We Shocked the World
Nikita Khrushchev's son recalls the night Sputnik made history.
- By Sergei Khrushchev (Translated by Lyudmila Khomenko Chillico)
- Air & Space magazine, August 2007
Watson Institute for International Studies
(Page 3 of 3)
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.