The Time an Engineer Accidentally Started the Space Race and Changed the Course of History


We tend to look back on the white-hot 12 years between Sputnik I and Neil Armstrong and say, "Well of course the United States won the Space Race," but the fog of history obscures the uncertainties of how it would all end. For much of the Space Race, not only was the Soviet Union ahead, but ahead by giant leaps. This is because of a brilliant, mysterious Soviet engineer whose public identity was simply "the Chief Designer." Revealed only after his death to be a rocket scientist named Sergei Korolev, not only did he fly circles—literally—around the American space program, but he has the distinction of having tricked the Soviet leadership into kicking off what would eventually become the space race. Here is how he did it, as described by Matthew Brzezinski in his magnificent book Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.


The Soviet Union was, in short, broke, which made difficult its bitter Cold War with the United States. The Soviets simply lacked the funds to maintain the kind of massive standing army necessary to go to war with the Americans at a moment's notice. Their detonation of the atomic bomb leveled the playing field a bit, but the Americans had overwhelming air superiority that included massive B-47 bombers flying every minute. The sheer brazenness of American bomber deployment and the scope of their exercises made Soviet leadership fear that the Americans might actually be serious about war.

After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the world's powers pillaged German scientific and engineering files, prying open "high-quality steel laboratory doors" and literally stepping over the bodies of dead Germans to seize schematics, mockups, and prototypes of the most advanced rocketry program in the world. The Soviets took what they found (far less than the Americans had managed to secure) and made rapid strides, first matching the stolen German rockets and slowly surpassing them. The Chief Designer's first real breakthrough—the R-5 rocket—was one ton lighter than those of the Germans and capable of holding 60 percent more fuel while producing 60 percent more thrust. The rocket had a range of 800 miles and could hold a warhead six times that of the Hiroshima bomb. As one might imagine, this greatly interested the leadership of the Soviet Union.

When Korolev personally unveiled his rocket to members of the Soviet Presidium, he had two goals, one secret and one obvious. He very overtly wanted them to believe in rockets as a method of waging war, and the presidium was onboard almost without reservation. Marveling at the R-5, it seemed incomprehensible to them that "such a strange, fragile object could wield such power; that with one push of a button it could vaporize an entire city in an instant." Missile warfare meant that "you didn't need planes, tanks, or troops, or an invasion fleet"; all of Europe (but for Spain and Portugal) was within its range, and five missiles could "destroy all of England."

The Chief Designer's missile immediately countered the American tactical advantage in the air—and did so for bargain bin prices. And that wasn't even the best of it. The Chief Designer had a new rocket in development called the R-7: the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of achieving 450 tons of thrust. (The German rockets taken after the war had a mere 27.) The Soviet officials—Premier Nikita Khrushchev among them—were awestruck.

This is when the Chief Designer made his move to set his secret plan into motion. He brought the men into an adjacent room and unveiled a strange model on a table—something called a "satellite." He launched into an impassioned speech about humanity's quest to escape the bonds of Earth, and that with a few modifications, the R-7 could actually help achieve this dream. The Soviet leadership was unimpressed. Who cared? They wanted to bring thermonuclear devastation to Washington.

Faced with this brick wall, the Chief Designer lied. The Americans, he said, were on the verge of launching one of their very own, and how great would it be to demonstrate superior Soviet scientific strength than by beating the Americans to the punch? All it would take was launching an R-7 missile with the satellite on board instead of a warhead, he explained. Again, the bait was not taken. So he again lied—or at least, exaggerated greatly—adding that the satellite would in no way interfere with the development of the missile.

Korolev, the Chief Designer, had long dreamed of launching an "artificial moon," but had been struck down every step of the way. The problem was the Soviet bureaucracy. At every level, someone could say no to what amounted to a silly, purposeless hurling of metal into space—and at every level, they did. But now, with Khrushchev in the room, he could neutralize and bypass the entire bureaucracy.

"If the main task doesn't suffer, do it," said the Soviet premier.


The Chief Designer now had to deliver. Khrushchev believed all of Korolev's promises, and began slashing the expensive Soviet military, which would no longer be needed in this age of missile warfare. What the Chief Designer had failed to mention was that the R-7 was nowhere near ready to launch. It had serious stabilization problems, thermal problems, friction problems, fuel problems—even launch pad problems (specifically: no launch pad existed that could handle such a massive missile). Worse yet, its nose cone was incapable of surviving reentry, which rendered it worthless as a weapon. (The warhead would be destroyed on reentry.)

The first R-7 missile finally launched in 1957. It flew for less than two minutes and crashed. Though pressure was building, the Chief Designer was optimistic. First launches always failed, he knew. But the following month, the second launch failed, too. This time, it didn't launch at all, simply coughing a lot of smoke and falling silent. The launch one month later did take flight—for 33 seconds—before disintegrating.

Only three things saved Korolev from a terrible fate. First, the American rocket program was mired in the sort of bureaucratic infighting that the Chief Designer had managed to avoid. Specifically, the U.S. Army and Air Force had competing missile programs, and undercut each other at every turn, with Congress and the Defense Department each doing their parts to make things more difficult for missile designers. American officials, meanwhile, dismissed rumors of a Soviet manmade moon, and felt no pressure to launch one of their own. As Brzezinski notes in his book, "Russia couldn't possibly smuggle a suitcase bomb into the United States, went one popular punchline, because the Soviets hadn't yet perfected the suitcase." Spaceships were simply laughably beyond Soviet reach. Second, the catastrophic Budapest Uprising distracted the Soviet leadership from paying much attention to the early R-7 failures. Third was an attempted coup d'état against Khrushchev. Settling scores in the aftermath preoccupied his time, leaving the latest R-7 disaster almost unnoticed.


The fourth launch of the R-7 was a success, with a caveat: The thermal protection on its nose cone failed, destroying the dummy warhead on reentry. Still, that could be corrected, and anyway, it had no effect on the Chief Designer's real purpose: the satellite, which wouldn't have to survive reentry, as it would be fired into orbit. At last in possession of a rocket that worked, Korolev was ready to launch his satellite—only to be rejected by the state commission overseeing the R-7 program.

Their reasons were myriad. Unlike Khrushchev, the commissioners knew specifically that the satellite would delay the "main task" of getting a thermonuclear bomb over Washington, D.C. Worse, rockets weren't cheap, and there weren't enough supplies to waste an R-7 on the distracting toy of a petulant engineer. Moreover, until the R-7 nose cone was perfected, the nuclear armaments chief couldn't test a live warhead, which meant his own progress was being held up. The ground control officers didn't want to reorient their monitoring stations; their hardware was designed for weapons of war and very specific trajectories—not "satellites" and orbits.

Trajectories especially mattered because Korolev wanted his satellite seen, and this would require careful calculations using the Soviet Union's most powerful computer. He wanted it visible in the night sky over the United States. It's why he chose the construction material ("highly reflective aluminum ... polished to a mirrorlike sheen") and its shape (spherical, so that it would catch the light better). He wanted no doubt that he had done it—that he had placed an object in space and that it was actually orbiting the Earth. It had to be seen. And when it wasn't seen, he wanted it heard. This, too, annoyed Soviet officials—this time in academia. The satellite's payload would not be scientific, but rather, redundant radio transmitters that sent out little pulses. "Hearing," writes Brzezinski, "was also believing."

Korolev had no way of mollifying the Soviet bureaucracy. The nose cone problem could take months if not years to solve, leaving Korolev dead in the water, yet so close to his true goal.


Just when hope seemed lost, a second consecutive and largely perfect R-7 test went off, and Korolev again had the attention of Khrushchev. Though the nose cone melted as usual, that the rocket could be said to launch reliably was vindication for Khrushchev, who had bet his nation's security on rocketry and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Chief Designer was more Khrushchev's man than ever, and whatever the Chief Designer wanted, the Chief Designer would get. Immediately, opposition to the satellite launch scurried in opposite directions, with officials worried suddenly that: 1. The United States might launch a satellite first, and 2. Khrushchev would then demand to know who interfered with the Chief Designer's efforts to get there first.

"Simple Satellite 1"—or Sputnik, as it was called—launched on October 4, 1957. When its tracking signal was received at the mission's control room, cheers erupted, though there was hesitation: it still had to orbit the planet. It would take an hour and a half before the signal resumed, the Earth having now been circled. They had done it. "This is music no one has ever heard before," Korolev said at the time.

Few at the time understood the significance of Sputnik. It's possible Eisenhower wasn't even briefed on it the night it made its first orbit. The official White House response thereafter incorrectly credited German rocket engines for the achievement, and dismissed the very utility of a satellite, noting that its "value … to mankind will for a long time be highly problematical." The secretary of defense called it "a silly bauble." A commander of the American rocket program called it a "hunk of iron that almost anyone could launch." (In fact, it would take almost five months and multiple public failures by the American space program before they could repeat Sputnik's success.)

Whatever American officials said publicly, Sputnik's signal simply could not be downplayed or ignored. The beeps were broadcast on NBC, the evening anchor saying, "Listen now for the sound that will forever more separate the old from the new." Ham radio enthusiasts monitored it. Amateur astronomers every evening attempted to find and follow glints of light on the first artificial moon to cross the night sky. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union intended to enter a space race—it all started because one man was obsessed with getting there first. Nobody predicted that the event would eventually transform political priorities in the United States, and as Red Moon Rising details, would dominate global affairs for the next 20 years.

The Ohio State University Archives
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.


As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."


From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.


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