Rockets and People, vol. 3, Hot Days of the Cold War

  • Published

Rockets and People, vol. 3, Hot Days of the Cold War by Boris Chertok. Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, 2009, 832 pp.

Rockets and People, Boris Chertok’s seminal series, serves as a de factor report on the Soviet space program from its inception through the moon race of the late 1960s. Volume 3, Hot Days of the Cold War, begins with the efforts toward manned spaceflight and traces the evolution of the Soviet Voskshod, Vostok, and Soyuz manned spacecraft and their variants (i.e., the Zenit-2 photoreconnaissance satellite). Additionally, Chertok covers the first Soviet communications satellite and its intrepid orbital design, the so-called Molniya (“lightning” in Russian), with gusto and aplomb. The final focus of volume 3 chronicles Chertok’s interaction and friendship with Sergei Korolev, chief Soviet rocket designer.

The fact that an analogous Western memoir would have to contain the (observed) words and thoughts of Dr. Wernher von Braun, Dr. James Van Allen, Dr. Joseph Charyk, Gen Bernard Schriever, and Lt Colonel Ed Hall, to name just a few, gives future readers some idea of the breadth of this volume. Chertok’s chapters are chronological, varying widely with the memoir’s thread that holds the piece together. Of specific interest to Air Force space professionals, aside from the stories of Yuri Gagarin’s derring-do and Gherman Titov’s spacewalking exploits, are the chapters on strategic systems: missiles and satellites. Chapters 4 and 5 (“The Cuban Missile Crisis . . . and Mars” and “Strategic Missile Selection,” respectively) tie the space race into the greater context of the Cold War. Anecdotal stories about the failures of the R-7 booster and R-9 missiles on the launch pad—or directly above it—and design frustrations with antiballistic missiles set up the reader for the mirror story of the well-publicized American nuclear combat systems. Stepping back from the emotional highs of space exploration, the reader is slapped into reality regarding why these systems existed in the first place.

In this reviewer’s fully admitted job-induced tunnel vision, the highlight of the book is the development of the first Soviet reconnaissance and communication satellites. Recounting the creation of the Zenit-2 series of photoreconnaissance satellites completes the puzzle of Cold War silent sentinels whose intelligence “takes” shaped the decisions of leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. These exploits, from the side of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), have been celebrated since the release of the Corona, Argon, and Lanyard satellite records in 1995. Information about Zenit-2 has trickled out slowly to the rest of the world through professional space journals and books like Chertok’s. His holistic view of rocket, payload, designer, and outside political forces within the Zenit-2 program equals the strides taken in Curtis Peebles’s The Corona Project but not the programmatic details of Frederick Oder’s The Corona Story—the de facto chronology from the CIA and NRO. Anecdotes of the design of the Molniya-1 communications satellite also colorize the story behind the engineers and scientists whose work remained relatively unknown during the Cold War years.

Confusing nomenclature constitutes one major drawback of any account translated from the original Russian government documents. Perhaps intentionally obfuscating, the differences between a 1KP spacecraft and 1K (a Vostok without and with a life-support system, respectively) can get confusing quickly, along with design bureau designations (OKB-1 versus OKB-2, compared to NII-88, for example) and their chief designers. Die-hard students of the Soviet space program may breeze through this with ease whereas casual readers may not. In defense of the author’s native language, the index does list the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s reporting names of ballistic missiles and rightfully orients the reader to their Soviet designations.

In any memoir, the fading of time and memory is a given, and errors within are wholly expected. One can check factual information against records and other sources. Similarly, Asif Siddiqi, editor of the Rockets and People series, did an amazing job of marrying the ocean of knowledge from published Western sources to Chertok’s reminiscences. The effort is almost seamless, with a cornucopia of footnotes interspersed throughout; however, the notes themselves are not without error. Siddiqi footnotes Chertok’s description of the “CIA’s [spy satellite] initiative,” later known as the Discoverer/Corona series (p. 18), with “The first successful recovery of a Discoverer reentry capsule was in August 1960 during the Discoverer 14 mission.” In reality, it was “lucky” number 13 (Discoverer XIII) that returned the first reentry capsule on that date. Although readily dismissed as a typographic error, this and other minor hiccups are not enough to detract from Chertok’s memoir.

Future memoir writers of the US space program’s multiple entities would do well to read one tome from Chertok’s series, all of whose volumes are easily categorized into the realm of a space geek library’s “must haves.” The macroscopic lessons from Hot Days of the Cold War unearth truths inside the management of overly complex enterprises and provide moments of levity with anecdotal tales of celebratory vodka and cognac flowing in the wake of overwhelming successes. Boris Chertok’s writing will entertain a wide variety of readers—those brave souls not easily deterred by the overwhelming 754 pages of text!

Maj Joseph T. Page, II, USAF
Joint Space Operations Center
Vandenberg AFB, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."