This is the third book of the author’s four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile and space program. I will discuss the four volumes in four Saturday Night Science posts, one a month; here are the first and second installments.
Boris Chertok was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war, Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in 1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring from the RKK Energia organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994 and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of Challenge to Apollo, the definitive Western history of the Soviet space program.
The second volume of this memoir chronicled the achievements which thrust the Soviet Union’s missile and space program into the consciousness of people world-wide and sparked the space race with the United States: the development of the R-7 ICBM, Sputnik, and its successors, and the first flights that photographed the far side of the Moon and impacted on its surface. In this volume, the author describes the projects and accomplishments which built upon this base and persuaded many observers of the supremacy of Soviet space technology. Since the author’s speciality was control systems and radio technology, he had an almost unique perspective upon these events: unlike other designers who focussed upon one or a few projects, he was involved in almost all of the principal efforts, from intermediate range, intercontinental, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles; air and anti-missile defence; piloted spaceflight; reconnaissance, weather, and navigation satellites; communication satellites; deep space missions and the ground support for them; soft landing on the Moon; and automatic rendezvous and docking. He was present when it looked like the rudimentary R-7 ICBM might be launched in anger during the Cuban missile crisis, at the table as chief designers battled over whether combat missiles should use cryogenic or storable liquid propellants, or solid fuel, and sat on endless boards of inquiry after mission failures—the first eleven attempts to soft-land on the Moon failed, and Chertok was there for each launch, subsequent tracking, and sorting through what went wrong.
This was a time of triumph for the Soviet space program: the first manned flight, endurance record after endurance record, dual flights, the first woman in space, the first flight with a crew of more than one, and the first spacewalk. But from Chertok’s perspective inside the programs, and the freedom he had to write candidly in the 1990s about his experiences, it is clear that the seeds of tragedy were being sown. With the quest for one spectacular after another, each surpassing the last, the Soviets became inoculated with what NASA came to call “go fever”—a willingness to brush anomalies under the rug and normalise the abnormal because you’d gotten away with it before.
One of the most stunning examples of this is Gagarin’s flight. The Vostok spacecraft consisted of a spherical descent module (basically a cannonball covered with ablative thermal protection material) and an instrument compartment containing the retro-rocket, attitude control system, and antennas. After firing the retro-rocket, the instrument compartment was supposed to separate, allowing the descent module’s heat shield to protect it through atmospheric re-entry. (The Vostok performed a purely ballistic re-entry, and had no attitude control thrusters in the descent module; stability was maintained exclusively by an offset centre of gravity.) In the two unmanned test flights which preceded Garagin’s mission, the instrument module had failed to cleanly separate from the descent module, but the connection burned through during re-entry and the descent module survived. Gagarin was launched in a spacecraft with the same design, and the same thing happened: there were wild oscillations, but after the link burned through his spacecraft stabilised. Astonishingly, Vostok 2 was launched with Gherman Titov on board with precisely the same flaw, and suffered the same failure during re-entry. Once again, the cosmonaut won this orbital game of Russian roulette. One wonders what lessons were learned from this. In this narrative, Chertok is simply aghast at the decision making here, but one gets the sense that you had to be there, then, to appreciate what was going through people’s heads.
The author was extensively involved in the development of the first Soviet communications satellite, Molniya, and provides extensive insights into its design, testing, and early operations. It is often said that the Molniya orbit was chosen because it made the satellite visible from the Soviet far North where geostationary satellites would be too close to the horizon for reliable communication. It is certainly true that today this orbit continues to be used for communications with Russian arctic territories, but its adoption for the first Soviet communications satellite had an entirely different motivation. Due to the high latitude of the Soviet launch site in Kazakhstan, Sergei Korolev‘s R-7 derived booster could place only about 100 kilograms into a geostationary orbit, which was far too little for a communication satellite with the technology of the time, but it could loft 1,600 kilograms into a high-inclination Molniya orbit. The only alternative would have been for Korolev to have approached Chelomey to launch a geostationary satellite on his UR-500 (Proton) booster, which was unthinkable because at the time the two were bitter rivals. So much for the frictionless efficiency of central planning!
In engineering, one learns that every corner cut will eventually come back to cut you. Korolev died — following a botched operation for a routine condition performed by a surgeon who had spent most of his time as a Minister of the Soviet Union and not in the operating room — just as he was most needed by the Soviet space program. Gagarin died in a jet fighter training accident which has been the subject of such an extensive and multi-layered cover-up and spin that the author simply cites various accounts and leaves it to the reader to judge. Vladimir Komarov died in Soyuz 1 due to a parachute problem which would have been discovered had an unmanned flight preceded his. He was a victim of “go fever”.
There is so much insight and wisdom here I cannot possibly summarise it all; you’ll have to read this book to fully appreciate it, ideally after having first the first two volumes. Apart from the unique insider’s perspective on the Soviet missile and space program, as a person elected a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1968, and a full member (academician) of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2000, Chertok provides a candid view of the politics of selection of members of the Academy and how they influence policy and projects at the national level. He believes that — even as one who survived Stalin’s purges — there were merits to the Soviet system which have been lost in the “new Russia” His observations are worth pondering by those who instinctively believe the market will always converge upon the optimal solution.
As with all NASA publications, the work is in the public domain, and an online edition in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats is available.
The original Russian edition is available online.
Chertok, Boris E. Rockets and People. Vol. 3. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration,  2009. ISBN 978-1-4700-1437-7 NASA SP-2009-4110.
I am posting the four volumes of Boris Chertok’s autobiography on Saturday Night Science, one per month. With each, I begin with a brief video tribute to the author by Russia Today:
Here is a lecture by Dr Wesley Huntress on the little-known and impressive Soviet robotic exploration of the Moon, Venus, and Mars which Chertok contributed to greatly and describes in detail in this volume.
This is contemporary Soviet film about the flight of Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1.
First Orbit is a feature film which illustrates the flight of Yuri Gagarin with images taken from the International Space Station (ISS), inter-cut with contemporary film and audio. Because the orbital inclination of the ISS is almost identical to that of Gagarin’s Vostok 1, by choosing an orbit which passes over the Vostok 1 launch site at the same season and time of day as Gagarin’s launch, it was possible to reproduce the view out of the window of his capsule. Some people find this film boring; it is just as boring as being the first person to look out the window as you circle the Earth in 90 minutes. I found it breathtaking and inspiring.
This is a brief documentary about the making of First Orbit.
Fifty years later, NASA conducted an interview with Major General Leonov about his experience and his reminiscences about the early days of the Soviet manned space programme.