development of Soviet space and missile programs.

With the war over, the immense progress that the Von Braun team had made in rocketry became apparent. Stalin, fascinated with the technology, was quite annoyed that the Peenemuende team had gone over to the Americans and that American intelligence had managed to loot most of the V-2 factories and rockets, even in the Russian zone. Boris Yevsheyevich Chertok and Vassiliy Mishin had already been assigned from April 1944 to secure what rocket technology could be salvaged as the Russian front advanced. Korolev was released from the Kazan sharashka and was in Germany from October 1945. At first he merely accompanying the team that salvaged what was left , and was present (under guard, outside the fence, while Glushko was part of the official delegation inside) at the British 'Operation Backfire' launch of a V-2 from Altenwaide. He interviewed dozens of V-2 engineers and technicians still in Germany.

On May 13, 1946 Stalin signed the decree beginning development of Soviet ballistic missiles. The Minister of Armaments, Dmitir Fedorovich Ustinov, was placed in charge of the development. In August 1946, the Scientific Research Institute NII-88 was established to conduct the development. Although not fully rehabilitated, Korolev's piercing personality and organisational abilities had clearly been impressive, and Ustinov personally appointed him Chief Constructor for development of long range ballistic missile. Glushko, now head of the GDL-OKB, would design engines for Korolev's rockets. Following Korolev's instructions, 200 German employees of the Mittelwerke V-2 factory were rounded up on the night of 22-23 October 1946 and sent to relatively good living conditions at Lake Seleger, between Moscow and Leningrad. Thus the jailed became the jailer. However the Germans had little direct contact with Korolev's engineers. Aside from assisting in launch of a few more V-2's from Kapustin Yar, they mainly answered written questions, finally being sent back in 1950-54.

The A-4, initially copied with all Soviet components as the R-1, was quickly developed into successively more capable R-2 and R-5 missiles. By April 1 1953, as Korolev was preparing for the first launch of the R-11 IRBM, he received approval from the Council of Ministers for development of the world's first ICBM, the R-7. In order to concentrate on development of the R-7, further IRBM development was spun off to a new design bureau in Dnepropetrovsk headed by Korolev's assistant, Mikhail Kuzmich Yangel. This was the first of several design bureaux, some later competing with the big three, that would be spun off from OKB-1 once Korolev had perfected a new technology.

The RD-105/RD-106 rocket motors that were to power the R-7 ICBM were however in serious development trouble. The first major scale-up from the 31.8 tonne thrust of the A-4 engines, to 66 tonnes, resulted in a motor with seemingly insoluble combustion chamber instability problems. Moreover by the end of 1953 the weight of the thermonuclear warhead to be carried was increased from the 3 tonnes of the original design to 5.4 tonnes. The entire vehicle had to be scaled up proportionately, and this meant that a single chamber design could not be delivered by Glushko by the 1956 date set for the first launch. Glushko's solution was to develop the RD-107/-108 design, a cluster of four motors sharing common fuel pumps and developing a total vacuum thrust of 90-100 tonnes. This put each chamber in the range in which the existing experience base could assure stable combustion. However it greatly increased the complexity of the booster, with a total of twenty main engines and sixteen vernier engines firing at lift-off, as opposed to five engines for the RD-105/106 approach. Korolev already had reason to be dissatisfied with Glushko's performance.

Meanwhile, Chelomei was still involved in development of cruise missiles. Under his direction the 4K44 Progress (SS-N-3 Shaddock) naval cruise missile was fielded in the 1950's. However it became apparent by the middle of the decade that the ballistic missile, for which no defence could be developed for decades, would win out over the cruise missile as a weapon system. Chelomei, invariably described as charming and ambitious, was anxious to be involved in the much more exciting areas of space flight. When Korolev's R-7 experienced a long string of launch failures in the summer of 1957, Chelomei was quick to criticise OKB-1 and ask to be put in charge of the development. But the decisive event in getting a piece of the space action was Chelomei's hiring of Nikita Khrushchev's son, Sergei. This gave Chelomei sudden and immediate access to the highest possible patron in the hierarchy. He was rewarded with his own design bureau, OKB-52, in 1959. OKB-52 was immediately assigned several development projects in the explosion of military space and missile projects that began with the intensification of the cold war following the U-2 shootdown, the resulting collapse of the Geneva talks with Eisenhower, and Kennedy's accession to the presidency in the United States.

Kennedy had been partly elected on the basis of claims of a 'missile gap' with the Soviet Union. Russia's succession of Sputnik and Luna launches, combined with the bellicose claims of Khrushchev, created the public impression that Russia was far ahead of the United States in the fielding of unstoppable ICBM's and space weapons. In fact, Korolev's R-7, with its enormous launch pads, complex assembly and launching procedures, cryogenic liquid oxygen oxidiser, and radio-controlled terminal guidance was a totally impractical weapon. The warhead available ended being up overweight, giving it a range of only 6,800 km, barely enough to reach the northern United States. As a result, it would be deployed as a weapon at only eight launch pads at Tyuratam and Plesetsk, in the north of the country. Development of more practical successors, Yangel's R-16 and Korolev's R-9, was not begun until May 13, 1959. The Eisenhower administration, thanks to the U-2 overflights, knew that the 'missile gap' did not exist, but in that curious logic that pertains to intelligence matters, would not tell the US public that it knew that the Soviet missile threat was virtually non-existent.

However having been elected on the basis of the existence of the threat, and having selected the former general manager of General Motors, Robert McNamara, as his Secretary of Defence, Kennedy felt impelled to plunge into a massive program of ICBM construction. Evidently unable with his motor industry background to think in terms of smaller numbers, McNamara chose the nice round figure of 1,000 ICBM's as a goal. The existing Atlas and Titan designs were too expensive to operate in such large numbers. Therefore the Minuteman program, already begun under Eisenhower, was expanded to provide a low-maintenance solid-fuelled missile that could be produced and cheaply operated in vast quantities.

The Russians, shocked into being drawn into an expensive arms race involving a thousand missiles as opposed to a few hundred, began development of equivalents. Korolev was tasked to build a solid-fuelled counterpart of the Minuteman, the RT-2. Khrushchev asked Chelomei to build a less risky, small liquid fuelled missile, the UR-100. Yangel was to continue development of his R-16 into the R-26 and R-36 'city-buster' missiles which the Pentagon held up as an enormous threat during the three decades to come (although they never felt impelled to duplicate it by simply deploying more of the equivalent Titan 2's).

Chelomei's ascendancy coincided with a huge technical dispute between Korolev on the one hand and Glushko on the other. Glushko had decided to quit developing rocket engines using liquid oxygen as the oxidiser. The use of hypergolic (self-igniting), storable oxidiser and fuel combinations had enormous operational advantages. The hypergolic fuels could be put in the missile's tanks and stored indefinitely. Such rockets, once fuelled, were available at any time for launch. Rockets using cryogenic liquids had to have the oxidiser loaded just before each launch, since the liquid oxygen quickly boils off at normal temperatures. If a launch was delayed for more than a couple of hours, launchers using cryogenic liquids had to be defuelled, and refuelled again for the next attempt, leading typically to a one day recycle time before the next launch could be attempted. The drawback of the storable propellants is that they were typically very toxic and dangerously corrosive. They had to be handled very carefully in special chemical protection gear. In the case of spills, accidents, or booster explosions, a dangerous cloud of toxic gas was created.

Glushko felt that the operational advantages of storable propellants outweighed the safety issues. Korolev did not, and insisted in using liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants even in missile applications. The rift first broke out in the R-9 missile development. Glushko refused to provide engines to Korolev's specifications. Korolev had to turn to Nikolai Kuznetsov's OKB, whose previous experience had been in gas turbine engines, to develop the R-9 engines. The Soviet military sided with Glushko - it only deployed 54 of Korolev's R-9 missiles, as against 380 of Yangel's R-16 and 800 of Chelomei's UR-100 (and it should be noted, the Americans selected toxic storable propellants for their Titan, the French for the Ariane, and the Chinese for the Long March).

This rift did not gain Korolev any friends in the military. They had contributed huge sums to his R-7 and R-9 programs and he had not produced any weapons of military usefulness. Their Zenit military reconnaissance satellite, begun in 1956, was deferred after Korolev's intervention, in favour of the Vostok manned spaceflight program. He was using missiles developed with their money for the purpose of exploring outer space. While it certainly provided positive propaganda for the Soviet state, it was not contributing to their security.

Each chief designer therefore became identified with powerful patrons in the cliques of the Kremlin hierarchy. Korolev, and his deputy Mishin, had in their employ Yuri Semenov, the son-in-law of Politburo ideology chief Andrei Kirilenko. Glushko and Yangel, by virtue of their production of the missiles for the military that actually wanted, earned the patronage of Dmitri Ustinov. Chelomei had his direct conduit to Khrushchev.

The upshot was that while Korolev was doing only theoretical studies of the next generation of launch vehicles (the N vehicle) and spacecraft (Vostok Zh and Soyuz A), Chelomei was authorised by Khrushchev in 1961 to proceed with development of the launch vehicle (UR-500 Proton) and the spacecraft (the LK-1) for a manned circumlunar mission to follow the Vostok earth orbital missions.

To be continued..

Back to Index
Last update 12 March 2001.
Contact Mark Wade with any corrections or comments.
Conditions for use of drawings, pictures, or other materials from this site..
© Mark Wade, 2001 .