AT Hall of Fame

From Behind a Veil of Secrecy

“Each of these first rockets was like a beloved woman for us. 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.”

Those words were spoken by Boris Chertok. Until the 1980s, nobody outside of the Soviet Union knew who Chertok was. So, who is he?

He’s considered the deputy father of the Soviet space program. He worked closely with Sergei Korolyov to develop the rockets that took Sputnik into orbit and Gagarin into space. He’s one of the great rocket scientists of our time.

Sadly, he passed away on December 14, 2011 at the ripe old age of 99. But it’s his story that we remember.

Chertok was born in Lodz Poland when Poland was still part of the Russian Empire. When WWI broke out, his family moved to Moscow, and he graduated from the Moscow Energy Institute in 1940. After WWII ended, Chertok — who had been working as an aviation engineer — was selected to be on the team of Soviet rocket scientists that would go to Germany to learn from the ex-Nazi rocket scientists.

In reality, they were probably also there to convince as many of the Germans to come to Moscow as they could.

Throughout this time, Chertok and his associates were tightly guarded state secrets. Nobody outside Energiya and the Soviet apparatchik knew who he was and his significance to the space race. It wasn’t until perestroika in the 1980s that the world learned about Chertok. It was when that veil of secrecy was lifted did we get to meet this incredible man and learn of the incredible work he did.

Rest in peace, Boris Chertok. You will always have a place in our Atomic Toasters Hall of Fame.

[Ed. A special thanks to reader Peter Zillox for tipping us off to the obituary. Chertok has long been one of my heroes, and his passing reminded me of just what an interesting life he had. If you have any tips for us, send them to tips at atomictoasters dot com.]

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    How would you guess Lodz is pronounced? Would you believe something like wooj? Well without the marks on the letters it would be more like lodge in English. Polish is great.

    • TechieInHell

      So, Łódź, then?

      • mr. mzs zsm msz esq


        • The Professor

          That's pronounced as 'wooj'?

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Yes, here's a google result that has a wav file with a good pronunciation:

            Michener in his book "Poland" even makes a joke about pronouncing it 🙂

          • The Professor

            Hmm, sounds to me like 'woodz', but I have a hard time hearing female voices anymore due to the nature of my hearing loss. It causes no end of troubles for me.
            But thanks for the info. I find foreign (to me) languages interesting, but I have close to zero ability at learning them.

    • Number_Six

      How about Wroclaw?

      • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

        Something like vrotswav, though Poles often say final Ws more like Fs instead of Vs.

        • Number_Six

          Does the latin alphabet just not work with Polish?

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            It does really well, just you need to know the differences. There is a hard, soft, and normal to almost every sound in Polish. Since I was only four when I left, I mess it up all the time. So if you have so many sounds and you don't want to make tons of new letters, what do you do? Polish adds marks, they call them tails to some letters. That's the confusion with the L in particular. It should look like an L with a / on top of it. That's a different letter and it makes a sound like W or WH in English. Sounds a lot different than L which sounds like L in English, looks the same though when you drop that mark.

            Then the other approach that was used was to was to string two letters together to make one sound, like in English you have CH, SH, or EE. In Polish there are ones like that too, but they use unexpected for English letters, like a second Z (DZ or CZ) or an I or Y (CI or CY). Anyway that's why you get words with seemingly endless streams of consonants with an unreasonable looking percentage of Zs to an English speaker.

            It's very consistent too, so the only strange thing I can think of is that RZ and Z with a dot sound the same, but some words need to be spelled one way or the other.

          • Tiller188

            I've always thought "przepraszam" was a fun one to watch people try to pronounce.

            Agreed that the (modified) Latin alphabet works just fine, but if you're writing something up (say, for a Polish class…) on a word processor without getting fancy with the extra marks, it can be confusing to read later if you've started to forget some of the vocabulary…

          • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

            Ha! I never thought of that, that is a hard to say looking word to English speakers! Are you learning Polish? I was almost illiterate since I was so young when I left Poland. Then I took two Polish classes in college. It was a great decision because later I met this Polish girl in Chicago. I was her tour guide when she was on vacation. We started writing back and forth, wouldn't have been able to without having taken those classes , now we've been married for ten years. Life's funny 🙂

  • domino_vitali

    great article, thanks! i love hearing about the great scientists of the 20th century.

    my father has some stories about meeting Soviet astronauts, maybe i can get him to share some if you're interested. he was also involved in computer research in the 1960s, which is also fascinating.

    • Yeah, if you can get him to share some stories we'd love to hear them!

      • domino_vitali

        ok, i'll ask.

  • B72

    It would have been very interesting to put this guy in the same room as Werner Von Braun and sit back and listen. I suspect one would have needed to know German though.