1950 — 1957
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Why the USSR Was in Such a Bad Need of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

Impossible To Shoot Down

The Cold War between the USSR and the West began in 1946, but the sides were not on an equal footing.

The US already had the nuclear bomb and the B-29 bomber, the one that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was capable of flying a thousand kilometers deep into the territory of the USSR and cruised at such an altitude that it was impossible to shoot down. In 1952 the US got a new B-52 bomber which could easily reach any point on the globe.

Atomic bomb Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki
B-29 bomber in the assembly shop. 1945
Atomic bombing of Hiroshima. 1945
B-52 bomber
Mushroom cloud of the Nagasaki atomic bombing. 1945

n 1949 the USSR successfully tested its first atomic bomb but it did not change much the overall situation. The Soviet Union was still not in a position to seriously threaten the US with the nuclear bomb, as there was no way to deliver it to American territory. Korolev proposed to the government to build an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead capable of targeting the US. If it were accomplished, the USSR would immediately achieve a strategic balance with the United States.

Test of the first Soviet atomic bomb. 1949

The Soviet government approved the idea. Korolev was given virtually unlimited funding and resources to implement it. Top-secret documents referred to the project as Long-Distance Missile R-7.

Korolev had already built

with a range of less than
300 KM
carrying a payload of
800 KG

Korolev was up to building

with a range of
10 000 KM
carrying a payload of
5 500 KG
The intercontinental part is clear, but what does ballistic mean?

How Korolev Leaped a Chasm in Two Jumps by using the R-2 rocket

Fly Far

The idea of a ballistic missile with a separable head did not belong to Korolev, but nobody had ever tried to build it. However, only such a missile, as Korolev established when working on the R-1, could fly more than 1,000 km.

Before stepping up to the development of the long distance missile, it was first necessary to build a scaled-down prototype, make sure it could fly as expected, and finally, to solve the main technical problem, correct separation of the head part.

That was how the R-2 missile was born.

Installation of the R-2 rocket on the launch pad. 1949
Innovative Missile

Now It Flies, Now It Doesn’t

Record of successes and failures

Tests of the R-2 rocket began in September 1949

6 launches — 2 successful

1 year later
12 launches — all failed

13 launches — 12 successful

14 launches — 12 successful

The R-2 project proved to be a success. For Korolev and his team, it was the first experience of creating a new rocket from scratch by their own efforts. The idea to build a super-powered missile was taking shape.

The Soviet leadership appreciated the importance of this event — on April 24, 1950, Korolev was appointed Chief Designer of ballistic missiles and head of design bureau for their development. He would hold this position for the rest of his life.

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

How Korolev Started the Space Program (and kept it under the radar)

Research Comes First

The success of the R-2 project had another important consequence — for the first time ever, Korolev had a real opportunity to directly get down to realizing his main goal of launching a man into space. Nothing of the kind was officially declared, but it was clear to every one of Korolev’s closest associates that human spaceflight was always on his mind.

A rocket capable of launching a manned spacecraft into orbit was not yet available, but nothing prevented from using existing rockets to investigate some forthcoming problems of such a flight.

First of all, it was necessary to find out what effect weightlessness would have on the human body. Scientists and science fiction writers alike had some very different opinions on the subject.

How would zero-gravity affect the human body?

Pick one:

  1. 01 Tear it apart
  2. 02 Flatten it against the walls of the spaceship
  3. 03 Shrink it down to the size of a tomato
  4. 04 Turn it into amorphous biomass
  5. 05 Nothing would happen

It was also unclear whether humans could survive cosmic radiation.

To get answers, a test animal had to be sent into space. Dogs were the preferred animal.

The head part of the R-2 rocket with a cabin for animals after landing. 1951
Why dogs were chosen for spaceflight rather than any other animals, e.g. cats

To Space and Back

The first «cosmonauts» were stray dogs caught near the Dynamo Sports Arena. It was reasoned that stray dogs were hard to get scared by anything and that they would be best suited to tolerate extreme stresses of spaceflight. Those that made it through preselection, were given pet names and also, for reasons of secrecy, aliases.

Flights started in the summer of 1951. The dogs were flown to an altitude of 100-110 km. The first to go into space were Dezik and Tsygan («gypsy»). The flight went well, and both dogs returned safely to Earth.

Dezik and Tsygan, the first animals to go into space. 1951

Sadly, there were casualties. During nine years of flights several animals died, and each time Korolev, who had a soft spot for dogs, felt devastated.

Korolev with one of the «cosmonauts» at the Kapustin Yar testing range. 1951

The flights had no adverse effect on test animals, which meant that humans were able to stay in space too. There were fewer and fewer obstacles to human flight left, but there was still nothing to fly in.

How scientists and engineers in the late 1940s treated the idea of spaceflight (skeptically, to put it mildly)

What Korolev Though Up to Make the R-7 Missile Fly So Far

R-7 Ballistic Missile and Its Flight

Missile launch

First stage

2 minutes and 20 seconds into the flight the engines cut off

Missile velocity is 7 812 km/h

The stage is discarded and falls to Earth

Second stage

6 minutes into the flight the engines cut off

Missile velocity is 23,000 km/h

The stage drops away and falls to Earth

Head part

Continues on a ballistic trajectory and falls to Earth

The design of the R-7 rocket developed by Korolev has proved so successful that it has hardly changed since then, and it is still being used as a launch vehicle in modern Soyuz rockets.

About the R-7 rocket

Valery Kapitonov, Deputy General Designer of the Progress Rocket and Space Center on tests and operation of Soyuz launch vehicles

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

Real Breakthrough

In December 1956, the first prototype of the R-7 was produced at the manufacturing plant in Podlipki off Moscow. The missile looked shockingly big; it measured almost 34 meters in height and weighed 280 tons (full weight with fuel). By way of comparison, the R-2, its predecessor, weighed a little over 20 tons.

The R-7 came as a real scientific and technological breakthrough. For the first time ever, Soviet scientists, engineers, and designers created such an outstanding technical project and realized it with the help of nothing else but their own expertise and capabilities of domestic enterprises. Korolev was the true driving force behind this remarkable success and he excelled himself as an inspirer, prime mover, and organizer.

There is nothing like this in the world

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

The first three launches failed. Finally, on August 21, 1957, the fourth R-7 successfully achieved the targeted range flying over 6,000 km and crash landed at the proving ground in the Kamchatka Peninsula. This was the world’s first successful flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Accident during launch of the R-7. 1957
Successful launch of the R-7 missile. 1957
3D reconstruction
R-7 missile
Rotate the model


Play video


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Based on recollections of Antonina Zlotnikova, Korolev’s secretary; Evdokiya Krasnova, Korolev’s teacher; and Viktor Froumson, 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
How scientists and engineers in the late 1940s treated the idea of spaceflight (skeptically, to put it mildly)

Following the appearance of the R-1 rocket in the mid-1940s, some Soviet scientists and engineers began considering the possibility of space travel.

Enthusiasts of space exploration were drastically outnumbered. Ninety nine percent of scientists and civil and military engineers that were involved in missile building not only doubted the possibility of launching rockets into space, but openly ridiculed any attempts to seriously discuss the issue.

In 1948, Mikhail Tikhonravov gave a report at the Academy of Artillery Science, in which he outlined the mathematical background for the creation of super-powered rockets. According to his calculations, such rockets had no limits in flight range and were capable of putting into orbit an artificial satellite. The report provoked negative, sarcastic and even insulting comments.

Tikhonravov was demoted, and his group was dismissed.

The first launch of the R-7 and the first satellite flight were less than 10 years away.

When in 1953 Korolev was working on major design features of the R-7 long-range missile, he relied in large part on the progress made by Tikhonravov and his group.

R-7 rocket on the launch pad. 1957
Innovative Missile

Formally, the R-2 missile was a modification of the R-1, but in fact, the crucial engineering solutions were completely new. The R-2 came to be the first truly Korolevian rocket.

In addition to solving the problem of the head separation, the core design was greatly enhanced compared to the R-1. Unlike all previous missiles, the R-2 was made of aluminum.

The engines became much more powerful, and the missile itself was significantly larger than the R-1.

The intercontinental part is clear, but what does ballistic mean?

The ballistic missile follows an ellipse-shaped track. After the launch, it is accelerated to a very high speed by the engines, then the engines cut off, the head end separates and continues on its own unpowered ballistic trajectory, much like an ordinary artillery shell.

Ballistic missiles go to a high altitude up to 1,000 km and more, that is, they fly into space.

Why dogs were chosen for spaceflight rather than any other animals, e.g. cats

Soviet scientists considered several options. The most obvious was monkeys, biologically and anatomically the closest species to humans. The problem was that monkeys had to be imported, and that was deemed expensive and impractical.

The pig, another genetically close to humans species, was turned down for linguistic reasons — newspaper headlines like Soviet Pig in Space would not look good enough.

Cats were not a suitable option either; they could hardly withstand weightlessness and suffered extreme stress in the absence of a firm footing.

Dogs, calm and balanced, appeared to be the best choice.

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