Rockets and People: Volume 1, by Boris Chertok. Published by NASA. PDF, free.
Reviewed by Veronique Greenwood
Cultural critics may bemoan the Internet's effect on our ability to remember, but one has to admit that, as a collective mental filing cabinet, it has its good sides.
This place we've built is immense and variegated, full of stray details and forgotten databases. It is a thick and tangled memory-bank, to mix science metaphors, full of brightly colored plants and stones and tiny parasitic mushrooms clutched in a net of sphagnum moss. For the intrepid e-naturalist, there are great treasures to be found here.
Or at least great curiosities. I think that's what I'd call the memoirs of a rocket designer who was born in the age of the tsars and spent years in the secret Soviet space program, masterminding the control systems of some of the earliest spacecraft.
Academician Boris Chertok's four-volume remembrances, Rockets and People, were translated into English by NASA between 2005 and 2011. As paper books they'd be massive, each more than 400 pages, but they seem to have been printed only in limited numbers, and they are available as free ebooks on the site of the NASA history program (Volumes 1 and 2 as PDF only; 3 and 4 as PDF, .epub, and .mobi). For this review I read much of the first volume.
How the son of a midwife and a bookkeeper rose from amateur radio engineer to factory electrician to head of ground control for early manned space flights could easily be an epic yarn. But unfortunately for those of us who are not historians of the Soviet aerospace program, that is not how Academician Chertok approached his memoirs. His very first chapter is a dense and nearly Biblical litany of the bureaucracy responsible for the program. It's a rough start for a reader, full of department names and obscure references to jet engine technologies. Bored, I skimmed the first half, but after a few minutes it dawned on me I'd seen the word “executed” quite a lot in between “People's Commissariat for Heavy Industry” and “People's Commissariat for Ammunitions.” Retracing my steps, I learned the Soviet aerospace program might have progressed more quickly in the early years, had the higher-ups not systematically murdered the chief engineers.
Chertok pauses here in his litany of departments, just for a moment. You can almost see him, an old, old man, steeped in the vocabulary of Soviet efficiency, gazing off into the distant past and considering how best to proceed. He writes, finally, with delicate irony, “The behavior of leaders in a totalitarian state does not always lend itself to explanation from the standpoint of common sense.”
This exemplifies my experience of Rockets and People: pages and pages that are barely above historical raw material, sprinkled with moments of wry poetry from a Russian novel.
The first volume encompasses Chertok’s childhood in Moscow, his training as an aircraft electrician, and his travels during the Second World War, when he and other specialists captured Nazi missile technology in Germany. Anyone with a fannish interest in antique aircraft or the scuttlebutt of the aerospace scene will enjoy the anecdotes that swell its pages, and with a bit of imagination you can turn the descriptions of his wartime movements into something resembling a tale. But it is still, thanks to his dutiful attention to detail and phlegmatic prose, very tedious reading.
It’s the facts themselves that provide the occasional respite. We learn, for instance, that in 1931, Stalin visited an airfield to see a prototype of the TB-3 planes, which Chertok would later help build. After inspecting the craft's outside, the Party Secretary climbed up and plopped himself down in the plane. He wanted to go for a spin before he would approve production.
As it turned out, though, this was an extremely temperamental test plane. And the only two people who knew how to fly it were sick or out of town. But Chertok, who must have heard this tale from his compatriots who were on the scene, relates a daring switcheroo:
After consulting with Air Force NII Chief Turzhanskiy, Air Force Commander Baranov decided to take a risk and entrust the TB-3 flight demonstration to pilots Kozlov and Zalevskiy, who had never before flown that airplane. It was a very big risk; the future fate of the airplane literally hung in the air. However, the new pilots coped with the task brilliantly. After a 40-minute flight, they landed safely on the very edge of the airfield. Stalin was told the reason for the delay in the flight. The length of the flight was explained by the fact that Kozlov and Zalevskiy were learning to control the aircraft to keep from crashing it while landing.
Such titillating moments aside, it’s a long, slow march for a pleasure reader. To be fair, it might indeed be up to someone else to write the novelization of Chertok's life: What he has written here is everything he remembers, drained carefully into this four-volume receptacle for others to process and build upon.
Thanks to the ease of turning a paper book into an ebook, and the ease of downloading them, anyone can read this time capsule. Perhaps one such reader is already at work turning Rockets and People into a rip-roaring tale. It’s now part of that Internet memory bank, that giant flowery mess that unnerves some but on the whole is now just a fact of life, crammed with everything you ever knew and many things you never will.
Chertok, who died last year at the age of 99, would perhaps understand.
“The structure of human memory is amazing,” he writes while recounting the events of 1917. “I do not remember important telephone numbers and often I am not capable of recalling events from the previous week. It is my 'random-access memory' that cannot perform those operations. But my long-term memory still remembers the broad street filled with jubilant, shouting, and singing demonstrators with a multitude of red flags. My father is holding me tightly by the hand and the whole time saying, 'Look, we’re having a revolution.'”
Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at DISCOVER Magazine. She writes about everything from caffeine chemistry to cold cures to Jelly Belly flavors, and her work has appeared in Scientific American, TIME.com, TheAtlantic.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter here.