For Boris Chertok, it really was rocket science. Chertok, a Russian rocket scientist who played key roles in everything from the nuclear arms race, to Sputnik, to putting the first man in space, died Dec. 13 at 99.
A Russian website described Chertok, who was born in Lodz, Poland, and moved to Moscow, with his family at age 2 as one of the greatest space pioneers in history, an assessment backed up by American space historian James Oberg, a NASA veteran, who said Chertok would live forever “in his accomplishments and his books.”
Chertok was described in Encyclopedia Astronautica, which also offered a detailed chronology of his career, as “a talented and pioneering guidance and control engineer.
Chertok’s career was launched in the days after World War II, shortly after he graduated from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, when he led a study of the Nazi rocket industry and its V2 rockets.
“I consider it one of my achievements that in 1945 we managed to create a scientific research institute right there in Germany, in contradiction of all international agreements,” Chertok once said.
A year later he joined NII-88, the Soviet Union’s secret rocket design institute, which was headed by Sergey Korolev, founder of the Soviet space program. Chertok was Korolev’s deputy until the latter died in 1966.
In the 1950s, Chertok was responsible for developing control systems for the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and later adapted that technology to develop the rocket that sent Sputnik 1, the first successful satellite, into space.
“Each of these first rockets was like a beloved woman for us,” Chertok said once. “We were in love with every rocket, we desperately wanted it to blast off successfully. We would give our hearts and souls to see it flying.”
The Sputnik program was a turning point not only in Chertok’s career but in the world at large. In his memoirs, he wrote that the success of the satellite itself was secondary to the Soviet scientists’ real goal: ”Our main task was to get back to building a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead,” he said. “It took us – the Sputnik creators – four or five days to realize that the history of civilization could be divided into before the launch and after."
Yet Chertok’s life as a Jew in the highest and most secret echelons of Soviet society – his name wasn’t revealed to the Soviet public until 1987 on Sputnik’s 30th anniversary and was not permitted to travel abroad until then – wasn’t always secure or safe. In a lengthy memoir in Russian, parts of which have been translated into English and published by NASA, Chertok made numerous references to the problems and worries of Jewish Soviet scientists. In “Rockets and People, Creating a Rocket Industry,” Chertok wrote:
…when the Central Committee was discussing the chief engineer vacancy, he had been warned that the Central Committee had many denunciations directed at me. They primarily had to do with the development of the automatic astronavigation system. But it wasn’t only a matter of technology; rather it had to do with the fact that the current situation required a different personnel lineup and therefore I could no longer remain in the post of deputy chief engineer. I did not have the right ethnicity. If the fifth line of the personal history form had said “Russian” or even “Ukrainian,” then it would have been a different story.”
Asif Siddiqi, the English volume’s editor, wrote in a footnote that Chertok and several other top Soviet scientists “ were all Jewish, and hence more vulnerable to being under suspicion in the early 1950s at the height of the anti-cosmopolitanism campaign.”
The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.