Soviet space engineer Sergey Korolev who inspires Elon Musk


MOSCOW – In September, a Russian and his son rented a Tesla and set off to meet Elon Musk following a personal invitation from the billionaire entrepreneur to visit the SpaceX plant in California.

The name of this man is Andrey Korolev, the grandson of the chief architect of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolev, a legend among professionals and fans of space, including Musk.

Americans who watch the crop of new private space companies like SpaceX tend to look back at American space exploration history – Jeff Bezos’ first Blue Origin ship New Shepard is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

But Musk, while also celebrating American heritage, said the Soviet rocket designer was one of his main inspirations.

Sergey Korolev, who was an engineer and victim of the Great Purge of Joseph Stalin, then helped the Soviet Union beat the United States in the space race during the Cold War. While Korolev may not be so well known in the Western world, he is considered one of the fathers of space travel. He oversaw the creation of the first intercontinental rockets and helped put the first satellite and man into space.

Musk’s admiration for Sergey Korolev is long-standing, and he has tweeted about the Soviet engineer several times, mentioning him in speeches. “A biography on Korolev has a central place in my study”, Musk wrote on Twitter in 2019. An auditorium at SpaceX headquarters is named after Korolev.

Andrey Korolev had known about Musk’s admiration for his grandfather for some time, but said he decided to reach out in May 2020 after he and his wife watched the Crew Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. He said his wife persuaded him to congratulate Musk.

“I think Elon Musk is more or less sort of a reincarnation of Sergey Korolev,” Moscow-based surgeon Andrey Korolev said in an interview last month with ABC News in his office decorated with photographs of his great. -father.

“[Musk] really knows the story, and he appreciates and is grateful to the people who have done something before him, “Korolev said.

Korolev said that shortly after his message was delivered to Musk by “nice people at NASA,” to his surprise, Musk’s personal assistant made contact to offer a phone call. After the call, Musk invited Korolev to visit SpaceX.

Delayed by the pandemic, he and his son traveled this fall, toured the facility by Musk, who arrived from Texas on a private jet, they said.

Andrey Korolev himself was too young to remember his grandfather, who died at the age of 59, but the family history is carefully preserved by his mother, Natalya. She became the chief biographer of her father’s fascinating but terrifying life.

Born in the Russian Empire, in present-day Ukraine, Korolev took an early interest in aviation. From his late teens, he designed and piloted gliders.

Korolev had already started a promising career as an aircraft designer when, in 1938, then 31, he was arrested during the campaign of political repression under Stalin, and sent to a gulag camp in northern Siberia to work in gold mines.

Later, he was transferred to a special prison camp for scientists and researchers. He remained there until 1944. Years later, the Soviet government officially admitted that the charges against him were false.

After the end of World War II, he was sent to Germany to discover the technology of the Nazi V-2 rocket, which was captured by the Soviets. At first he built a copy, but later made it the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7.

It was Korolev who came up with the idea of ​​launching an artificial satellite into space, launching the Soviet space program.

“He always knew that the ballistic missile payload had to be a man, not a bomb. And he did,” his grandson said.

But despite his exploits, Korolev is far less well known than the first cosmonauts, including Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

While Gagarin was celebrated around the world, Korolev’s identity was a secret, made public only after his death. For decades, he was only mentioned in reports as the “chief designer”.

His grandson recalled a family story according to which, congratulated on the fifth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, Korolev could not help but reply bitterly: “Why congratulate me? We are minors, no one knows our names, we work underground. “

Despite their striking difference in public image, Andrey said he saw more similarities between Sergey Korolev and Musk, claiming that both were able to bring strong teams together around them and were masters of the game themselves. flight engineering. And he’s not the only one who sees similarities.

“The two have very important commonalities even though they are almost several generations apart,” James Oberg, rocket scientist, retired NASA engineer and space historian, told ABC News.

Oberg praised Korolev’s drive for innovation, for abandoning old approaches, assembling a dedicated team and doing what others haven’t, saying he thinks Musk is like him in this.

Korolev and Musk “clearly shared a common ideal of space exploration, not only in terms of curiosity but in terms of human fate,” he added.


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