As NASA and SpaceX keep Mars in their sights, our repertoire of rocket maneuvers is getting pretty extensive. 2015 was a big year, ushering in classics like “rocket come home,” and “rocket-go-boom.” This year is looks equally promising, with the ever-popular combo move, “rocket-come-home-tip-go-boom,” added to the deck. It’s impressive stuff, no doubt, but before all that, a rocket of a different color – the Russian R-7 – was performing performing something equally jaw-dropping: aerial ballet.
We’re not worthy.
Invented by aeronautical engineer Sergei Korolev, the R-7 rocket got its start in the early ’50s as the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The aim was to develop a liquid rocket that could cover 5,000 to 10,000 kilometers carrying a 1 to 10 tonne warhead. While the early incarnation was never actually put into military service (thank Darwin), it was Korolev’s R-7 ICBM that launched Sputnik 1 on October 4th, 1957. The project made strides in engineering, eventually leading to the development of instrumental orbital carrier rockets like the Soyuz and Vostok 1, the 20-storey rocket that sent a man to space for the first time. Korolev may not have risen to media fame, but in more ways than one, he defined space exploration as we know it.
The R-7 family of rockets feature a “packet” layout, with a hammerhead-engine core surrounded by four short liquid-fuel boosters. When the time comes, the boosters separate from the core, falling to earth in perfect, aerodynamics-driven unison. As the tumbling boosters pitch head over tail, they leave a clover-like plume in their wake. When viewed from below, the plume resembles a cross.
Over the years, the effect (seen above during the launch of the Sentinel-1) has come to be known as a “Korolev Cross,” a fitting name, in honor of an unsung hero.
I was going to suggest someone take the move to Kerbal… but once again, fandom has proven itself one step ahead: