The Rest of the Rocket Scientists
Some went west. This is the story of the ones who went east.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
(Page 2 of 6)
Not everyone agreed. Chertok’s friend and colleague, Sergei Korolev, who would go on to lead the stunning Soviet space achievements of the 1950s and 1960s, despised the move. In 1946, the man who would later become the Soviets’ chief designer for space nurtured ambitions of building his own rocket team. “Korolev had a negative attitude toward German participation in our work from the very beginning,” says Chertok, “and he did see them as potential competitors.”
The German engineers had little warning of what was coming. Early in the morning of October 22, 1946, Soviet soldiers showed up at the homes of top technical workers and informed them that they would be deported to work at various Soviet industrial ministries. It was the same story at each house: A Soviet security officer, accompanied by an interpreter, shocked half-asleep families by ordering them to pack up personal belongings and prepare to board trains for Russia. A promise of a five-year contract in the Soviet Union and an offer of assistance with packing and moving were little consolation. According to recently published Soviet accounts, as many as 7,000 workers and family members were rounded up. Only 500 or so were rocket engineers and their families—the rest worked primarily for the aircraft and nuclear industries.
When an angry Helmut Gröttrup asked when he and his colleagues might return to Germany, Dmitry Ustinov, the head of the ministry responsible for missile development, joked, “As soon as you can fly around the world in a rocket!” Gröttrup boarded one of the 92 trains transporting the deportees and immediately dictated a letter of protest to his secretary, but it was to no avail. He arrived in Russia a few days later.
Growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, I spent my summer vacations at a dacha in Valentinovka, in the city’s northeastern suburbs. It was a place of magnificent pine and birch trees, gravel roads, and unpaved trails, twisting between ageless wooden cottages with brick chimneys and glass-covered porches. Back then, the hemorrhaging Soviet economy left local food stores largely empty, prompting my mother, in her never-ending quest for groceries, to make frequent trips to nearby Podlipki, where the shelves always seemed well stocked.
Official Soviet encyclopedias listed timber production as Podlipki’s main industry, but even then we knew it was home to the rocket industry, whose privileged workers could find cheese and milk even during the worst shortages. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the town’s true mission was made public, and it was renamed Korolev to honor the luminary of the Soviet space program, who spent the most productive years of his life there. It was here that Helmut Gröttrup was sent, to work at the newly established NII-88 scientific research institute, the first Soviet industrial facility dedicated to rocket development.
Boris Yezhov, a Korolev town historian, says that about half the Germans were accommodated in vacation houses in the northeastern suburbs. Most of the residences no longer exist, but at least one, in Bolshevo, is still standing. On the way to see it, Yezhov showed me an old black-and-white photo of a majestic stone mansion, sitting oddly in the middle of a forest. Today it’s a vacation house for Russian movie executives. But when Germans lived there it was nicknamed the “Fascist Palace,” and it housed “I don’t know how many tenants,” according to Irmgard Gröttrup. She and Helmut moved into a six-room villa more befitting his status, and were given a chauffeur-driven BMW. Later, though, when Helmut was transferred out of Moscow, Irmgard would spend a few months in the Fascist Palace. During her first night in the crowded building, her Russian hosts asked when she and her fellow Germans were going to bed. She recalled, “We looked at the 10 bottles of vodka on the table and laughed out loud: We hadn’t the slightest intention of going to sleep.”
Other Germans were housed according to their jobs. Specialists in guidance and radio systems, perhaps the most challenging task in the Soviet missile development program, settled in the town of Monino, farther east on the Yaroslavskaya Railroad. Another group, led by V-2 propulsion specialist Erich Putze, was attached to the collective of Valentin Glushko, the other principal figure in Russian rocketry at that time. Glushko worked on rocket propulsion systems at the OKB-456 design bureau, now known as NPO Energomash, the company that builds engines for almost every Russian rocket as well as the U.S. Atlas booster. Like Korolev, Glushko was not enthusiastic about German participation in his work. “He distanced himself from the Germans,” says Vladimir Sudakov, a historian at NPO Energomash.
Without support from above, Gröttrup struggled with badly equipped laboratories and a lack of tools. The Germans working for Glushko were taken off work on a more advanced engine for the V-2, designated RD-102, and given secondary and often humiliating jobs, such as designing the foundation for industrial buildings.