Billions for rockets, not one cent for ground-based checkout

So, Boris Chertok‘s Rockets and People. This is a really amazing book, if you can find the time for it, as it weighs in at four volumes of 800 pages each and the NASA PDFs are a bit wank on the Kindle.

Chertok started out as an electrician at basically the first ever Soviet aircraft factory, which became their equivalent of Farnborough, and ended up building the control systems for essentially all OKB-1 and its successor organisations’ spacecraft. That’s a nugget, but it expands to several really interesting themes.

First up, thinking of Erik Lund, there’s the problem of control. Chertok got involved trying to fix bomb-release circuits and various radio systems in the 1930s, and became a controls/cybernetics engineer without really knowing it because the specialisation didn’t exist yet and everyone was making it up as they went, as well as cribbing shamelessly off the MIT Radar Handbook and the people from the Admiralty Shipyard, Leningrad, who did naval fire-control and were shamelessly cribbing off the Brits, to say nothing of cribbing hugely off the Germans.

Starting from there, they went on to do things like infrared horizon sensing, strapdown gyroscopes, flywheel control actuators, and eventually, digital computers. There was a Soviet school of thought about control theory that disagreed with everyone else, but seems to have been superseded by the ideas from MIT, and Chertok (who was a winner in this) implies that this was actually Lysenko-esque quackery that got as far as it did because he and so many of his colleagues were Jewish.

Another big, and Lund-inflected, theme was the social status of the engineer. Chertok came up from the shopfloor and later got a degree from night school, but it was during his career that the engineer was eventually defined as being a university-educated professional rather than a craftsman who qualified via an apprenticeship.

This had interesting consequences – the rocket-engine designer Isavey, a classic working-class autodidact, tried very hard to avoid getting his Doctor of Technical Sciences because he didn’t believe in engineering as an academic discipline rather than a trade. That said, later on he refused to be put forward for election to the Academy of Sciences for fear of the shame of being blackballed, which sounds like he was a raging case of impostor syndrome.

Similarly, the clashing personalities and styles of men like Korolev and Glushko had a lot to do with class in a society that denied it existed.

Something related was the role of the workers on the line. Again and again and again, OKB-1 ended up struggling to work out whether this or that subsystem needed to be fundamentally redesigned or whether in fact it had been defective from the factory gate. Terrible quality control dogged everything they did. In fact, you could make a case that quality control contributed much more to Apollo than computers ever did.

Because the Soviet space programme originated in the State Commission for Armaments’ artillery procurement system, the factories that produced rocket subassemblies were usually ones from the artillery or automotive industries and they struggled with the aerospace imperatives of precision, lightness above all, fanatical quality, and rapid turn-around of change requirements.

Chertok notes that they required production drawings so detailed as to permit them to run the line without ever consulting the development engineers, something which was simply impossible given the rate at which the technology was changing.

By contrast to the deskilled, high Taylorite plants OKB-1 had to use, when Vladimir Chelomey’s OKB-52 from the aviation industry got involved, they raced ahead because they were able to use the very aircraft plant where Chertok served his apprenticeship, with its depth of skills and familiarity with the problems. Chertok was astonished, when he was finally able to get a close look at the competition’s rocket, by the quality of the fit and finish compared to that on the Semyorka, R-9, and N-1.

It was also very hard to get budget for test equipment and infrastructure, while the funding for huge rockets was never a question. As a result, it wasn’t until the Energiya project that OKB-1 launched a rocket of which every subsystem had been fully checked out and every engine fired on the static test stand. This caused a lot of huge and expensive explosions, which we hear a lot about because far from the least of Chertok’s contributions was as a crash investigator. By comparison, each engine on the Saturn V was testfired once by the manufacturer, once at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville as a single engine, and once more at Huntsville as a whole stage.

The Soviets also took a long, long time to invent Mission Control. Up until the mid-60s, after a space launch checked in with the first tracking station, the engineering team would disperse to the four winds, some going back to the Baikonur vehicle-assembly building, some to OKB-1 outside Moscow, some to their parent organisations, and some to the Evpatoriya radar and communications site. Inevitably, they all tried to take charge.

Interestingly, Yuri Gagarin was an early and powerful advocate of creating a mission control – up to the end of his life he acted as the capsule communicator, the voice of Mission Control, on the famous radio callsign Zarya, but for a long time there was no control centre behind the voice. Gradually, a nucleus of control emerged, usually based at Evpatoriya and including Gagarin and the indefatigable Chertok, but it wasn’t until the Apollo-Soyuz project in the mid-70s that it got its own building, staff, or budget and even then it was mostly authorised to impress the Americans.

Going with the title, this is a book about rockets and also people. Chertok at least paints himself as the token human being in the Soviet space programme, a reasonable man who managed not to fall out catastrophically with the giant planetary egos that cursed it. There are a lot of fascinating characters. He sketches Korolev and Glushko and their historic falling out, during which both of them implied to others that the other had informed while they were in the gulag together.

Chertok remarks that at times, he almost envied Korolev his stint in Siberia because if he himself had been a zek, he might have been able to understand him. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about being a Polish Jew in late Stalinism without being shot. Korolev, years later, told him that while he was trying to protect Chertok he took a phone call from a very important but unnamed politician who promised him that Chertok would come to no harm. Korolev took the secret to the grave.

He was also part of a mission to occupied Germany in which he failed to kidnap Wernher von Braun but did recover a huge range of scientific plunder including a whole team of German rocket scientists.

Hence we meet Frau Gröttrop, wife of Dr. Helmut, who turns up, sacks and replaces all the servants, misappropriates a stable of horses and when challenged swaps them for a couple of jeeps, and organises the debriefing of her husband’s colleagues as her own salon. Another German woman was recruited to manage the files, and when the group was transferred back to the USSR, insisted on coming along to look for her husband, last heard of posted as a prisoner of war. Chertok, Korolev et al tried to talk her out of this quixotic exploit, but eventually she went and distinguished herself by being an overt Nazi among the German expatriates. The decision was taken to find the husband, if he were still alive. There is only one problem: he has been talent spotted as a promising Communist, which is presumably why he’s alive. Eventually the decision is taken just to ship both of them to East Germany as quickly as possible.

There are some interesting discretions, too. By 1970, Chertok had surgery on the site of an old bullet wound in his leg, but oddly he never mentions how he came to get shot, despite never having served in the army. He was involved in a joint project with the British and the Polish resistance to recover V2 parts from the German test range in Poland, but he doesn’t say if he went into the field as well as taking part in the evaluation back in Khimki, which might resolve the mystery.

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