The word “rocket” often conjures up the personalities involved in the Space Race, but I have to confess it didn’t occur to me someone would tell the story of one of them and submit it to Rocket Science. I don’t believe that writers should not use real people in fiction – I’ve used real astronauts in my own stories – so I had no problems with the subject of Sean Martin’s ‘Dreaming at Baikonur’. I especially liked that Sean had made his story about Sergei Korolev the man and not the rockets he had built.
I grew up near an observatory, and I think it would be true to say that space travel and the mysteries of the universe were near-permanent fixtures in my childhood. My father, who taught physics and had a lifelong passion for astronomy, often launched into brilliant monologues over Sunday lunch about the nature of space-time, Einstein or Black Holes, and how he was going to send his latest theories to Stephen Hawking for approval. They remain some of the most awe-inspiring and mind-bending verbal performances I have ever heard, and induced a state of profound reverence for anything or anyone connected with fathoming these, the greatest of all mysteries; a feeling that has stayed with me to this day. (I’m a regular visitor to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, where I now live.)
My story ‘Dreaming at Baikonur’ was inspired by hearing an item on the radio about Sergei Korolev last April, when the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s epochal flight was being celebrated. At the same time, Robin McKie’s piece on Korolev ran in The Observer. Korolev’s story was something you just couldn’t make up: the boy obsessed with space flight; enduring years in the Gulag during Stalin’s purges; the relentless work and discipline; the astonishing successes: the first satellite, the first living creature in space (the dog Laika, space travel’s first martyr), the first living creatures to return from space (the dogs Belka and Strelka, who survived their 1960 flight), the first man in space, the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, who was also the first civilian in space), the first (unmanned) Moon landing, the first photographs of the Moon’s dark side, and the first space walk (by Alexei Leonov, in 1965). That Korolev managed to do all this is remarkable. That he had to do it with fewer resources than Wernher von Braun, less money than von Braun and often had to compete against rivals to maintain his position is little short of a miracle. And, in keeping with Soviet paranoia, he was completely unknown in his own lifetime; he was referred to, if at all, simply as The Chief Designer.
I knew I had to write about Korolev as soon as I heard about him, a giant from an era when heroes really were heroic, when people seemed capable of the impossible long before computers. Indeed, much of the work that put Gagarin into orbit was carried out by teams of mathematicians, working with pencils, slide rules and endless reams of paper, often in conditions that most modern scientists would balk at. (The conditions at the Baikonur – Russia’s Cape Canaveral – were notorious.) I like the fact that such humble instruments, together with Korolev’s drive and vision, led to such incredible achievements.
Sean Martin was born in Somerset but now lives in Edinburgh. He is the author of a number of books, including the bestselling The Knights Templar: The History & Myths of the Legendary Military Order and Andrei Tarkovsky, an acclaimed study of the great Russian filmmaker, and is also an award-winning poet. Also active as a filmmaker, he co-directed Lanterna Magicka, a documentary about the Scottish director Bill Douglas.