A commemorative event to mark the 105th birth anniversary of Soviet Russia’s “Chief Designer”, Sergei Pavlovich Korloev, organized by the Royal College Astronomical Society with the Russian Cultural Centre, Colombo, was held on January 18, 2012, at the Russian Cultural Centre. The event was attended by Senior Minister Prof. Thissa Vitharana, acting Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Sri Lanka, His Excellency Mr. Sergei Ankov and other dignitaries. About 200 participants, including members of the armed forces and children of several leading schools in Colombo attended the event.
Speaking at the event, Prof. Vitharana hailed Russia’s achievements in the field of space exploration. He also mentioned the elation he felt in the event of Gagarin’s visit to Sri Lanka just months after his space flight.
Sergei Korolev was the man who made it possible for Gagarin to explore space. Born on January 12, 1907, he developed an interest in aviation at an early stage. He attended the Kiev Polytechnic Institute and worked in the designing of gliders while studying. Then he moved to Bauman Moscow State Technical University in Moscow. In 1929, he got the opportunity to work with the famous aircraft designer, Andrei Tupolev for a short period.
Korolev was denounced by some of his colleagues during Stalin’s Great Purge in 1938. Arrested on trumped up charges of sabotage and anti-Soviet activities, he was taken to Lyubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police (NKVD) for questioning. He ended up with a broken jaw and broken teeth. Sent to the notorious Kolyma gold mines, the back breaking work and poor food further weakened him.
The fall of the NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov and the end of the “Yezhovshchina” (Yezov years) turned out to be a blessing for Korolev. He was retried and his sentence of ten years was reduced to eight. He got the opportunity of working with Andrei Tupolev again in a special engineering unit for prisoners. Along with some of his colleagues, he was discharged in 1944.
After the end of the Second World War, Korolev was sent to Germany as a part of the expert team to acquire German rocket technology. This was the beginning which saw the designing of the R-7 “Semyorka”, the first ever Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Korolev was responsible for the success stories of Soviet space program such as the launching of Sputnik I, the first ever satellite, on October 4, 1957 and the Vostok I mission which sent Yuri Gagarin to space on April 12, 1961.
Even by this time, his life at the gulag was affecting Korolev and his health was falling. In early January, 1966, he died after an operation under disputed circumstances. He was just 59. Whether he died after a surgery on an intestinal tumor or an unsuccessful haemorrhoid operation is unclear. However it is said that his already weak heart gave away during the operation and he never recovered.
The Soviet people never knew the identity of their “Chief Designer” until his death. Days after his passing away, Pravda published an extensive article on him, thereby revealing who he was to the world. Today Sergei Korolev is celebrated as a leading personality in the development of space exploration.