The Chief Designer

The Chief Designer

February 17, 2010

Making the Chapter:

I’ve heard cynics say that the only areas where the Soviet Union outshone the USA were space exploration and ballet, and that in the first it was only temporarily.  That’s an unfair assessment.  In many of the space disciplines, Ukrainians have dominated their field since the mid-nineteenth century – you might say they were light-years ahead. In The Chief Designer I visit Odesa-the city of humour-and the Odesa Observatory to learn how the Ukrainian designer of Sputnik built on the ideas of his predecessors to first put a machine, and shortly after, a dog in space. Few at the time realised that decisions taken on the spur of the moment would upset the world superpower balance within a matter of months. Before leaving Odesa I investigate the story of the local man who provided the inspiration for the fictional character of “James Bond.”


On October 4, 1957, Sputnik became the first manmade object to reach orbit. Though Sputnik was not visible from Earth, the casing of the R-7 booster travelling behind it could be seen. Korolev dearly wanted the world to hear the “beep, beep, beep” of his satellite. The signal, which continued for twenty-two days, could be picked up on an ordinary radio and millions around the world tuned into it. If the irritating “beep” wasn’t bad enough for the Americans, they also had to recognise that it was flying directly over North America and, thus, American sky had been violated.

We stopped by a fountain. Stanislav was elated and he groomed his beard; evidently the story was a source of pride and joy for him.

As we know now, Korolev’s tiny sphere shook America’s assumptions of its own superiority and sent some hard-to-believe messages. If the Soviet Union could deliver missiles to America, then winning a war with them would be practically impossible.

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