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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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.

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