What if we’d lost the Space Race? According to Dr. Sergei Khrushchev, it nearly happened. Khrushchev is the son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, but instead of following in his father’s political footsteps he followed his interest in aerospace, a path that took him to to Vladimir Chelomei’s design bureau. There he led the development of the Proton rocket, which Chelomei had proposed as a launch vehicle for a two-man lunar flyby in 1966 and as the booster for Chelomei’s proposed military space station.
At Chelomei, Khrushchev competed against Sergei Korolev’s design bureau, led by the famous designer of the Russian ICBM and the head of the Soviet Space Program. Korolev curried political favor for his role in designing the Soviet ICBM, but according to Khrushchev he lacked the design resources required to win the space race – resources that Chelomei had already invested in the development of the Proton rocket. Chelomei’s team was making headway on the project when Korolev had their contract cancelled in 1965, a late reversal for the Soviet Union that cost them valuable time in the Space Race.
Korolev’s meddling may have cost them the Space Race, but it didn’t stop work on the Proton: the project continued under Korolev’s team and was first launched in 1965. Chelomei envisioned the Proton winning the Space Race and as a platform for military “Zvezda” space station, but in real life it’s seen use in deploying civilian satellites and modules for the International Space Station.
Khrushchev went on to work at the Computer Control Institute in Moscow until 1991, when he immigrated to the United States. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. He’s written several books on his father’s achievements, including “Khrushchev on Khrushchev”, “Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower”, and “Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev: Reformer, 1945-1964”. His tenure with Vladimir Chelomei’s team isn’t the only accomplishment that he’s had:
I was honored to interview Khruschev, not only because of prestige and stature of both he and his family’s accomplishments, but also because his work has stood the test of time: the Proton Rocket was his project – a design that’s outlasted the entire shuttle program. The Soviet Union may not have put a man on the moon, but it’s the rocket they designed to win the Space Race that’s being used by the competition 45 years later. When you look at it from that perspective, maybe they won the Space Race after all.