Book Review: Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

(Today marks the 58th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, making it an appropriate time to rerun this review, which I originally posted in February of this year)

Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

Boris Chertok’s career in the Russian aerospace industry spanned many decades, encompassing both space exploration and military missile programs. His four-volume memoir is an unusual document–partly, it reads like a high school annual or inside company history edited by someone who wants to be sure no one feels left out and that all the events and tragedies and inside jokes are appropriately recorded. Partly, it is a technological history of rocket development, and partly, it is a study in the practicalities of managing large programs in environments of technical uncertainty and extreme time pressure. Readers should include those interested in: management theory and practice, Russian/Soviet history, life under totalitarianism, the Cold War period, and missile/space technology. Because of the great length of these memoirs, those who read the whole thing will probably be those who are interested in all (or at least most) of the above subject areas. I found the series quite readable; overly-detailed in many places, but always interesting. In his review American astronaut Thomas Stafford said “The Russians are great storytellers, and many of the tales about their space program are riveting. But Boris Chertok is one of the greatest storytellers of them all.”  In this series, Chertok really does suck you into his world.

Chertok was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912: his mother had been forced to flee Russia because of her revolutionary (Menshevik) sympathies. The family returned to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and some of Chertok’s earliest memories were of the streets filled with red-flag-waving demonstrators in 1917. He grew up on the Moscow River, in what was then a quasi-rural area, and had a pretty good childhood–“we, of course, played “Reds and Whites,” rather than “Cowboys and Indians””–swimming and rowing in the river and developing an early interest in radio and aviation–both an airfield and a wireless station were located nearby. He also enjoyed reading–“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn met with the greatest success, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave rise to aggressive moods–‘Hey–after the revolution in Europe, we’ll deal with the American slaveholders!” His cousin introduced him to science fiction, and he was especially fond of Aelita (book and silent film), featuring the eponymous Martian beauty.

Chertok remembers his school years fondly–there were field trips to study art history and architectural styles, plus a military program with firing of both rifles and machine guns–but notes “We studied neither Russian nor world history….Instead we had two years of social science, during which we studied the history of Communist ideas…Our clever social sciences teacher conducted lessons so that, along with the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, we became familiar with the history of the European peoples from Ancient Rome to World War I, and while studying the Decembrist movement and 1905 Revolution in detail we were forced to investigate the history of Russia.” Chertok purused his growing interest in electronics, developing a new radio-receiver circuit which earned him a journal publication and an inventor’s certificate. There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion, and then accompany her home without the least fear of reproach.”

Chertok wanted to attend university, but “entrance exams were not the only barrier to admission.” There was a quota system, based on social class, and  “according to the ‘social lineage’ chart, I was the son of a white collar worker and had virtually no hope of being accepted the first time around.” He applied anyhow, hoping that his journal publication and inventor’s certificate in electronics would get him in.” It didn’t–he was told, “Work about three years and come back. We’ll accept you as a worker, but not as the son of a white-collar worker.”

So Chertok took a job as electrician in a brick factory…not much fun, but he was soon able to transfer to an aircraft factory across the river. He made such a good impression that he was asked to take a Komsomol leadership position, which gave him an opportunity to learn a great deal about manufacturing. The plant environment was a combination of genuinely enlightened management–worker involvement in process improvement, financial decentralization–colliding with rigid policies and political interference. There were problems with absenteeism caused by new workers straight off the farm; these led to a government edict: anyone late to work by 20 minutes or more was to be fired, and very likely prosecuted. There was a young worker named Igor who had real inventive talent; he proposed an improved linkage for engine and propeller control systems, which worked out well. But when Igor overslept (the morning after he got married), no exception could be made. He was fired, and “we lost a man who really had a divine spark.”  Zero tolerance!

Chertok himself wound up in trouble when he was denounced to the Party for having concealed the truth about his parents–that his father was a bookkeeper in a private enterprise and his mother was a Menshevik. He was expelled from the Komsomol and demoted to a lower-level position.  Later in his career, he would also wind up in difficulties because of his Jewish heritage.

The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

*Lidiya Petrovna Kozlovskaya, a bandit queen turned factory supervisor who became Chertok’s superior after his first demotion.

*Yakov Alksnis, commander of the Red Air Force–a strong leader who foresaw the danger of a surprise attack wiping out the planes on the ground. He was not to survive the Stalin era.

*Olga Mitkevich, sent by the regime to become “Central Committee Party organizer” at the factory where Chertok was working…did not make a good first impression (“had the aura of a strict school matron–the terror of girls’ preparatory schools”)..but actually proved to be very helpful to getting work done and later became director of what was then the largest aircraft factory in Europe, which job she performed well. She apparently had too much integrity for the times, and her letters to Stalin on behalf of people unjustly accused resulted in her own arrest and execution.

*Frau Groettrup, wife of a German rocket scientist, one of the many the Russians took in custody after occupying their sector of Germany. Her demands on the victors were rather unbelievable, what’s more unbelievable is that the Russians actually yielded to most of them.

*Dmitry Ustinov, a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy–according to Chertok an excellent and visionary executive who had much to do with Soviet successes in missiles and space. (Much later, he would become Defense Minister, in which role he was a strong proponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

*Valeriya Golubtsova, wife of the powerful Politburo member Georgiy Malenkov, who was Stalin’s immediate successor. Chertok knew her from school–she was an engineer who became an important government executive–and the connection turned out to be very useful. Chertok respected her professional skills, liked her very much, and devotes several pages to her.

*Yuri Gagarin, first man to fly in space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman.

*Overshadowing all the other characters is Sergei Korolev, now considered to be the father of the Soviet space program although anonymous during his lifetime.  Korolev spent 6 years in labor camps, having been arrested when his early rocket experiments didn’t pan out; he was released in 1944.  A good leader, in Chertok’s view, though with a bad temper and given to making threats that he never actually carried out.  His imprisonment must have left deep scars–writing about a field trip to a submarine to observe the firing of a ballistic missile, Chertok says that the celebration dinner with the sub’s officers was the only time he ever saw Korolev really happy.

Chertok’s memoir encompasses the pre-WWII development of the Soviet aircraft industry…early experiments with a rocket-powered interceptor…the evacuation of factories from the Moscow area in the face of the German invasion…a post-war mission to Germany to acquire as much German rocket technology as possible…the development of a Soviet ballistic missile capability…Sputnik…reconnaissance and communications satellites…the Cuban missile crisis…and the race to the moon.

Some vignettes, themes, and excerpts I thought were particularly interesting:

>>The fateful mating of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology first occurred in February 1956, when an R-5M missile flew 1200 kilometers and the warhead detonated as planned, prompting a grim question from one of Chertok’s colleagues: “And you’re not afraid that someday they’ll try us as war criminals?”

The next step in nuclear missile weaponry was achieving intercontinental range, and this was accomplished with the massive R-7…but not without considerable difficulty. After other problems were solved, there remained the problem that the missile nosecones were not surviving reentry to the atmosphere. This was obviously a problem for use of the rocket as a weapons platform; however, it was not a problem for one-way ventures into space. Sputnik, the first earth satellite, was launched by an R-7 in October 1957; the first test with a warhead that achieved successful reentry was not achieved until March 1958.

>>In 1954, Mikhail Tikhonravov suggested to Chief Designer Korolev that the intercontinental missile then beginning development (it would become the R-7) might be a good vehicle for launching an earth satellite.  Korolev acted quickly, sending a memo to Ustinov, then running the defense industry.  Chertok:  “It would seem that at a time when the production of an intercontinental nuclear delivery vehicle was a ‘life or death matter for the Soviet Union,’ the minister’s response to Korolev should have been “Now is not the time.  Product the missile!”  But Ustinov was not an ordinary minister”…and he strongly supported the satellite project.

Lower-than-expected thrust of the R-7 engines caused the feasible weight of the satellite to be reduced, and Korolev pushed hard for weight reductions (of the satellite and in the rocket itself) to launch as early as possible.  Chertok admits that he and most other team members were “not at all excited by all these conversations and resolutions about satellites,” being totally consumed with the intercontinental missile challenges.  Indeed, an announcement of an impending satellite launch was made on September 17, 1957, and resulted  in “no buzz in this regard either in the USSR or abroad.”

This all changed, of course, when the 80 kilogram satellite known as Sputnik was actually put into orbit on October 4, transmitting a radio signal that could be heard around the world and visible from the ground.  (Chertok says that what was visible was actually the second stage booster, which was inserted into the same orbit–the satellite itself being too small for visual observation.)  “No one in the OKB organization or among our subcontractors had expected such worldwide publicity.  We were intoxicated with our sudden triumpant success.”

In the United States, of course, the Sputnik launch was viewed as a scientific defeat and a military threat.  It seemed obvious that if the Soviet Union could put a satellite in orbit, it really could deliver a nuclear weapon to the territory of the US.  I’m not sure whether US intelligence was aware of the problems the USSR was having with the practicalities of atmospheric reentry.

>>Consistent with a Russian stereotype, there are many references to heavy drinking–one major general remarked that it was a shame to use four tons of alcohol to fuel a rocket, when “if you were to give that alcohol to my division, they could take any city easily.” Also, there were many practical jokers among Chertok’s associates. When the technical intelligence team was in Germany after the war, they were concerned about the arrival of a new group of experts, whose “help” the team did not desire. Chertok’s friend Aleksei Isayev (who looked with special disfavor on “this professoriate”) quickly came up with a way to get rid of them…involving announcement of American interest in kidnapping Soviet experts, a made-up plot to return the favor by kidnapping Wernher von Braun from the Americans, a midnight meeting with a fake American agent, and apparently-suspicious opening of the newcomers’ suitcases. It worked…”Needless to say, the entire group of specialists wished us success and set off in the direction of Berlin the next morning.”

It is to the irrepressible Mr Isayev, talented designer of rocket engines, that the world owes the Scud missile, of evil memory and portent.

>>At least during the Stalin era, it was very dangerous to speak of one’s association with an individual who had become an “unperson”..even if that association was entirely nonpolitical. When Chertok was an engineering student and also busily working on an aircraft project for an upcoming transpolar flight, he wanted to get his exams deferred by a couple of months, and got a letter requesting the deferment. It was signed by the great aircraft designer Andrey Tupelov himself, and Chertok took it to Valeryia Golubtsova (Mrs Malenkov), a fellow student who was secretary of the local Party committee), hoping to gain her support:

“Golubtsova received me like an old acquaintance. Her Party authority had not gone to her head in the least. As before, her outfit was modest, beautiful in its own way, and tasteful. She stood up and with a kind and cheerful expression gave me a firm handshake. Golbutsova did not start moralizing, but simply asked me when I would be able to fulfill my incomplete work.” Instead of just giving her a date, Chertok handed her the letter signed by Tupelov.

“The benevolent smile disappeared. Golbutsova frowned; she walked over to the safe standing in the corner, placed the letter inside like a secret document, and locked the safe. Turning to me, she said quietly, ‘Forget about Tupelov. He’s been arrested. Don’t even think about telling anybody about that letter, and if you don’t pass your exams by December, you have only yourself to blame.”

>>Chertok notes that in the immediate postwar era, the emerging science of cybernetics (the term, popularized by American mathematician Norbert Wiener, refers to feedback control systems and was/is sometimes extended to automation and computerization in general) was looked upon with great disfavor and was indeed considered a political deviation. (He gives great credit to Aksel Berg, a scientist and Navy man possessed of “vibrant individuality,” who as head of an important Institute had the courage to defend cybernetics as a science, despite despite his earlier harrowing brush with government persecution.)

>>Despite the earlier hostility toward cybernetics, the Soviet approach to manned space missions was much more centered around automatic rather than human control–Chertok had many discussions on this topic with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who predictably favored the human-control approach. For Gagarin’s first flight, a switch to manual control required him to enter a key into a cypher lock–there had been concern that absence of gravity might affect a cosmonaut’s mind and cause him to do irrational things. “We believed that if he was able to get the envelope out of the instruction folder, open it, read the code, and punch the code in, then he was in his right mind and could be trusted to perform manual control.” (Two members of the development team later confessed that they had secretly and against orders informed Gagarin of the code, which was “125.”

>>Chief Designer Korolev was especially fond of an affectionate ginger-colored dog named Lisichka, who was destined for a (hopefully two-way) orbital journey:

“Korolev came over to us.  I was about to give him an update, but he brushed me aside and, without asking the medical technicians, he scooped up Lisichka into his arms.  She trustingly nuzzled up to him.  S.P. gently stroked the dog and, not caring that others were present around him, he said:  “I so want you to come back.”  The expression on Korolev’s face was unusually sad. He held her for a few more seconds then handed her to someone in a white coat and, without looking back, plodded slowly into the bustling MIK hall.”

>>There is much discussion of the technicalities of rocketry, especially the difficulties of analyzing what-went-wrong when long and complex chains of causation are involved.  Many launch failures figure in the book, including the “Nedelin catastrophe” which killed the head of Strategic Rocket Forces along with 150 others.  There is also discussion of the complexities of predicting in advance how a system will behave: for example, an analog computer model of missile behavior that was appropriate for rockets of the V-2 type failed when applied to larger rockets, because it did not consider the flexing of the rocket’s outer skin or the sloshing of the fuel in the tanks.

>>Nikita Khrushchev was a strong supporter of missile technology, in large part because he believed it reduced the need for conventional forces and hence freed resources up for other purposes–however, Chertok feels Khrushchev was also a genuine romantic about space exploration, as with his support of the “Virgin Lands” campaign.

The space program meant a great deal to ordinary Soviet people, Chertok says. He recounts a chance encounter with a middle-aged sailor, obviously a bit under the influence, who noticed Chertok’s gold Hero of Socialist Labor medal. “What’s it for, buddy?” the sailor wanted to know. Chertok explained that it was for work on the first manned spaceflight, and (violating security) told him a bit about some of the then-current work.

“So then my friends did not drench this land with their blood in vain. You’re really doing something there,” was the sailor’s response, although he also added: “I must tell you, when they retreated, and then we stormed this mountain, 1 hour of that pandemonium is worth many days there, in your space…Forgive me if I said something wrong. Take care.”

Yet many years later, a factory worker told Chertok it was sad to think that his sons would have to wait years before they could have an apartment, and would have to live year after year in a dormitory, when “this single Block A (first stage) is worth a whole street of multi-unit apartment buildings.”

Chertok was saddened by the decline in space exploration programs from the glory days of the 1950s through 1970s (he notes that Russia at least had an excuse for their loss of focus on space, given the social, political, and economic turmoil following the end of the Soviet Union, whereas the American loss of interest he found more inexplicable)…but was rightfully proud of his role in what was accomplished and in the continuing role of Russian rocketry in the space launches that are taking place.  (Interviewed in 2001, Chertok  remarked that if someone presented him with $20 million, he would gladly spend it on a ticket to space.) But he was not one of those who claimed to have worked on rocketry only because of his interest in space exploration: he was also proud of his work on military missile programs–in a future post, I’ll discuss some of Chertok’s views on the Cold War as well as his thoughts on social and economic organization.

It is an involving and very readable book, although most readers will probably want to skim over some of the more technical sections–Chertok sketches his characters (and some of them really were “characters”) very well, and makes the reader care about them.  When I had gotten to the place in the book where engine designer and practical joker Isayev was admitted to the hospital–and my reading was briefly interrupted–I was eager to get back to the Kindle to see if he had survived.

There are four volumes to the memoir; the link at the top of the post is to the Kindle download for volume one.  The formatting of the Kindle edition leaves much to be desired, particularly the way in which footnotes are interspersed with text, but one can’t complain too much given the $1.99 price.  Print versions are also available, and there is also a PDF.  The series was edited and translated by Asif Siddiqi of NASA.


7 thoughts on “Book Review: <i>Rockets and People</i>, by Boris E Chertok”

  1. This looks like a great book to get! It might have been neat to have given Chertok a seat on one of the Space Shuttle flights once.

  2. >>There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion…

    I have a similar memory from, oddly, a more liberal time, the late sixties. Every wednesday night, a local school hosted a roller skating night for kids and teens. There was small ticket price and it was very popular. What I remember most was during the first half there was a skate where the girls and boys separated. The boys lined up and girls would skate up, pick out a boy by the hand, and skate with him. In the second half, the boys could pick out a girl and skate with her. I always loved that part.

    It strikes me as healthy midpoint between between allowing young people to be promiscuous and keeping them strictly apart.

  3. Michael H…Chertok devotes a couple of pages to the male-female seating strategies employed by various teachers. The math teacher liked to arrange students in pair “that were indifferent to each other,” the better to keep their attention focused entirely on mathematics. “I sat with the stuckup, taciturn, Nadya Sukhotskaya (who) in every way possible demonstrated her complete indifference not only to me, but to all boys in general.”

    Things were better during literature class, which was taught by “the tall, handsome, bearded and dark haired Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Malinovskiy,” who read his own poems “far from the prescribed syllabus, all the while attentively noting how the female contingent in the class reacted to them.” Malinovskiy seated his pupils according to “ladies’ choice,” and Chertok was chosen by “the prettiest girl in the class,” known as “the beautiful Pole” because of her heritage.

  4. “Chertok says that what was visible was actually the second stage booster”: thank you for that. A few years after Sputnik was launched I suddenly asked myself how people could see it: surely there must have been lots of other objects of that modest size that people couldn’t see? I supposed the answer to be that shiny metal would reflect more light than a bumpy mineral surface. Your explanation is far better.

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