Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

Boris Chertok's ROCKETS AND PEOPLE VOLUME 3: HOT DAYS OF THE COLD WAR

Boris Chertok's ROCKETS AND PEOPLE VOLUME 3: HOT DAYS OF THE COLD WAR

Book review by Dennis D. McDonald

Boris Chertok’s ROCKETS AND PEOPLE VOLUME 3: HOT DAYS OF THE COLD WAR is part of a translated history of the Soviet Union’s space program that NASA makes available in electronic book form.

This is a huge volume and it is consistently interesting. Chertok was a top engineer in the Soviet Union’s space program and had first-hand involvement in managing development of the launch vehicles that were critical to the USSR’s civilian and military space programs during the years of the Cold War.

The main title of the book is important to note: rockets and people. This is much more than a dry recitation of engineering details, though there are plenty of those to satisfy the technology buff. Names and foibles of technicians, engineers, cosmonauts, and politicians are sprinkled throughout. There is also a good description of the rivalries among the various “design bureaus” that managed different parts of the Soviet space program.

Lacking a single unifying management strategy the Soviet space program in those days was a hotbed of competing personalities and technologies with politics playing a key role in all levels of decision-making. Not that this should be a surprise to anyone but it is fascinating to see how things operated over there now that so many years of paranoid secrecy have passed.

The impression I get from reading Chertok of the manner in which the Soviet space program was managed was highly political and decentralized with the military and the national political process setting priorities and calling the shots. Those lower down who ran the projects had to coordinate and manage the massive amount of detail required for such ambitious programs. The result was a confusing [to this reader] patchwork of development and production resources held together for a long time by the brilliant  designer/administrator Sergei Korolev, who died in 1966. Once he was gone and the glow of the USSR’s early space successes faded, the distended nature of authority over the USSR’s launch, propulsion, control/communication, and lunar/planetary exploration efforts became apparent. The result was a lack of coordination and standardization that gradually resulted in false starts, duplication, and missed deadlines.

The differences between the American and Soviet programs are interesting to contemplate. The Soviets early on seem to have emphasized much more automated and remote control of manned space missions than the Americans; perhaps this was  related to the American emphasis on pilots and pilot input early in the US program? Also, based on Chertok’s comments it appears now that the early Soviet emphasis on throw weight for thermonuclear weapons may have delayed investment in solid fuel rockets; this delay may have enabled the US to field nuclear missiles with much shorter times-to-launch much earlier than the Soviets. Keep in mind that the early success of the Soviet program — Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Leonov’s spacewalk, ValentinaTereshkova — depended very much on remote control and on very primitive computers and electronics. Chertok discusses radio engineering and the transition from live transmission for course correction to missiles in flight to internal navigation systems. This is especially interesting in light of how far we have progressed since then with realtime satellite-based navigation systems, drones, and cruise missiles.

One Soviet focus from the start was on reducing CEP (circular error probable) measures for delivery of nuclear weapons on target. That is an example of the grim reality of why such splendid technology was developed by both the US and the Soviet Union. I can’t help but wonder when reading about these exciting times what it might have been like had the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperated in space exploration earlier on. Would the combined resources have resulted in greater joint accomplishments like a moon base or a landing on Mars? Or was the competition and secrecy effective in pushing both sides ahead?

We’ll never know. But if you’re interested in learning something new about the “space race” this is the book for you! Be prepared for disappointments, though; Chertok is quite candid about the numerous failures experienced by the Russians early on in getting lunar, interplanatary, and communication vehicles into operation; more often than not the fallout from such failures was a hunt to find out who was to blame. The resulting constant fear and distress must have taken a toll on a great many personalities and marriages.

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Review copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald. 

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