This Day in History: A Ukrainian Genius Looking at High Skies from a Golden Cage

This Day in History:  A Ukrainian Genius Looking at High Skies from a Golden Cage

January 12, 1907 is the birthday of Serhiy Pavlovych Korolyov, a native Ukrainian who rose from his early days as an aircraft designer in Stalin’s GULAG, to become an internationally recognized aeronautical engineer and eventually “father” of the Soviet rocket program.

“Protected” in a “golden cage” by the Soviet authorities for purposes of security, Korolyov’s identity and inspirational and leading role only became known to the worldat large after his death in 1966. In 1957, the Nobel Committee had wanted to award a prize in physics to the man who opened for humanity the path to the space by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. However, the Soviet leadership refused to disclose the name of the Chief Designer. He remained unnamed even after the launch of the Vostok spacecraft that carried the first-ever astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in 1961.  His official anonymity continued to be maintained following the launch of the Soviet programs aiming to land a vehicle on the Moon and to explore Venus and Mars.

Born in Zhytomyr into a family of teachers, Korolyov displayed an interest in aircraft engineering and design while still a teenager, dreaming about eventually reaching out into space. He built his first glider at the age of 17 under the mentorship of his step-father, an electric engineer with two degrees from a German university and the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

The young Korolyov began his studies at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute but later moved to the Aeromechanical Department of the Moscow Bauman Technical University. For his diploma project he designed and built his own model aircraft, the SK-4, under the guidance of Andrey Tupoliev, another prominent scientist and chief designer of the TU family of aircraft and who later played a crucial role in Serhiy’s life.

In 1931, Korolyov turned to developing jet engines but in 1938 he was arrested following accusations of supporting the Trotskyite opposition against Stalin and imprisoned as an“enemy of the people”. Stalin signed his death warrant, which was later commuted to ten years in the GULAG. Korolyov spent two years in the infamous Kolyma mines repeatedly petitioning Stalin for a pardon explaining that the passion of his life had always been aircraft. After World War Two began, Tupoliev - like many other falsely imprisoned scientists and engineers - was drafted by the Soviet government to work on classified military projects. He put together a list of 100 engineers and professionals he considered key to developing Soviet aircraft and experimental rocket technology, including Korolyov. This move arguably saved many prominent lives, including Korolyov’s and, following several close calls during the war, he was eventually exonerated in 1957. He died on January 14, 1966, during abdomen surgery from complications arising from an untreated broken jaw he had nursed since the GULAG. Ironically, an urn with Korolyov’s ashes is buried in the Kremlin Wall. In the Soviet era this was considered the highest level of recognition.

As a tribute to Korolyov, the first Ukrainian-born astronaut, Pavlo Popovych, in the first ever live communication from earth orbit on August 12, 1962 sang one of the Korolyov’s favorite songs, a Ukrainian I’m Looking at High Skies (“Dyvliyus Ya Na Nebo”, ) Thus, the first song broadcast from space was also Ukrainian!

For your enjoyment, here is translation of the song’s lyrics, found here


I'm Looking at High Skies

I’m looking at high skies and it makes me wonder

Why aren’t I a falcon? Why aren’t I a-flying?

God, why have you left me with no wings to fly?

I’d take off the ground and fly high above

I’d fly over clouds far off maddening crowd

To look for my fortune heartache and grief bound

To ask for caress from the moon and the sun

And show off myself in their bright light

And my way to find