When you think about contemporary engineering fiascos like high-speed rail in California, it's hard not to be stunned by how fast America got to the moon. But, then, think about how a bunch of almost unknown guys in the otherwise pervasively cruddy Soviet Union beat America in the the first two laps of the Space Race (first satellite and first man in space). Jerry Pournelle spent a long time staring at spy photos during this era, counting things like mule-drawn wagons, and eventually concluded that the Soviet Union was "Bulgaria with nuclear missiles." And while the Soviets got a copy of the German V-2 blueprints, the Americans got most of the best German rocket designers like von Braun, who had the good sense to surrender to the Americans.
Chertok's boss Sergei Korolev was a giant of the 20th Century who remains almost unknown in the U.S. The Soviets kept his identity secret until after his sudden death during an operation in early 1966. In The Right Stuff, the Project Mercury team doesn't even know his name, just that he's got them spooked. He's like a comic book supervillain to them. Heck, most of the Russians working on rockets didn't know his name. They called him "Chief Designer."
Korolev's life was absurd: he spent 1938-1944 in prison, apparently having been denounced by a rival in the rocket business. Moscow sent him to the notorious Kolyma gold mines in Siberia. After awhile, they figured out that they really didn't want to beat or work their best rocket engineer to death in Siberia and brought him back and locked him up in a First Circle-type camp for scientists. His health was never good after Kolyma. He pretty much worked himself to death in the 1960s, figuring that if the Soviets ever fell behind the Americans, Khrushchev would cancel the program. If he'd lived, would the Soviets have gotten to the moon first? Probably not -- his giant N1 moon rocket turned out to keep blowing up catastrophically -- but he'd pulled a lot of rabbits out of his hat before, and maybe he would have again.
And there were other Soviet rocket designers competing with Korolev who did big things, too, like Mikhail Yangel, whose rockets are still being used. The Soviets weren't all that into central planning for something as important as the Space Race.
Tom Wolfe concluded that the Space Race was a form of ritual single combat, like David and Goliath. In an age of nuclear weapons, that is a very good way to find out who is stronger.
And the Soviet space engineers were more David than Goliath.