Andrew S. Erickson; review of Boris Chertok, Rockets and People: Hot Days of the Cold War, Vol. 3 (Washington, DC: NASA, 2009); Naval War College Review 70.2 (Spring 2017): 151-53.
Click here for information on this volume and the others in the series.
Download a full-text PDF here.
Volume 3 in four-volume series written by Boris Chertok and edited by Asif Siddiqi. 796 pages. $65.
In this third volume of his memoirs, ably edited by acclaimed space historian Asif Siddiqi, Boris Yevseyevich Chertok, who was the most senior surviving Soviet space engineer until his death at age ninety-nine in 2011, offers a unique, firsthand window into Cold War history as he lived it over his six-decade career. He spent most of it at the uppermost level of the OKB-1 design bureau (now S. P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation Energia), where he participated in every major project though 1991.
In this series, volume 1 details Chertok’s rise from aviation factory electrician to official in charge of extracting Nazi rocket expertise, volume 2 the post-1946 emergence of the Soviet missile program. In volume 3, Chertok recounts and reflects on the golden age of Soviet cosmonautics, from Yury Gagarin’s historic orbital flight in 1961 to the death of key figures in the Soviet space program in and around 1967. Volume 4, released in early 2012, covers the U.S. Soviet moon race. Chertok’s personable, technically informed, and somewhat politically detached perspective, as well as his frankness regarding credibility of sources and where he lacks information, makes for an accessible, historically useful account.
From his perch in the Soviet missile bureaucracy, Chertok observed the Cold War as a scientific-technological- military competition. Manned spaceflight was regarded as an indicator of national prestige—and socialist superiority: “There was an ongoing battle at the front line of the Cold War’s scientific-technical front. Rather than soldiers, it was scientists, engineers, the ‘generals’ of industry, and workers who determined the battle’s outcome. And warriors of another sort came on the scene—cosmonauts” (p. 61). Each side fed off the other in constant one-upmanship, Chertok stresses: “American operations had a very strong effect on our plans. American historians of aeronautics assert that our successes were the primary reason why the United States converted its space programs into a top-priority, nationwide challenge” (p. 246).
Central to this competition, for some time, was a race to land a man on the moon. On August 3, 1964, Central Committee and USSR Council of Ministers Resolution 655-268, “On Work for Lunar and Space Research,” recommitted Moscow to “land a man on the moon and return him to Earth by 1967–68” (p. 397). This goal was restated in a similar decree of October 25, 1965 (p. 568). This competition was very real, and there was no substitute: “[N]o matter how successful [other] programs might be, they could not compensate for our loss of superiority if the Americans were to become the first to fly around the moon” (p. 523).
Then, despite suffering a major setback in the Apollo 1 fire of 1967, the United States started pulling ahead. The Soviet program was held back by a year of time-consuming yet inadequate ground testing and the tragic death of Vladimir Komarov when Soyuz 1 crashed in 1967.
In retrospect, there were larger reasons for these results. The Soviet defense industry that Chertok depicts suffered from both direct involvement by party organizations throughout the production process and limited government capacity, ruinous bureaucratic and interpersonal struggles and finger-pointing, overly ambitious deadlines, lack of systematic review of decisions, and lack of politicians who understood the benefits of a comprehensive military-civilian approach. So much depended on a single individual. Chief Designer Sergey Korolyov was a microcosm of Soviet society, having both suffered significant repression and marshaled significant technical resources. His untimely death in 1966, itself partly a result of medical malpractice, devastated the Soviet space program. Korolyov’s successor Vasily Mishin would prove far less effective at cultivating the Kremlin bureaucracy. Obsessive secrecy reigned. The Central Committee maintained a categorical prohibition on acknowledging space failures, even when detected by foreigners. Inefficient use of limited resources imposed additional burdens: “For a long time during the post-Khrushchev period, we continued to develop and produce several parallel lines of strategic missiles, allowing unjustified redundancy” (p. 155), their overproduction camouflaged by creative budgeting (p. 146).
The United States led significantly in missile numbers, accuracy, and nuclear weapons—a tremendous disparity during the Cuban missile crisis, although subsequently the Soviets worked to reduce the gap. Spaceflights served propaganda purposes, in part to cover up missile limitations. Risky space spectaculars were attempted, including—on Khrushchev’s personal orders via telephone to Korolyov—the 1964 cramming of three cosmonauts without space suits and with only limited life support into a Voskhod capsule whose “new landing system had only been tested once” (p. 237). Soviet mission-control facilities were less advanced: “[T]he mission control centers at Cape Canaveral and Houston seemed like a fantasy to us” (p. 599). The USSR fell behind in integrated circuits, microchips, and computers, in part because of a lack of civilian applications. Quantity reflected lack of technological integration: “[T]he first Soyuzes had so much varied radio technology on board that they required twenty antennas” (p. 580).
Looking to the present and beyond, Chertok condemns the present Russian government’s “crime” of dismantling the nation’s great technological infrastructure (p. 331). He makes fascinating future projections: by 2015, “China (and perhaps India) will become superpowers, surpassing Russia in terms of military-strategic might.” Future conflict may center on resource access; the United States, Europe, and China may covet Russia’s unparalleled reserves of oil and gas, China its fresh water and eastern territory as well. “Under those conditions, it appears that the strategic significance of high-precision, nonnuclear weaponry together with intermediate and even short-range tactical nuclear weapons might become a factor in deterring a large war just as ICBMs were in the 20th century” (pp. 156–57). Chertok judges further that “Chinese rocket and space technology will overtake the Russian space program in ten to twelve years; and perhaps it will overtake the American program as well” (p. 585).
As in previous volumes in the series, Chertok documents the toils of Soviet designers, who were remunerated poorly, subjected to difficult working conditions, and hidden from foreign sight and contact. Chertok learned of his nation’s deployment of missiles to Cuba, for instance, from Kennedy’s speech (p. 95)! Driven in part by heartfelt ideals tempered by knowledge of the horrors of the Stalin era, these designers achieved so much, so quickly, under such formidable constraints—truly amazing accomplishments. Theirs is not only a Soviet legacy, rooted now in a bygone era, but a part of a larger human legacy that will inspire further exploration as mankind moves farther into space.
ANDREW S. ERICKSON
HERE IS MY REVIEW OF THE FIRST TWO VOLUMES IN THE SERIES:
Rockets and People, vol. 1, and Rockets and People: Creating a Rocket Industry, vol. 2, by Boris Chertok. NASA History Office (http://www.hq.nasa.gov/of ce/pao/History/ index.html), 300 E Street SW, Washington, DC 20546, 2005, 402 pages, $42.00 (hardcover) (vol. 1); 2006, 669 pages, $25.00 (hardcover) (vol. 2). Available free online at http://history .nasa.gov/SP-4110/vol1.pdf and http://history .nasa.gov/SP-4110/vol2.pdf.
In this initial two-volume set, Boris Chertok chronicles Soviet air and space development through approximately 1960, drawing on his six decades of experience as one of Moscow’s fore most air and space engineers, engaged in nearly all major projects. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to publish volumes three and four (concerning Moscow’s space pro gram in the early-to-mid 1960s and the moon shot in the late 1960s, respectively) in 2008–9. Translated from the original Russian (published in Moscow as Rakety i lyudi, 1994–99) and substantially revised, the series is edited by noted space historian Asif Siddiqi. In these volumes, Chertok offers unique historical insights and documentary references, many previously unavailable in the West, thus giving the reader penetrating views into an era in which “rocket-space technology became one of the determining factors in the politics of the leading nations” (vol. 1, p. 8).
In one interesting revelation, Chertok writes that China is not the only nation to have conducted a live test of a nuclear warhead atop a missile (as suggested in Thread of the Silkworm, Iris Chang’s biography of Qian Xuesen, the father of China’s missile program, p. 222). A decade earlier, on 2 February 1956, the Soviet Union red a nuclear-armed R-5M missile 1,200 miles to create a nuclear explosion near the Aral Sea (vol. 2, p. 284). Chertok later recounts a proposal, fortunately abandoned, to “deliver an atomic bomb to the Moon and detonate it on its surface” (vol. 2, p. 440).
Volume one covers Chertok’s early career, including his assistance in relocating Soviet aero nautical infrastructure to the Urals to avoid Nazi attacks and his assessment and extraction of Nazi rocket expertise in postwar Germany. He recounts early Soviet development of aviation, which Stalin regarded as a critical industry in the 1930s and renewed support for during World War II. Chertok acknowledges that despite this prioritization, many important Soviet military leaders did not fully appreciate the military significance of rockets and aircraft at the war’s outset. Later they reversed their position and inhibited space developments, fearing that they interfered with the progress of weapons systems.
Volume two details Chertok’s return to Moscow in 1946 to fulfill Stalin’s charge to develop a missile program and his subsequent role in establishing Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Chertok also records the development and launch of such satellites as Sputnik (in 1957) and of lunar and interplanetary probes. In addition to these successes, he acknowledges such failures as the R-16 rocket explosion in 1960 that killed Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, head of Soviet strategic missiles, and scores of top engineers. Throughout volume two, Chertok recounts relations with former boss and chief designer Sergey Korolev, long recognized as having led the Soviet space program until his untimely death in 1966. The author offers probing insights into the political system that facilitated Nazi Germany’s cutting-edge missile advances, which in some ways actually helped Hitler lose World War II by diverting resources from the development of aircraft and atomic capability.
Some will undoubtedly disagree with Chertok’s views concerning many critical issues of his time, particularly his somewhat utopian characterization of technocratic policies as a panacea and of Soviet militarism as primarily a reaction to provocative American policies. In Chertok’s assessment, Moscow “won the nuclear missile race, but lost the moon race” (vol. 1, p. 27). The latter point will meet with little disagreement in the West, but his insistence that “according to some indicators, we passed the United States in terms of nuclear missile armaments” (vol. 1, p. 27) seems insufficient to support the former statement, given Moscow’s inability to sustain funding for its inefficient military-industrial complex. Chertok arguably exaggerates the benefits of centralized technological development in isolation from the West, insisting that his country “by the end of the 1970s . . . had the strongest technocratic elite in the world” (vol. 1, p. 7). He minimizes unduly the contributions of German engineers to Soviet rocket development—German V-2 technology was essential to the Soviet Union, just as it was to the United States. Many veterans of the Apollo program would also differ with Chertok’s assessment that the structure of Moscow’s centralized design bureau was superior to Washington’s private-contractor system, which “wasted weeks coordinating complex issues between companies and drawing up protocols” (vol. 2, p. 513).
Nevertheless, Chertok is to be commended for his frank acknowledgement of many of the Soviet Union’s shortcomings, such as those of its political system. These included the terrible cost of purges, stifling ideological repression, censorship of key technological knowledge, falsification of rocket-reliability figures, and systematic suppression of even the most talented Jewish technocrats under Stalin: “Even scientific problems that were far removed from politics and ideology, such as matters of rocket stability, could acquire political overtones” (vol. 2, p. 64). Later, even under Khrushchev, a major supporter of rocket development at the expense of aviation, superficial space spectaculars were prioritized, often with unrealistic deadlines, and “the fate of intercontinental . . . missiles was decided at such a high governmental level and at such a low scientific and military technical level” (vol. 2, p. 236).
At the same time, Chertok’s minute detail helps explain not only the failures engendered by the Soviet system but also the many air and space successes. Specialists striving to understand why China has yet to emulate Soviet development of manifold, relatively sophisticated indigenous weapons systems will notice (1) Moscow’s significant human and natural resources, which it harnessed—particularly following World War II—in the development of a massive scientific, technical, and industrial infrastructure; (2) the postwar emergence of a generation of technocrats with formidable prestige and power to administer this prioritized establishment; and (3) following Khrushchev’s courageous de-Stalinization efforts, the relative protection of the best Soviet minds from repression and turmoil—provided that they did not, like foremost nuclear physicist and later Nobel Peace Prize–winning dissident Andrei Sakharov, seek political change. Of particular note are the significant financial and material incentives provided to the best Russian experts and even the German specialists who initially served them. Chief designers such as Korolev not only were authorized substantial bonuses by the Council of Ministers but also were empowered to confer modest cash awards on subordinates.
Despite the staggering amount of data conveyed, Chertok’s numerous technological analogies and vivid anecdotes make for lively, accessible reading. He thus succeeds in his mission to document the contributions of a cadre of Soviet men and women to humankind’s initial steps into the heavens, despite great turmoil and trials back on Earth. While it is tragic that communist policies prevented many of these talented and dedicated individuals from being recognized internationally during their own lifetimes, Chertok has ensured that their legacies will not be lost to history.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson
Newport, Rhode Island