Modern Wonder: The R-7 Semyorka

August 6th, 2008


Unlike mid-century American rocket celebrity Wernher von Braun, the brains behind the Soviet space program was a mysterious figure simply referred to as the “Chief Designer”. The mystery man was actually Ukrainian born Sergei Korolev, a political prisoner during Stalin’s Great Purge of the late ’30s. It is remarkable Korolev ever had the opportunity to design rockets, let alone dream up his masterpiece the R-7, since he nearly died in the Siberian prison system known as the Gulag Archipelago. Although trained as an aircraft designer with several gliders under his belt, Korolev’s real skill was planning – and his visionary passion for space travel. While Korolev didn’t posses von Braun’s technical aptitude, he could identify and execute a good idea. And by scouring the technical journals of the west, picking the brains of Soviet rocket experts, and sifting through the remnants of the Nazi V-2 program, Korolev was able to devise a rocket that was years ahead of anything the west was developing. This rocket was called the R-7 Semyorka and its descendents are still in use to this day, transporting people and cargo to the International Space Station.

What made the R-7 Semyorka so revolutionary was its use of technology considered by the west as impractical – like steering motors instead of control vanes and separate strap-on rocket boosters. Like von Braun, Korolev also recognized one of the major shortcomings of the V-2 design was the use of internal fuel tanks, which added additional weight. Instead, the R-7 used the body of the rocket as a fuel tank, increasing the amount of fuel that could be carried and reducing the overall weight of the rocket.

But all of the revolutionary design features also translated into a difficult testing phase for the R-7. The whole world saw the launch pad failures of von Braun’s Redstone rocket, but nobody outside of the Soviet top leadership circle knew about the frighteningly high R-7 failure rate. Many of the misfires were eventually traced back to small issues, like improper wiring or forgotten parts – not design flaws. Once the vodka rations were cut back and more stringent quality control enforced, the program started to look promising. After hearing the American’s planned to orbit a satellite by 1957, Korolev lobbied the Soviet leadership for a chance to beat the Yanks. Up to this point, the R-7 had been designed as an ICBM, but work now commenced to modify the design to deliver a satellite into orbit. The satellite, called PS-1 or Sputnik 1, was a simple affair consisting only of a basic 1-watt radio transmitter producing the famous Sputnik “beep”. But despite its small stature, Sputnik made history by being the first man made object to reach orbit around the earth.

The reliability of R-7 allowed for a number of other firsts, like the first space dog, the first object to travel to the moon, and of course the first human into space. All these firsts took a toll on Korolev though, as he increasingly felt like he needed to constantly sing for his supper. Unlike the United States, where all space related activities were coordinated by one agency, NASA, the Soviets funded a multitude of competing programs. Money was often allocated on the basis of political connections rather than technical merits. Korolev was famous for being difficult and independent, which hurt his funding prospects going into the ‘60s. After hearing Kennedy’s speech about putting an American on the moon by the end of the decade, Korolev began to plan for a Soviet program that would do the same. Unfortunately, he had a hard time securing support for engine design and was unable to develop a rocket that would match von Braun’s Saturn V and its mighty F-1 engines. Korolev died in 1966 of a heart attack and the Soviet moon mission died a couple of years later from neglect and lack of funding. But the R-7 lives on in its various incarnations, still rocketing people and payloads into the heavens.

Vostok-1 Launch (first human in space)

Entry Filed under: The Cold War, Science

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Brian  |  August 15th, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Ned, I think you need to write a book about the Soviet cosmonaut program. This is great stuff!

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