1956 — 1957
Scroll down

How Korolev Pushed Forward the Idea to Launch a Satellite

Cosmic-Scale Bombardment

The Soviet government approved the decision to build the intercontinental ballistic missile proposed by Korolev on May 20, 1954. As soon as a week later, Korolev began bombarding officials, the military, and the Academy of Sciences with letters suggesting that the not yet created missile be used to launch an artificial earth satellite and to carry out other space missions, including a flight to the moon. He received no official response. The opinions expressed unofficially ranged from negative to sharply negative.

The military did not want to even hear about it, and only a few notable scientists supported Korolev’s initiative, although not without hesitation. It took several meetings at the Academy of Sciences before Korolev succeeded in convincing leading academicians, including the famous and most distinguished Soviet physicist, future Nobel Prize winner Pyotr Kapitsa, of the importance of space program.

Pyotr Kapitsa in a university classroom. 1960s
Pyotr Kapitsa. Late 1940s.
It’s a completely new endeavor!
We are entering here the realm of the unknown, which would usually contribute to science in any number of unforeseeable ways. The artificial satellite must be made! —
Kapitsa suddenly said at one of the meetings
Having secured such a support, Korolev again addressed the government. This time the answer was positive. Along with the opinion of academicians, an important factor was that Korolev had an acquaintance with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.


Play video

What Exactly Korolev Impressed Khrushchev With He showed him a rocket and let him finger it

Khrushchev  Khrushchev visited Korolev’s assembly plant in February 1956. He had never seen a rocket before, and the little he knew about them he got from reports of Defense Industry Minister Dmitry Ustinov  Dmitry Ustinov.
Khrushchev in his office. 1957

Shortly before Khrushchev’s visit, the R-5 missile — an upgraded version of the R-2 — with a nuclear payload was successfully tested. This became an important instrument of foreign policy. The USSR was now able to deliver a nuclear bomb almost anywhere in Europe, except as far away as Spain.

Korolev showed Khrushchev different models of missiles from the R-1 upwards, spoke about their capabilities, history of creation, successes and failures along the way. For all the failures, Korolev blamed himself. Khrushchev was surprised; he was not accustomed to such sincerity.

Finally, it was the turn of the R-7 missile, almost ready, but yet untested.

Khrushchev visits the assembly plant. 1958


Ustinov reported to me that designer Korolev invited us to take a look at his ballistic missile. We decided to go to the assembly plant with all the members of the Presidium of the Party Central Committee. There we were shown the missile. Frankly, all of us were staring at it like a cow looking at a new gate. Our minds were at a loss to understand just how this huge, cigar-shaped piece of tube could fly anywhere and hit anything with an explosion. Korolev explained to us how it flew and how far it could reach. And we kept walking around it in circles like village people buying some cotton cloth at a rural marketplace: we felt it, groped it, tugged at it, and all but licked it. One might say, «What an ignorant bunch you were!» The truth is, in those days anyone facing a rocket for the first time would have looked as technologically backward as we did.

More than anything, Khrushchev was astonished at the speed of the new missile –
25 000 km / h
Assembly of the R-7 rocket in the processing facility at the Baikonur test site. 1957
R-7 rockets in the assembling facility of the Progress plant in Samara. 1957

Scale and Role

Khrushchev was deeply impressed with everything he saw and heard as well as by Korolev himself. He took a great liking to Korolev and had a good deal of trust in him. He even allowed that Korolev called him directly, a privilege of only the highest state and military officials.

After Khrushchev’s visit, Korolev acquired a very special status that no chief designer in the USSR had ever had before. Arguably, it was then that Khrushchev realized the true scale of what was happening — the Soviet Union was becoming the second, along with the United States, superpower — and the role of Korolev as the key contributor.

The meeting with Korolev significantly influenced Khrushchev’s political thinking. Since then, missiles became his favorite argument in confrontation with the West.

Korolev as stage director

How Many First Satellites There Were

Three at Once

One weighed over a ton and was a full-blown space research station rigged with dedicated equipment, all sorts of instruments and sensors.

The second had a pressurized cabin for animals, and was also packed with scientific equipment.

The third had nothing but a radio transmitter. The design of this ball-shaped satellite with antennas was conceived by Korolev himself.

All three versions of Sputnik were built at the same time, and no one knew which one would fly first.

First «heavy» Sputnik
First «intermediate» Sputnik
First «basic» Sputnik

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

Why the Basic Sputnik Was the First of the Three To Fly Even officially it was called the simplest

The Soonest Possible

In early 1957, Korolev got word that a report entitled Satellite Over the Planet! would be delivered at a session to coordinate US rocket and satellite initiatives in Washington on October 6.

As there was no way to know if this was supposed to be just the title of the report or a launch announcement, it was decided to take the lead and launch the Soviet satellite the soonest possible. The basic Sputnik seemed the safest bet of the three.

The Sputnik-1 was a metal sphere a little over half a meter in diameter, it consisted of two hemispheres connected by 36 bolts and had a weight of 83 kg. It was equipped with two radio transmitters inside and four antennas about 3 meters long on the outside. The signal of the transmitters was also as basic — beep-beep. Korolev liked the way it sounded and thought of taking it a bit further. He asked equipment engineers,
Can’t we make it beep a WORD?

The basic Sputnik build

  1. 01 Heat shield
  2. 02 Antennas
  3. 03 Battery pack
  4. 04 Radio transmitting unit
  5. 05 Remote switch
  6. 06 Temperature control system
  7. 07 Power activation switch
Satellite assembly. 1957
How the Sputnik-1 was tested

How the Flight Went


It’s hard to believe, but all parameters related to the first spaceflight were hand calculated. No computers were available. They made calculations on paper with an accuracy of four decimal places.

I’d rather have it accurate to the sixth,
Korolev would say

This was how the flight trajectory and other parameters required to put the Sputnik-1 into orbit were calculated. No one knew exactly how correct the calculated trajectory was, where the boundaries of the atmosphere were, and what altitude the satellite should go up to.

On October 4, 1957, the rocket with the Sputnik-1 was launched. On the sixth minute of the flight, a beeping sound came through from orbit:
Korolev and Academician Keldysh at the launch pad of the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the day when the first artificial satellite launched.
Launch of rocket with the Sputnik-1
3D reconstruction
Drag to discover

Stroke of luck

As it became known later, the flight was just moments short of failure. Due to a malfunction, the main engine ran one second less than planned, and that might not have allowed the rocket to achieve the first space velocity needed to put the Sputnik-1 into orbit.

As a result, Sputnik’s orbit was 90 km lower than programmed. Three months after launch, it deorbited and burned at reentry into the atmosphere.

Nobody expected it

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

Observation of Sputnik-1 in London
Observation of Sputnik-1 in France

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

How many people in the USSR worked for the space program

It is impossible to calculate exactly.

Building and launching rockets was a joint effort of nearly
100 enterprises
They employed some
250,000 people

How Korolev Tricked (in a way) the Soviet Government

Arguably, not only the closest associates were able to figure out that, while developing the R-7 missile, Korolev was thinking in the first place about its spaceflight potential, rather than warfare capabilities. Many of Korolev’s employees later recalled they had little doubts that he had carefully planned everything from the very beginning. But an informal circle of trust never failed, and every one kept quiet about what they guessed. Korolev never had to run up against a problem of someone questioning certain design features of the R-7.

Formally, the missile accomplished the main task it was designed for — it made the U.S. vulnerable. The R-7 was a real beast capable of delivering a thermonuclear warhead of 5.5 tons to a distance of more than 10 thousand kilometers.

It was rather difficult, though, to use the missile as a practical weapon. For one thing, its gigantic size did not allow it to be silo deployed covertly. When assembled, the missile did not fit on a railroad platform. The missile had to be assembled in a special hangar near the launch site, which took 5 days at least.

The R-7 could not be kept in a ready state and fueled all the time, and it took not less than 8 hours to prepare it for launching.

However, the R-7 missile had an important quality of being easily adaptable to be used as a satellite launch vehicle. With the third stage fitted, it was able to reach the Earth orbital velocity, necessary for putting an artificial satellite into orbit. For an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead such speed was excessive.

R-7 rocket on the launch pad. 1957
Launch of the R-7 missile. 1957

The entire space program was conceived by Korolev … after the successful launch of the Sputnik. … The true driving force behind everything was his great faith in success, romantic nature, and desire to do the only thing he loved,



Play video


Play video

Based on recollections of Konstantin Shustin, Korolev Design Bureau employee, and Konstantin Feoktistov, Soviet cosmonaut

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
Korolev as stage director

The USSR leader’s visit to the assembly plant in Podlipki was staged by Korolev with remarkable skill.

Korolev was showing the missiles gradually, one at a time, in the order they were built and was giving explanations along the way without going into too much technical detail. He spoke about how they were created, their range and payload capacity.

As they proceeded from rocket to rocket, the numbers kept increasing manifold. The missiles were getting bigger and bigger too. Khrushchev looked extremely pleased.

There was a separate guard in front of the huge new workshop. When the doors swung open, the visitors saw an incredibly large missile standing upright and filling the entire space of the brightly lit hangar. It was the R-7.

The missile seemed like a real miracle, and the visitors were visibly overwhelmed.

As eyewitnesses put it, members of the delegation were plainly stunned — no one had ever seen anything like that — and it seemed incredible that «this thing, the size of the Spasskaya Tower» could fly at all.

Assembly of the R-7 missile

According to eyewitness accounts of those events recorded many years later, Korolev thoroughly enjoyed the effect produced. While Khrushchev was walking around the rocket with his head craned, Korolev was giving explanations. Khrushchev was simply beaming with joy.

Speaking about new opportunities opened with creation of R-7, Korolev brought Khrushchev to a small stand with a model of some device, and made a true «presentation» of a satellite.

The main arguments were:
‑ we already have a rocket, no need to develop anything extra, no additional costs involved
‑ the Americans announced they would launch a satellite in 1958, and here’s the chance to beat them to it

Khrushchev was convinced by these arguments.

Time magazine cover. January 6, 1958
How the Sputnik-1 was tested

The Sputnik was to travel in outer space, and it was necessary to make sure that, at least for a while, it would be able to withstand the destructive influence of external forces, the magnitude of which was hard to accurately estimate.

Due to a lack of time, some of testing operations were performed in an unconventional way. To test freeze-thaw resistance, for example, the sphere was half-submerged in a tank with a mixture of alcohol and dry ice, while the other side was heated with dozens of powerful lamps. Every 15-20 minutes, the sphere was rotated, and the routine kept repeating for two days.

To test how far the satellite beep-beep signal would reach, the transmitter was air-towed by a helicopter over the Moscow region, while they tried to pick up the signal all the way to the Far East.

Signal from satellite 1

К сожалению, ваш браузер устарел и не поддерживает некоторые технологии, необходимые для просмотра сайта

Чтобы посетить сайт, используйте Google Chrome или любой другой современный браузер.