Boris Chertok

1912 March 1 – 2011 Dec. 14

Boris Evseevich Chertok, a legendary figure at the very origins of the Soviet rocketry and space flight, who continued working for space program well into the 21st century, died on the night of Dec. 14, 2011, in Moscow. He was 99. As the right hand of the founder of the Soviet space program Sergei Korolev, Chertok was responsible for flight control systems and radio equipment of early Soviet ballistic missiles, launch vehicles, satellites and manned spacecraft. After a long career spanning decades as an engineer and a manager, Chertok became a promoter and a historian of the space program. His memoirs on the history of the Soviet astronautics is an irreplaceable resource for both historians and general public.

Boris Chertok was born on March 1, 1912, in a Jewish family in the Polish city of Lodz (then part of the Russian Empire). He moved to Moscow with his parents at the outbreak of World War I. Interested in radio technology since his childhood, Chertok started working as an electrician in 1929 at the Krasnopresnensky Silikat Plant and, later, as a radio technician at Gorbunov Aviation Plant No. 22 in Moscow, where he was appointed head of an engineering team. From 1939 to 1940, he led an engineering team at the OKB-2 design bureau at Plant No. 84 in Khimki, near Moscow.

He graduated from the Moscow Energy Institute, MEI, in 1940. From 1940 to 1942, he was head of an engineering team at the aviation plant No. 293 in Khimki.

Between 1942 and 1945, he worked as a department chief at the Moscow-based NII-1 research institute of the Aviation Industry Narkomat (Ministry), the organization which pioneered the development of Soviet rocket technology.

Between 1945 and 1947, Chertok, along with many aviation and rocket specialists, traveled to occupied Germany to investigate Nazi projects in rocketry. In Germany, Chertok met and forged closed working relations with many future leaders of the Soviet space program, including Korolev. Chertok also led the legendary effort to lure German engineers responsible for the development of the infamous V-2 ballistic missile, to work on the Soviet side. He even made a clandestine trip to the American occupation zone in Germany in the hope of recruiting Wernher von Braun, the head of V-2 development.

Chertok followed Korolev to a newly created NII-88 in Podlipki, northeast of Moscow, where he quickly grew as a leader in development of flight control systems. He started as a Deputy Chief Engineer of NII-88 and Deputy Department Chief to become Deputy Chief Designer and Deputy Enterprise Chief and Chief of Branch No. 1 at OKB-1. Chertok credited Dmitry Ustinov, a powerful Kremlin official, who oversaw the Soviet rocket industry, with his protection during Stalin's antisemitic campaign at the beginning of the 1950s, which resulted in death and imprisonment of many Jewish intellectuals.

As member of Korolev's Chief Designer Council, Chertok participated in the development of the first generation of the Soviet ballistic missiles, including R-1, R-2, R-3, R-5 and RT-1. This work culminated with the creation of the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile -- R-7.

Chertok went on to lead the development of flight control systems for practically every pioneering project undertaken by the USSR in space, including Sputniks, the Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz spacecraft, unmanned probes to the Moon, Mars and Venus, the N1/L3 lunar expeditionary complex and Salyut space stations. As a deputy to Korolev's successor, Vasily Mishin, Chertok personally oversaw one of the disastrous launches of the N1 Moon rocket, which hampered Soviet plans to land a man on the Moon.

Following his retirement from active engineering work and despite considerable hearing loss, Chertok worked tirelessly with a new generation of engineers, historians, journalists and general public to promote and popularize space exploration. He wrote a four-volume memoir covering the history of Soviet rocketry and space program from the 1930s and until the 1980s. This monumental work had already seen two editions in Russia and a translation into English.

Even though Chertok was not a fan of the Soviet system, he emphasized the importance of good education and scientific progress over the material pursuits of the post-Soviet world. With the influence and respect of a patriarch of the Russian space program, he grew increasingly critical of the contemporary leaders in Kremlin for their mismanagement of the space industry, despite a boost in federal funding. "The new elite consisting of the super-rich and corrupt officials feeding on windfall energy revenues doesn't care about the national space program," he said in the 2011 interview as quoted by the Associated Press.


Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: May 21, 2024

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: December 15, 2011

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Boris Chertok