Designer of my dreams and nightmares

When Rona Munro started to research the history of space travel for a new play, she discovered an unsung star of the skies

I've just devoted three years of my life to writing a play about the Soviet space programme. Of course I interspersed it with other things, but I've been living with stories of cosmonauts and rocket engineers since 2007. If you're going to write on that scale you'd better love the work. Why that play? Why that history?

When I was a little girl, the grown-ups seemed to be making a new world. We were going to grow up to travel faster than the speed of sound and live in the stars. I spent a significant part of my early childhood worrying about floating in zero gravity and breathing bottled oxygen while staring at the black infinity of space. And that wasn't the only terror that haunted my childhood. We had the very clear prospect of being engulfed in a nuclear holocaust to enliven our nightmares.

Maybe every generation peoples its past with titans, in the same way that everyone who moved house in childhood remembers their first home as a vast, magically huge world. In my memory spacemen still float above us on shining metal cords and we're going to Mars any day now.

When I began writing my play Little Eagles I wanted to write about the history I remembered and that had inspired me. I remembered the fear I felt, as a very young girl, hearing the news of the disaster that befell Apollo 1, all three astronauts trapped and burnt to death during a routine test on the launch pad. Space explorers were heroes risking their lives. That was clear. I remembered hearing the words of Genesis, read from lunar orbit as Apollo 8 came out of the darkness no one else had ever seen, on the far side of the Moon. The astronauts were up there in the same dark that God inhabited; that, too, was clear to an eight-year-old. I remembered the grainy images of Neil Armstrong bouncing down those steps and on to the soil of an alien world, and I remembered really believing he was doing it for peace and for all of us. I hadn't made the connection between my nightmares of mushroom clouds and the race between the Soviets and the US to reach the Moon.

Of course this familiar story grew smaller as it was re-examined, as a huge childhood bedroom turns out to be a shabby boxroom when you revisit after 40 years. It was still compelling – I read every space-geek book I could get my hands on – but at some point in the wonderful, exciting, indulgent process of research, I thought: "I'd better just check out what the Soviets were doing."

And I found titans. I found darkness. I found stories I'd never heard before that still affected me as they might a child, with terror and wonder. I found history I'd lived through and never known. I was reminded of people who were already diminishing into history as I grew up: Stalin, Krushchyev, Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space, Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space... and behind them all, one man I'd never heard of, that no one heard about while he was alive, the mysterious chief designer of the Soviet space programme, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov. He called his cosmonauts "Little Eagles". Maybe it's the unfamiliarity of this story that allows it to keep its scale for me. Maybe it's the passage of time; the Soviets' amazing success, putting the first human beings into space, predates my conscious memory.

In June 1938, Korolyov, a young aeronautical design engineer, was arrested in one of Stalin's purges and sentenced to life (and almost certain death) in a Siberian labour camp. As war with Germany threatened and his expertise was required, he was summoned to Moscow. It was a journey of more than 4,000 miles and he had to walk most of it. From Siberia. A few years after his epic journey Korolyov would develop intercontinental ballistic missiles and put the first satellite into orbit. Korolyov, I learned, was the chief designer and creator of both my childhood dreams and nightmares. Everyone's history is full of titans who diminish under scrutiny. But – flawed and tragic and human though he was – Korolyov still seems larger than most of the ghosts out there.

'Little Eagles', Hampstead Theatre, London NW3, 16 April to 7 May (020 7722 9301)