We Shocked the World

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

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)
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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.

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