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Who was Korolev?

Korolev Crater is named after Sergei Pavlovich Korolev (1907-1966), the 'Chief Designer' and father of Russian space technology. He developed the first Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, the R7, which is the predecessor of the modern Soyuz launch vehicles still in use today. With his designs for rockets and spacecraft, Korolev launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and enabled Yuri Gagarin's flight to space, the first crewed spaceflight, in 1961. The launchers with which Soviet research missions to the Moon, Venus and Mars were carried into space were also based on Korolev's designs.

Until his death on 14 January 1966, Korolev and his engineers worked on an even more powerful launch vehicle that would have enabled Russian cosmonauts to journey to the Moon. Like the plans for the first expeditions into space, these activities were subject to the greatest secrecy in the Soviet Union. The national population and the rest of the world were not aware of the identity of person behind the title of 'Chief Designer' and the great successes of the USSR in the early years of space travel.

Until the success of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11 and its crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, there was uncertainty in the USA as to whether the Soviet Union had been able to maintain its initial lead in the space race and if it might soon be able to fly cosmonauts to the Moon. This is evident in numerous documents subsequently made available by NASA. At the time, the USA had only scarce espionage information. Korolev's opposite number at NASA, Wernher von Braun, formerly a leading engineer during the German development of military rockets – who moved to the USA with numerous other engineers at the end of the war – urged rapid development of the US Saturn V launcher.

It was only after the death of Korolev that von Braun learned the identity of his brilliant opponent. The Soviet administration initially struggled with disagreements and competing interests over the choice of Korolev’s successor and the course of future development for a Moon rocket that had never ended up exhibiting capabilities for crewed flight. Historians therefore regard Korolev's death as a decisive milestone in the race to the Moon between the two world powers of the USSR and USA, in which NASA eventually took the lead.