Jewish-Soviet engineer Anatoliy Davidovich Daron might not have a name as recognizable as Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin or rocket engineer Sergei Korolev, but without the engine Daron designed, a Soviet rocket would not have sent that first man into space in 1961 — nor the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957.
Daron, who died on June 24 of heart failure at the age of 94, was the lead designer of the engine that sent the first satellite into space.
“He was an engineer, a scientist, a designer who found an incredibly creative solution to a very difficult problem,” says Asif Siddiqi, a professor at Fordham University in New York who specializes in the history of the Soviet space program. “He is one of the unwritten figures in the history of space.”
Daron’s death was announced by Russia’s largest news agency TASS as well as by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. However, not much was written in English — despite the fact that he died in the United States — aside from an obituary on the website of a Jewish funeral home in Boston.
Daron’s widow, Vera Temkina-Daron, who lives in Boston, clearly remembers October 4, 1957, the day the Sputnik was launched, because her life was never the same after that day, she told The Times of Israel via telephone.
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Before the launch, the Daron family lived in a communal flat. Daron had designed the engine that made space flight possible while living in a small room with his wife, 5-year-old daughter and mother, and sharing the kitchen and toilet with two other families.
“How did we manage?” Temkina-Daron muses. “Somehow we all got along — with each other and with our neighbors.”
Anatoliy and Vera Daron in this undated photo. (Courtesy)
Daron’s mother was a huge help: She did the housework and babysitting, so that Daron was “not burdened by household chores,” Temkina-Daron says.
It was only after Sputnik flew into space that the Soviet government offered the Daron family their own two-room apartment with a balcony and kitchen. The government also made it possible for Daron to buy a car, a refrigerator, and a television set.
“From this unexpected happiness, my mother-in-law almost had a heart attack,” Temkina-Daron says. “At that time, a new apartment was equivalent to a miracle. Very few new homes were built, and purchasing an apartment from someone else was impossible.”
Jewish-Soviet engineer Anatoliy Davidovich Daron was responsible for the rocket engine that put Sputnik I into space. (Courtesy)
She remembers also that Daron came up with the concept for the rocket engine while he was sick for three weeks with a fever and sore throat. Lying in bed, he kept thinking about how to build the engine, Temkina-Daron says — and eventually he found a solution.
“The new cooling method made it possible to raise the temperature higher without overheating the vessel,” explains Temkina-Daron, herself a chemistry professor. “To this day, only these rocket engines are used to fly humans into space.”
“Hundreds of people worked on that engine, but Daron was the head of 10 engineers who designed the basic blueprint for the engine. He had the initial idea,” says Siddiqi.
Despite his success in 1957, Daron’s life hasn’t always gone smoothly.
A few years prior, a wave of popular anti-Semitism swept through the Soviet Union after Jewish doctors were accused of masterminding a plot to murder Joseph Stalin. Anti-Semitic cartoons were published in the newspapers, Jewish doctors were arrested and Jewish engineers were fired from their jobs, in what became known as the Doctors’ Plot.
“He lost his job. He tried to get another job. He was temporarily unemployed,” Siddiqi says. “It was only after Stalin died that he was able to get his job back. If Stalin had lived, Daron would never have done the work he did.”
But that wasn’t the worst that could have happened to him.
A near-brush with death
Daron was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and as a child, he loved music and played the piano. Everyone thought he would become a musician, according to Temkina-Daron. But at the age of 12, he read a book by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and began dreaming about building a rocket and flying to Mars.
“He used to say that he was ready to go to Mars and never return,” Temkina-Daron says.
Anatoliy Davidovich Daron as a young man. (Courtesy)
When World War II broke out, Daron fled from Odessa by ferryboat and train, joining his father in the city of Kislovodsk. (His father worked as a doctor in the military hospital there.) This was a lucky escape: After Romanian fascists occupied Odessa, they murdered virtually the entire remaining Jewish population of the city.
In 1942, he escaped from the Nazis again — and managed to get his high school diploma in the process. Temkina-Daron tells the story in detail.
Just as the Romanian and German forces were advancing on Kislovodsk, Daron was finishing his high school graduation exams. He managed to get a perfect score on the last exam and received his high school diploma — while the military hospital was already being evacuated. The injured soldiers were loaded up on horse carriages, while the doctors and nurses walked.
“This high school diploma is a family relic — it is handwritten in ink on a piece of paper that was torn out of a school notebook, with signatures and stamps. Anatoliy was barely able to catch up with his parents, who were fleeing on foot,” Vera Temkina-Daron says.
From the point of view of Russian media, Daron was a brilliant scientist who made space flight possible.
But American historians are quick to point out that the rocket whose engine he designed was originally intended for military purposes.
This undated picture shows a Russian Vostok rocket on its launcher, the same type which propelled Yuri Gagarin to be the first human in space on April 12, 1961. (AP Photo/File)
“The R7 rocket he worked on was to deliver the nuclear bomb to the enemy — America. He was designing an engine for a nuclear warhead,” Siddiqi says. “In 1957, a number of Soviet scientists suggested to Soviet leadership that they can use the same rocket to launch a satellite. The satellite was the size of a basketball. They launched it on a rocket developed to send a hydrogen bomb to the US.”
Replicas of Sputnik I, above at Russian Pavilion and Sputnik II, foreground, at Brussels, Belgium on April 15, 1958. (AP Photo)
According to NASA’s website, Sputnik had several scientific purposes, including to test the method of placing a satellite into Earth’s orbit, provide information on the density of the atmosphere, test radio and optical methods of orbital tracking, and check the effects of radio wave propagation through the atmosphere.
It was also only after Sputnik was launched that humans were able, for the first time in history, to calculate the exact size of the Earth, according to American space historian Roger Launius.
And Russia’s lead launched an age of space exploration.
“Sputnik affected America very much, because they began giving money for space research, they established NASA,” Temkina-Daron says. “Some American astronauts told Anatoliy, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have become an astronaut.’”
An American reprieve
In 1998, Daron was permitted on humanitarian grounds to immigrate to the United States after he suffered a massive heart attack. Doctors in Moscow gave him one year to live, Temkina-Daron says, and he flew to the United States hoping to have heart surgery. American doctors managed to extend his life for another 21 years even without surgery.
Anti-Semitism also played a role in the couple’s decision to come to America, she says.
“When we had our interview in the American embassy and they asked asked us about why we wanted to go to America, we replied that we lived through the Doctors’ Plot. After that, they had no further questions,” Temkina-Daron says. “All of our lives, we had to overcome obstacles.”