1940 — 1950
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How Korolev Turned the PE-2 Bomber Into a Rocket Plane and Flew It Himself

In September 1940, Korolev was taken to the NKVD special prison. No.156 on Radio Street in Moscow.

Sharashki, special penitentiaries under the NKVD

Andrey Tupolev, who headed the in-prison design bureau, used to be Korolev’s tutor at the Moscow Technical University; he supervised his graduation project and had a great liking for his former student. As it turned out later, Korolev owed it to Tupolev that he was transferred from the labor camp to Moscow, a move that literally saved his life.

Andrey Tupolev. 1944
Tupolev (center) with associates near his first plane ANT-1. 1923
The building of the former NKVD prison design bureau on Radio Street in Moscow. 1950s

After the war began, the Tupolev group was evacuated to the town of Omsk where they were assigned to supervise mass production of the Tu-2 bomber. Korolev was the head of the fuselage shop. He lived in a prison dormitory, went to and from work in a regular suit, but always under guard. In 1942, Korolev was transferred from Omsk to Kazan, where his former colleague at the Reaction Engine Institute Valentin Glushko worked on rocket engines. It was planned to install such engines in airplanes, which was what Korolev was tasked to do.

The building of the Irtysh River Shipping Company in Omsk where Korolev worked in 1941–1942 in the Tupolev design bureau evacuated from Moscow
A memorial plaque at the entrance to the Kazan Engine-Building Plant where Korolev worked in the prison design bureau in 1942–1945

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

To experiment with the rocket engine they picked the Pe-2 dive bomber designed by Vladimir Petlyakov  Vladimir Petlyakov, one of the main aircraft of the war years.

Korolev estimated that the speed of the Pe-2 equipped with the engine built by Glushko would increase by about 100 km/h, and the plane would take off and gain altitude much faster.

One of Them

Tests began in the spring of 1943. For almost half a year they ran engine tests on the ground. On October 1, 1943, the rocket plane took off for the first time. Beside the pilot, there were two engineers on board, Korolev was one of them.

The rocket-powered Pe-2 made over 100 flights. All of Korolev’s calculations were validated. The experience gained from those tests came in very useful later on, when first Soviet fighters with turbojet engines were developed.

The Pe-2 dive bomber. 1944
Korolev at the flight test of the rocket-powered Pe-2. 1945

No Longer a Prisoner

On July 16, 1944, Korolev was released early. It was a «reward» for the successful work on the rocket plane.

After the release, Korolev stayed in Kazan for another year to continue flight testing the Pe-2 rocket plane.

Korolev after his release. 1944
Engine Explosion

An Important Conversation

In August 1945, after returning to Moscow, Korolev met with Mikhail Tikhonravov, an engineer that Korolev had worked with in GIRD and considered his mentor. Tikhonravov talked about the idea of a large rocket capable of lifting two pilots into the stratosphere.

At an altitude of 200 km the pressurized cabin was to separate from the rocket and parachute down. When approaching the ground, a special extendable probe on coming in contact with a hard surface would switch on a braking engine. Tikhonravov thought over all the details, most of which seemed completely unfeasible at the time.

Korolev got overexcited at hearing the Tikhonravov’s account, *

Wait; is it technically possible to build such a rocket today?
Well, that’s just it. Have you heard about the V-2?
Of course I have…
And me, I have seen it!

* As narrated by writer Yaroslav Golovanov who might have heard about this episode from Tikhonravov himself

The conversation referred to the Nazi «retribution weapon», a ballistic missile of great destructive power designed by Wernher von Braun. Launched from German territory, the V-2 was capable of reaching London.

V-2 on the launch position. 1945
Mikhail Tikhonravov. 1940s
V-2 launch. 1945

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

How Korolev Built the Soviet V-2 Rocket from Spare Parts

For the sake of practice

In September 1945 Korolev flew to the Soviet occupation zone in Germany to study captured German rocket hardware. On October 15, he attended a demonstration launch of the V-2, which had been captured by the British.

Nothing but the rocket

Vladimir Lositsky, historian of national aviation and cosmonautics, director of the Cosmonaut Serebrov Foundation

Product No. 1

In May 1946, Korolev was appointed chief designer of the Product No. 1 and tasked with reconstruction of the V-2 from parts captured in the Soviet occupation zone. The V-2 production was re-established at the underground plant Mittelwerk in Thuringia, near the town of Nordhausen, where the V-2 was produced during the war by prisoners of the concentration camp Dora-Mittelbau.

Eleven launches of reproduced V-2s were made in 1947; five of them were successful.

Korolev in his study. Germany, 1946.
Korolev with an associate. Germany, 1946.
Korolev on the outskirts of Berlin. 1945
Assembly of the V-2 at the Mittelwerk factory. 1944
V-2 engines captured at the Mittelwerk factory. 1945

The First Soviet (and the first Korolev’s) Rocket R-1 Launched

Along with recovering the V-2 production, Korolev developed an improved version, the R-1 missile. It was manufactured completely with parts made by Soviet enterprises. The R-1 was first launched on October 10, 1948, and 20 more launches were made over the next year.

3D reconstruction
R-1 missile
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The R-1 missile used ethanol, liquid oxygen, sodium permanganate, and hydrogen peroxide. The missile took six hours to be prepared for launching, had a maximum range of about 270 km and could miss the target by as much as 1.5 km.

But it was flying!

Korolev at Kapustin Yar test site. 1946-1947
Korolev with an associate at test launches. 1947
Preparation and launch of the R-1 missile. 1948


The chief designer of the R-1 missile as a whole was Korolev. However, each of the main systems of the missile had its own chief designer. These people would remain Korolev’s closest associates in the future and would take part in creation of his next rockets.

The Council of Chief Designers: Valentin Glushko (rocket engines), Mikhail Ryazansky (long-range radio communication), Mikhail Barmin (launch complex), Sergey Korolev, Viktor Kuznetsov (control systems). Kapustin Yar test site, 1947.

If not for associates

Vladimir Lositsky, historian of national aviation and cosmonautics, director of the Cosmonaut Serebrov Foundation

What Army generals thought of this missile (not all of them)

In November 1950, the first Soviet ballistic missile R-1, modified and enhanced, was put into military service. Korolev, though, was no longer interested in it, he was thinking about the next rocket. That one would not only come to be a real scientific and technological breakthrough, but would also gain the USSR the status of a superpower.


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Based on recollections of Esther Rachevskaya, engineer of Tupolev Design Bureau, and Alexander Skoptsov, employee of Korolev Design Bureau

About the project


Georgy Avanyan


Natalya Akulova


cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko


Elena Matza


Natalya Makarova


Pixeljam Studio
  • Art director:
    • Aleksander Grigorev
  • Developers:
    • Dmitry Udovichenko
    • Dmitry Orlov
    • Daniel Denisov



  • Producer:
    • Artem Patyn


Studio Lastik


  • Actors:
    • Valeria Dorokhova
    • Alexander Vladimirtsev
  • Director:
    • Gleb Dobrovolsky


Elena Kuklina


Julia Baklanova


Anna Ulyanskaya, Alla Chetaeva, Victor Koreshev, Georgy Kulikov, Vladimir Derevyanko, Alexei Taranin, Natalya Bogoyavlenskaya, Maxim Makarov, Svetlana Alexikova, Dmitry Anzhaparidze, Dmitry Koshelev, Danila Koshelev, Ivan Karyshev, Arthur Salikhov, Mikhail Tatyanin


Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara for the filming opportunity

Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow for the filming opportunity on the territory of the Memorial House Museum of Academician Sergey Korolev in Ostankino


Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive



Yaroslav Golovanov, Boris Smirnov, Evgeny Ryazanov


Documentary footage:

«Pilot Shabanov’s Flight Moscow-Berlin (1920-1930)», «The Country of the Soviets Turns 16. (1933)», " May 1 Celebration in Moscow (1923)», «Sovjournal No. 64/173 (1928)», «Aero March (1934)», «Aircraft Inventor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1927)», «Into the Air Now! (1923)», «The Great Scientist of the Great People (1935)», «The Eastern Flight (1924)», «Socialist Village No. 3 (1935)», «Fighter Planes (1942)», «Airplane in the Service of Culture (1925)

Documentary films and stories (1960-1992):

«Korolev», «Conquerors of the Universe», «Columbuses of the Space Era», «Twenty-Five Years' Undertakings», «Documentary Filings of Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov» — footage of cosmonauts in the TV studio, footage of flight preparation of the first team of cosmonauts


  • Dmitry Zilmanovich. Friedrich Tsander, Pioneer of Soviet Rocketry. 1966
  • Cosmonautics. Soviet Encyclopedia article. 1968
  • Pyotr Astashenkov. Academician Sergey Korolev. 1969
  • Vadim Shavrov. History of Aircraft Designs in the USSR up to 1938. 1978.
  • Irina Strazheva. Tulips from the Cosmodrome. 1978
  • Creative Legacy of Academician Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Selected works and documents. 1980
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Road to the Cosmodrome. 1982
  • Mark Gallay. With a Man on Board. 1985
  • Boris Rauschenbach. Memoirs about Sergey Korolev. 1985.
  • Academician Sergey Korolev. Scientist. Engineer. Personality. Creative portrait in recollections of contemporaries. 1986
  • Valentin Glushko. Development of Rocket Building and Cosmonautics in the USSR. 1987
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Korolev, Facts and Myths. 1994
  • Boris Chertok. Rockets and People. 1999.
  • Mikhail Rebrov. Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Life and Singular Destiny. 2002
  • Anton Pervushin. Battle for the Stars. Space Rivalry. 2004
  • Natalia Koroleva. Sergey Korolev, My Father. 2007
  • Anton Pervushin. 108 Minutes That Changed the World. 2011
  • Anton Pervushin. Sergey Korolev’s Empire. 2017
  • Korolev. Horizon of Events 1947-1965. Tender Letters of a Stern Man. 2019
Sharashki, special penitentiaries under the NKVD

Special prisons appeared as the authorities attempted to address an acute shortage of qualified specialists in the USSR, in particular, in defense programs. The situation even got worse in the mid-1930s following a massive oppressive campaign against saboteurs wherein lots of engineers and technicians were arrested. The NKVD came up with a way to use the expertise of enemies of the people by setting up secret research and development laboratories within the prison system, sharashki, in common parlance, where they gathered scientists and engineers from various camps and prisons and assigned them to work on scientific and technological projects.

Soviet Poster. 1930

Along with Korolev, many leading aircraft engineers and several chief designers worked in the Tupolev’s sharashka, an in-prison design facility headed by Tupolev. Prior to or immediately after the war began, some of them were released — Vladimir Petlyakov and Vladimir Myasishchev in July 1940, and Andrey Tupolev in July 1941.

Engine Explosion

On May 12, 1945, three days after the Victory Day, in one of test flights, the rocket engine blew up and heavily damaged the Pe-2 tailplane. Korolev refused to follow the pilot’s order to bail out and stayed on. The plane managed to land, but Korolev was badly hurt — his face and eyes were burned — and the danger of losing his sight seemed quite real.

After treatment his eyesight was recovered and Korolev was back to test flights. Both the pilot who flew the plane and Korolev were rewarded with two months' salary.

After the rocket engine explosion. 1943
What Army generals thought of this missile (not all of them)

The impossibility of keeping the missile in a ready state as it had to be stored unfueled, overlong pre-launch preparations, limited precision — the R-1 was not exactly a super weapon.

According to the recollections of academician Boris Chertok, after one of the test launches, a combat general invited to the range said, «Are you insane? Wasting four tons of alcohol on a rocket? Give that alcohol to my division, and the guys will take over any town on the march. Your rocket won’t even hit the place! Who needs it?»

R-1 missile before installation on the launch pad. 1948
R-1 missile on the launch pad. 1948
Fueling of the V-2 rocket. 1945

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