How Russia lost the moon

Fifty years ago, on October 4 1957, my father, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, was waiting for a call from Kazakhstan: the designer, Sergei Korolev, was due to report on the launch of the world's first satellite. My father was in Ukraine, on military business, and that evening he dined with Ukrainian leaders. I sat at the end of the table, not paying attention to their conversation. Around midnight my father was asked to take a phone call. When he came back, he was smiling: Sputnik's launch had been successful.

Soviet engineers began designing Sputnik in January 1956. The plan was to launch it with an intercontinental ballistic missile in development since 1954. But the rest of the world paid no attention to the vague pronouncements of a possible launch that had been appearing in the Soviet press; everybody outside the Soviet Union thought the US would launch the world's first satellite.

Soviet scientists believed that the Americans would keep their plans secret until after they had succeeded in launching a satellite, so all our efforts were put into beating the Americans to the launch. In August and September, missiles were successfully launched. Work went on around the clock.

Sputnik's launch made the front page of Pravda but without banner headlines. The reason was simple. My father and all the Soviet people thought that Sputnik's success was natural; that, step by step, we were getting ahead of the Americans. After all, we - not the Americans - had opened the world's first nuclear power plant, our MiG jets set world records and the Soviet Tu-104 was the most efficient airliner of its class.

Nor did the press report Korolev's name. The KGB knew that there was really no need to keep his name secret, but, as the then KGB chief, Ivan Serov, told me, the enemy's resources were limited, so let them waste their efforts trying to uncover "non-secret" secrets. The world, however, was desperate to learn his identity, and when the Nobel prize committee decided to give an award to Sputnik's "chief designer", it requested his name from the Soviet government.

My father weighed his response carefully. His concern wasn't confidentiality. The council of chief designers was in charge of all space projects. Korolev was the head, but the others - more than a dozen - considered themselves no less significant. My father knew they were ambitious, jealous people. If the prize went only to Korolev, the others would fly into a rage and refuse to work with him. A well-organised team would collapse, dashing the hopes for future space research. As my father saw it, you could order scientists to work together, but you couldn't force them to create.

In the end, my father told the Nobel committee that all of the Soviet people had distinguished themselves on Sputnik and all deserved the award. The Nobel prize went to somebody else.

But despite the pains my father had taken, the other designers felt discontent about Korolev taking the credit. The first to revolt was designer Valentin Glushko, whose liquid-propellant engine was used on Russian - and some US - rockets. During one meeting, Glushko said: "My engines could send into space any piece of metal." Korolev was offended; his rocket wasn't just a piece of metal. The dispute led to Glushko offering his services to Korolev's rivals.

My father couldn't make peace between them. Glushko, by government decree, continued to design engines for Korolev, but the work wasn't good. So, despite Sputnik's initial triumph, a decade later the Soviet Union lost the race to the moon.

Sergei Khrushchev, senior fellow at The Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University ©