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The "Moron on the Screen" - Respect at Last!
on January 6, 1998
In the movie,"The Right Stuff," there is a scene where Lyndon Johnson is in a briefing room, viewing stolen film footage of the Soviet space program. As head of a White House Committee to get America's own space efforts back on track, Johnson seethes with frustration as he sees a smiling image of the mysterious Chief Designer. "Get that moron off the screen," he cries, as he can no longer take any more of what certainly appears to be gloating.
The man on the screen is Korolev, subject of Harford's exceptionally researched biography. As it turns out, Korolev was indeed "off the screen" of world events of the time. The very idea is so contrary to American impulses -- having a huge role to play in the glamourous, headline-grabbing battle of superpowers -- and remaining anonymous. This story is one of keeping what could have been a justifiably enormous ego under excruciatingly tight wraps. Perhaps it is a story which Americans now need to hear, in this age of media hype and instantly manufactured celebrities.
Harford tells of Korolev's rise to prominence in the Soviet space program with real passion. He does not, however, idealize, as he is careful to present many diverse opinions from many sources. Most of these come from deep within that bureaucratic enigma of Russian space engineering and research organizations. All told, however, the Chief Designer's life and times invoke tremendous respect and admiration. The pressures this man faced, developing the manned space flights as well as military missiles as well as spy sattelites ... as well as coping with a paranoid leadership which insisted on optimum results with far from adequate resources. Job stress redefined on a new level!
Harford's one miscue is that he often dwells too heavily on the technical details, citing scads of information which would most likely interest only the most devoted of space travel enthusiasts. Nevertheless, the book offers perhaps the best look yet into the people who "scared America" in the early days of the space race, developing a human drama every bit as intriguing as our own Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo efforts. It also stands as a late in coming, but necessary vindication for one man who willingly accepted being overlooked by the world -- as his cosmonauts soared in both the heavens and the world's imagination. Harford finally allows those of us who never knew anything about Korolev to say, "Hail,Sergei! We never knew how brilliant you were!"