Russian Rockets and the Power of Goodness, Part 1

On May 14, 2000, I received word that the very first American rocket equipped with a Russian RD180 rocket engine had blasted off from launch pad 36B at Cape Canaveral, Florida. My eyes raced to read the details. The propulsion system designed and built by the Russians had launched the inaugural Lockheed Martin Atlas III rocket carrying a Eutelsat W4 communications satellite into active duty. I shivered. 

In 1996, I had the opportunity of becoming friends with Robert Ford, Lockheed Martin’s program manager. He loved what we were doing around the world with Project C.U.R.E., and teams of employees and executives from Lockheed Martin would frequently come to Project C.U.R.E. and help us sort materials, pack cases of medical goods, and help us load the ocean-going cargo containers. A couple of years later, Robert asked me a rather unusual question: “What are you specifically doing for the people of Russia?” I replied that from the first days after the fall of the Soviet system, Project C.U.R.E. had been in the countries trying to meet the medical needs not only of Russia but of all the old Soviet Federation. 

Robert’s second question was, “Are you specifically doing anything to help the Russian scientists in and around Moscow? Are you aware of the terrible plight of the disenfranchised technicians and scientists, and are you presently involved in helping them in any way?” My answer was not complicated: “If the scientists and their families have been part of any of the local area hospitals or polyclinics where Project C.U.R.E. has shipped donated medical goods, then their lives have, no doubt, been affected.

Robert then went on to explain that they had been dealing with the scientists at the highly secured Khimky scientific complex near the Moscow airport. Since the political demise of the country and the economic bankruptcy of their system, even the most respected scientists and technicians of the old Federation had been cut off along with their families from any access to medical services or salaries. The hospitals were empty of the most basic medical supplies, and even their polyclinics were without simple essentials.

“As a community of fellow scientists,” said Robert, “we would like to come along side our new Russian acquaintances and their families and help them out in their time of medical need. We have worked with Project the past and would be proud to have you partner with us to see if we can make a difference. If you will furnish the donated medical goods to replenish their system, we will underwrite the shipping expenses.” I tried to explain that we had always worked from the premise “take what you have and allow it to become what someone else needs.” If you wish to experience peace, then provide peace for someone else.

Lockheed Martin was aware of the fact that Project C.U.R.E. required a needs assessment trip to any location requesting our help in order to accurately determine the appropriate medical goods to be donated. We agreed that we would make the trip in May, 1999. Project C.U.R.E. agreed to a significant gifting plan that would be structured over five years and would replenish millions of dollars of medical goods into the deficient hospitals and clinics of the Khimky community. I would simply tie the Moscow venue onto the assessment trips I already had planned to Dakar, Senegal, Nouakchott, Mauritania, and London during the month of May.

Lockheed Martin had become interested in purchasing from the Soviets the inventory of super RD 180 rocket engines out of their bankrupt aerospace program. The procedure for making the purchase was very complicated from both the U.S. and Soviet sides. The whole agreement was contingent upon the approval and signature of President Boris Yeltsin.

Moscow, Russia, is not my favorite city in the world. But, I was presuming that my friend Robert Ford would be at the Moscow airport to pick me up and everything would be fine. I had been in and out of Moscow many times and I found myself with feelings of irritability and apprehension each time I prepared to visit. I had many good friends in Russia and throughout the Old Soviet Union, and fond memories associated with many of my trips. But, there was something edgy about the city of Moscow. If they could hassle you over the slightest detail, they would. If they could take advantage of you as an American, they would. I found many of them were rude, even toward their own people.

While standing in line to clear customs, my mind went back to the time the customs official at Moscow just arbitrarily took out of my passport my visa for Kazakhstan. I protested loudly and told him the visa was my property and I needed it to enter Aktav as I continued my journey. The official gave me back my passport, but without my Kazakhstan visa, and the only explanation I could get was that they didn’t like or approve Kazakhstan since they had withdrawn from the Union. My further protests got me absolutely nowhere, and eventually I had to go through the process of purchasing another visa at the border of Kazakhstan.

When I exited customs, I did not find Robert, but I did see a nice big sign reading, “Dr. James Jackson.” Jim Sackett, a Lockheed-Martin employee, would be my Moscow host. Robert was detained in Denver and had to cancel the trip. We went directly to the Aerostar Hotel. Once checked in, I sat down with Jim and reviewed the agenda for the days I would be there. Before I went to bed, the personnel at the front desk notified me of a potential problem I might have with my Russian visa. The woman said, “Dr. Jackson, you say you will stay with us through the night of May 27th and check out on the 28th. But it is against the Russian law for a hotel to rent a room to a person whose Russian visa has expired. Your visa expires on midnight the 26th of May. I think you have a big problem.”

I thought to myself, “Why am I surprised that I have a technical problem over which I am being hassled here in Moscow?” I told the lady at the desk I would look into the problem the next day.

I had figured that the departure date on my Russian visa could very easily be extended for one more day. I was so wrong. The officials at NPO Energomash took my passport and visa and approached the customs and immigration folks in Moscow. Even with all their clout and influence, the visa people said “nyet, if he remains in the country one minute without a valid visa, he will go to jail and pay a very huge fine.”

Tuesday morning Jim picked me up and we drove to the gated and closed city of Khimky community. Within those walls and behind those fences was some of the tightest security in the whole world. It was there the Russian rockets were designed, developed, proto-typed, tested, and installed. There they had built the world’s most powerful and most efficient rockets. The U.S. scientists had developed their products along an entirely different design and philosophy. No one had ever disputed the superiority of the Russian rockets over any others developed to date. It had all taken place over the years, right where I was now standing.

After lunch we walked into an experience that I shall never forget. Passing all kinds of security, I was led right into the building complex where the designing, building, and testing of the famous Russian rockets had taken place. Jim leaned over to me and said, “You are now among a very small handful of officials from the West who have ever been permitted to pass through these doors and see what you will now see.” 

The head of the Russian Aerospace Agency met me and personally directed my tour, pointing out the historical progression of the Russian rockets since 1908. He kindly answered all of my questions and pointed out the difference in basic design between the U.S. rockets and the Russian rockets. It was easy to see why they could get over three times the thrust, efficiency, and payload-lift out of their design. What used to take three separate rockets on the end of an Atlas Rocket of the Americans, the Russians could accomplish with only one of their machines. Their design relied on fewer moving parts and a concept of super-heating the fuel before it was re-injected into the combustion chamber.

He showed me the rocket engine which had thrust Sputnik into orbit and the rocket engine that had put the Soviet astronauts first into space. I asked about the huge clustered rocket engines which were painted green. He told me that those rockets were the ones that during the Cold War were loaded with nuclear warheads and aimed at every major city in the U.S.

When the Director concluded my tour, I asked if I could possibly have a photo of the two of us in front of the rocket engines. I fully expected to have him laugh and good-heartedly deny my request. But he answered, “Sure, Dr. Jackson, it would be my privilege to be photographed with you in front of the world’s largest and most powerful rocket engine. After all, you are now one of the family.”

While we were leaving the building, the NPO Energomash security once again updated me on my visa problem. The Russians were not going to budge an inch. My flight to leave Moscow was scheduled for after the time my visa would expire. It looked like Dr. Jackson had come all the way to Moscow to assess all the hospitals and clinics of the aerospace community, but would be sitting in a Moscow jail. The officials were having no success at all in booking an earlier flight or rerouting me out of Moscow. I was in an embarrassing, diplomatic mess.

(To be continued February 12, 2013)