By Andy Cooke
Aleksandr Vishnevsky was the best surgeon on the staff of Dr Boris Petrovsy, the Minister of Health for the Soviet Union - himself a highly experienced surgeon. It was mid-afternoon on the 14th of January, 1966, and Vishnevsky had been unexpectedly rushed from a resort near the Kremlin clinic and into the operating room. In which lay a patient on whom the Minister himself had been operating.
He took one look at the patient, lying opened up on the table, and grandly announced that he did not operate on dead men, and walked back out.
Petrovsky had no options left. His patient finished bleeding out. Sergei Korolev was dead, and the last real hope the Soviets had of keeping up with the Americans in the race to the Moon died with him.
The Chief Designer
The West had an image of a single, monolithic Soviet space program led by a shadowy "Chief Designer." The reality was rather different. There were always at least three main warring fiefdoms: OKB-1, led by Sergei Korolev, OKB-52, led by Vladimir Chelomei, and OKB-456 led by Valentin Glushko. Over time, another bureau was set up, OKB-562, led by Mikhail Yangel. (OKB was the acronym for Opytnoye Konstruktorskoye Buro, meaning Experimental Design Bureau).
And the Chief Designers of each of them hated each other, and never missed an opportunity to do the other down. A disagreement over propellant choice (Chelomei and Glushko favoured storable propellants, that happened to be dangerous to use and extremely toxic, but could remain stored inside a rocket for prolonged periods, while Korolev insisted on using kerosene and liquid oxygen, which were easier and safer to use (albeit never what most would call "safe"), but needed to be loaded onto the rocket shortly before launch) escalated into back-biting, ego-waving, and politicisation.
Chelomei managed a political coup by hiring the son of Nikita Krushchev, then Leader of the Soviet Union, but Korolev managed to gain repeated successes in the Space Race, providing propaganda-hungry Krushchev with "spectaculars" about which he could crow to the rest of the world.
The first satellite (Sputnik 1).
The first animal in orbit (Sputnik 2).
The first space probe to reach the Moon (Luna 2).
The first images of the far side of the Moon (Luna 3).
The first man in space (Vostok 1).
The first multi-spaceship mission (Vostok 3, Vostok 4).
The first woman in space (Vostok 6).
The first spaceflight with multiple crewmembers (Voshkod 1).
The first spacewalk (Voshkod 2).
Krushchev did not, however, get to brag about the final item on the list above. He was on a relayed telephone call to the cosmonauts of Voskhod 1 when he was overthrown. The last words heard from Krushchev to the cosmonauts, broadcast to millions, were "Anastas Ivanovich is pulling the receiver out of my hand." Later that day, flown to Moscow, Krushchev was required to announce his "voluntary" retirement.
Although Korolev was one of multiple "Chief Designers," it is understandable that he was viewed as the Chief Designer of the Soviet Space Race, given his key influence on each of the "firsts" above. He was finalising the design of the Soyuz capsule (which, evolved and improved, is still used by the Russian Space Agency today) when he died.
Kennedy changes the goalposts
Thanks to Korolev's R-7 launcher (known as "Semyorka", meaning sinply, "The Seven"), with its hefty payload capacity (by the standards of the early Space Race), the Soviet Union held an early advantage. While the United States were struggling to orbit payloads as heavy as tens of kilograms, Semyorka could lob a tonne, two tonnes, four tonnes into low earth orbit. Engines designed by Chelomei, system masterminded by Korolev, the venerable workhorse rocket would stick around in its later evolved stages into the twenty-first century, launching Soyuz capsules.
Knowing the Soviet advantage, and well advised by his experts, Kennedy punted long. Aiming to land a man on the moon would be well beyond any feasible improvement of the Soviet Semyorka; the Russians would also have to start with a blank sheet of paper. And, on their side of the ocean, Wehrner von Braun's sheet of paper was not really blank at all.
Korolev was more than a skilled rocket designer. He was a consummate manager and organiser. In his bureau, he had geniuses like Tikhonravov, the real designer of many of his systems and subsystems, and two able subordinates in Boris Chertok and Vasili Mishin to help him bring his visions into reality. But Korolev had the vision, the energy, and the ability to visualise all the steps needed to achieve the goals and bring together so many disparate threads.
Winning the propellant argument
The Nedelin catastrophe underlined Korolev's aversion to such potent and storeable propellants as unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide, favoured by Chelomei and Glushko.
They were dense, ignited on contact with each other with no need for separate ignition, storeable over long periods with no degradation, and provided excellent "specific impulse" - the holy grail of rocket launchers. They were, however, hugely toxic, corrosive, and flammable - far too dangerous to use, in Korolev's eyes, especially for potentially manned launchers.
Yangel's prototype R-16 ICBM, which used these propellants, was being tested on 24 October 1960, when the second stage developed a fault. The test launch was behind schedule, so the newly appointed head of the Soviet Artillery, Chief Marshal Mitrofan Ivanovich Nedelin, insisted that work be done on the fully fuelled and live rocket to save time. He brought out a deck chair to sit on, near the rocket, to reassure the technicians.
Yangel wandered off for a cigarette, together with the range commanding officer. Unusually, smoking saved a couple of lives that day, as they escaped the colossal explosion that incinerated Nedelin and more than seventy technicians in a cloud of lethal corrosive gas.
The best engine designer, Glushko, was unavailable to Korolev, due to them hating each others guts. And, despite the Nedelin disaster, Glushko still vehemently disagreed over using kerosene and liquid oxygen, viewing them as useless for most military use.
Improved processes and procedures would suffice to enable the use of storeable propellants, he insisted. Instead, he went to work on the engine for Chelomei's heavy launcher, the UR-500 Proton, while Chelomei started to plan an orbital Moon mission (Proton would not be powerful enough to support a landing mission). Korolev went to Nikolai Kuznetsov, instead - a designer of aircraft engines.
The resulting rocket, the N-1, was almost identical in height to the Saturn V rocket that von Braun would develop, but far wider at the base. The first two stages resembled an elongated cone, flared wide to fit no fewer than thirty engines at the bottom of the first stage. Despite the NK-15 engines being more powerful than any other kerosene-oxygen engine ever made by the Soviet Union, each one had less than a quarter the thrust of the Saturn V's F-1 first-stage engines. And the firing of so many engines simultaneously and their mutual interdependence led to significant engineering challenges. Challenges that Korolev would not be around to solve.
Illness and death
Korolev was not a well man when he led the Soviet space programme. His health had been shattered by years in the Siberian gulag, to which he was sentenced during the Great Purge, after torture to extract a "confession" of deliberately slowing work for the Soviet State. Most of his sentence was carried out in less-horrific conditions as a slave-designer, but he spent over a year in the worst conditions, including forced labour for several months in a gold mine. He lost his teeth to scurvy and malnourishment and came very close to dying.
In December 1965, now a valued asset of the Soviet Union and rewarded with comfortable living conditions, Korolev underwent a routine medical examination over a few days. Thorough and detailed, it gave him a nearly-clean bill of health (well, given his history, anyway), apart from some polyps in his intestine. One of which was bleeding slightly and might be pre-cancerous.
Back in the clinic on January 13th, 1966, he was told he had nothing to worry about. The Minister of Health himself was conveying the good news and would carry out a routine procedure to excise the polyps (despite being out of practice; the importance of Korolev was so great, Petrovsky felt unable to delegate the task).
The relieved Korolev asked, "How much longer will I be able to continue with my work?"
Petrovsky answered, smiling, "About twenty years."
"Ten will be enough," said Korolev, and he went into surgery the following morning.
Petrovsky got to work at 8 am, and plucked out the polyps. Doing so, however, ruptured a blood vessel underneath, and Korolev started to haemmorhage. Petrovsky, alarmed, started to cut into the abdomen to stop the bleeding; this should have resolved the problem. Unfortunately, Petrovsky discovered a large, malignant tumour beneath, which had escaped the medical examination. Out of his depth and out of practice, Petrovsky worked feverishly, deciding to remove great chunks of Korolev's intestines and rectum in an attempt to remove the tumour.
Seven hours into the ordeal, Korolev's weakened heart began to spasm. There was an inadequate supply of blood in the clinic, and getting oxygen to the patient was difficult - Korolev's jaw had been broken in the gulag and he could not be properly intubated. And Petrovsky finally realised he desperately needed help and sent for Vishnevsky, his top surgeon. Too little, too late, and Korolev was dead.
Vasily Mishin was promoted to the head of OKB-1. An able deputy, he was unsuited for full leadership and unable to stand up to pressure from above, or handle his subordinates in the same way as Korolev. Chertok was significantly more able, but to promote him was unthinkable to the Soviet hierarchy: not only had he been born in Poland, he was also Jewish. Both were insuperable strikes against him, in the eyes of the Soviet leadership.
Mishin was under huge pressure to rush the completion of the Soyuz capsule. Despite both unmanned tests of the capsule failing in orbit, Mishin nevertheless agreed to launch Vladimir Komarov in Soyuz 1 on the 23rd of April, 1967. And, the following day, Bykovsky, Khrunov, and Yeliseyev in Soyuz 2.
Catching up with the American successes in Gemini and overtaking them in a single flight, the two spacecraft would rendezvous in orbit, dock, and two cosmonauts would transfer from Soyuz 2 to Soyuz 1, landing in a different spacecraft to the one in which they'd launched. A truly epic spectacular.
The cosmonauts knew better. They knew the Soyuz wasn't ready. The first unmanned test flight had suffered from attitude control failure, and used up all its maneouvering propellant before spinning uncontrollably. The second had suffered further attitude control failure, albeit less so - but the attitude control problems in re-entry meant a hole had been burned through the heat shield and would have been fatal to any occupant.
Yuri Gagarin, First Man in Space, and now a Hero of the Soviet Union, tried to convince Komarov to feign illness so he, Gagarin, would be appointed to the flight as Komarov's backup. Knowing that the Soviet hierarchy would be desperate to avoid losing the first man in space to any accident, he was sure there would be more checks and investigations, which would uncover the fact that Soyuz simply couldn't fly. Komarov refused, worried that Mishin would go along with the launch regardless, and Gagarin would be lost. He did, however, get Gagarin to pledge to ensure an open-casket funeral, so the Soviet hierarchy could "see what they had done."
Soyuz 1 launched as planned on April 23rd 1967. And, as expected by the cosmonauts, it went badly wrong. First, one of the solar panels failed to deploy, robbing it of energy and fouling the service module. Then, as with the unmanned test capsules, the attitude control system malfunctioned and manouevring fuel ran down at an alarming rate. The automatic control system was inoperative. The manual backup system only partially worked.
Soyuz 2's launch was called off and an attempt made to fire the retrorockets for Soyuz 1.
"This devil ship; nothing I touch works properly," Komarov reportedly said to Mission Control. He managed to manually orient the ship for re-entry using a telescope (the on-board system having failed) and fired the retrorocket himself. With the automatic attitude control system inoperative, the Soyuz could tumble during re-entry, Komarov calmly started to spin the Soyuz for stability. Surviving the period on orbit and all the way through re-entry, against the odds, Komarov's luck finally ran out as the drogue parachute failed to extract the main canopy. Manually firing the reserve parachute by hand, Komarov was helpless as it entangled with the main - which had been supposed to release automatically when the reserve fired. Soyuz 1 smashed into the Russian steppes at terminal velocity, the cushioning retro-rockets then firing and exploding just after impact.
Gagarin kept his promise to his fallen comrade; the funeral was a grisly affair. There are pictures online; I have chosen not to use them.
Problems with the N-1
Part of the problem with the Soviet space industry was the lack of quality parts from their suppliers. Without any financial levers to pull, the Chief Designers were reduced to politicking and wheedling their suppliers when consignments were not delivered, or had the wrong parts, or were simply defective.
Korolev had been good at this; Mishin rather less so. A robust test regime was critical to overcome these issues, but, under pressure, Mishin took too many shortcuts.
This wasn't to say that Korolev wouldn't take shortcuts or risks - the Voskhod programme (Voskhod was essentially a slightly uprated Vostok with emergency systems and safeguards removed to cram more people into it) was insanely dangerous, but Korolev had a seemingly psychic ability to work out just how far he could push the risks.
Even with the test regime excessively shortened and all short-cuts taken, the first launch of the N-1 wasn't until February 1969. An engine failure caused a series of events that led to the automatic control system shutting down all engines at T+68 seconds, resulting in the loss of the launcher.
The second test was just before Apollo 11 was due to launch and was even more catastrophic. Just as it cleared the tower, twenty-nine of the thirty engines shut down (several of them commanded to do so by the automatic control system, which detected an explosion in engine #8), and the rocket fell onto an adjacent launch pad, destroying it in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Two further launches (in 1971 and 1972) resulted in further failures (the last coming tantalisingly close to success, at least of the first stage) and the N-1 was cancelled. Russia would not have a true superbooster until the Energia rocket flew in 1987.
What could have happened
It is fairly easy to "butterfly away" the death of Korolev. A series of bad decisions by a surgeon who should not have been operating killed him; had Petrovsky delegated the task (to Vishnevsky, or almost any of his in-practice surgeons), or had he not decided to try to excise a large malignant tumour himself with no preparation, the outcome could have been very different. Korolev might not have been very healthy, but he could easily have lived another decade or two.
What difference would it have made? After all, Korolev could also take shortcuts, and his luck could run out. It is, however, likely that Soyuz 1 would not have occurred as it did: Korolev listened to his "little Eagles" when they had concerns. He would have insisted on successful test flights before launching Komarov. In addition, he had better control over his suppliers and a better handle on the test regime.
The N-1 and Soyuz would likely have had their first flights a little later than in OTL, but the chances of success of each would have been significantly greater. It was almost certainly too late for the Soviets to beat the Americans to the surface of the Moon, but Korolev had plans for a circumlunar flight (whipping around the Moon and back), which could still get to lunar orbit before Apollo.
With Korolev dead, the mastermind that could have run those plans was gone. In addition, the Soyuz capsule that would be the building block around which the circumlunar flight would be based) had been rushed into service and was then grounded for eighteen months following Komarov's death in Soyuz 1. Mishin's modifications to the project (called Zond) were ones Korolev would not have made. It is possible he would still have failed - but it is also possible he could have succeeded.
The N-1 would likely never be ready in time to beat Apollo 11, but with a successful super-heavy launcher (even a year or so late), the Soviets could have reached the lunar surface while Apollo missions were still under way. That alone would have changed the complexion of the later Space Race - would America have abandoned the Moon if cosmonauts were exploring it?
Maybe they still would - or maybe they wouldn't. It does open up the possibility of a longer Moon programme and a post-Apollo deep space programme; one that never existed in OTL
If Korolev had lived and things gone right for him - if he and his designers had worked out the flaws of the N-1 sooner, pressure on his suppliers had been better, and the automatic control system been better designed, the N-1 might even have flown sooner and safer than in OTL. The Soyuz would certainly have been properly in operation sooner.
You can definitely envisage the Soviets beating America to a loop around the Moon. You can even, just about, manage a photo-finish to the race to the surface of the Moon if Korolev lives. With his death, those opportunities die as well.
Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP