Tributes to Maxim Tarasenko, 1962-1999

Picture (taken Feb 1999): BBC, courtesy James Oberg.

Igor Afanasyev, Igor Lissov

Dear Friends, Maxim Vladislavovich Tarasenko was killed by a car late Friday evening (14 May, 1999) in Zelenograd where he lived. His step-son was injured. Maxim was one of the most brilliant researchers and historians of the Soviet/Russian space program, a key member of Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine staff, and member of the FPSPACE list. We suffered a huge loss.

Igor Afanasyev, Igor Lissov
Novosti Kosmonavtiki

Ed Cameron

The death of Maxim Tarasenko is truly a loss for the space community.  Though I did not (as far as I know) meet him during my trip to Baikonur in 1992, I'm sure that the N1 material shared with me by Charlie Vick following your 1997 trip was greatly enhanced by the efforts of Maxim.  His efforts will be missed.

Ed Cameron

Dwayne Day

When it comes to writing space history, there are generally two kinds of writers:  Those who write primarily from secondary sources (i.e. other peoples' articles), and those who write from primary sources.

The end of the Cold War means that a lot of records which were previously inaccessible are now becoming available to researchers.  But not everybody makes use of these new records.  The reason is simple--doing primary research is hard.  Usually it involves digging through musty old files for hours, looking for one or two useful documents and sometimes finding nothing at all.  It also often involves spending your own money and living like a pauper in order to travel to distant archives and pay for photocopies and other expenses.  As anybody who writes space history will tell you, there is no real money in this business.  You will not get rich from writing space history.  For every Andrew Chaikin who strikes it big, there are a dozen other people for whom writing space history actually costs them money.

But the true historian does not care.  He does not write space history for the money, the fame or the chicks.  He writes because the subject fascinates him.  For the historian, digging through hundreds of documents to find one key memo or letter is actually fun.  Tedium is punctuated by intellectual excitement.  There is a rise in blood pressure, a rush of adrenaline, that accompanies the discovery of a document that may mean nothing to the majority of people, but which confirms the historian's suspicion about the historical chain of events.   For the truly committed historian, finding a key piece of evidence can be like taking a drug.

It is the people who do this original research who advance the field the most. Maxim Tarasenko was truly one of the greats when it came to this kind of thankless field research.  Others may write of his generosity or his lack of conceit, but I can think of no higher praise than to say that he was not above doing the tedious, dull, exhausting and frustrating kind of research that contributed so substantially to the field of space history.  He worked, and he worked hard.

I will admit that I did not know Maxim very well.  I also have not read much of his work.  If we are lucky, someday much of it will be translated into English.  But when I met him at an international space conference in Jerusalem in 1994, I felt like I had encountered a kindred spirit.

We both met at a conference session on space history.  Both of us were writing on military space programs.  I think because the conference organizers had not heard of either of us, they put us both on as the last speakers of the last session of the last day.

Much of what passes for "history" at these conferences is actually little more than "war stories"--retired engineers telling how they did things back in the old days.  The contribution to history is therefore limited. But Maxim was different.  He was obviously very interested in writing the first draft of Soviet Cold War military space history, recognizing that he would come back to that first draft at a future date and revise it with more information.  When I met him, his enthusiasm was obvious.  Although I cannot remember what we talked about, I do remember the tone:  We were like two addicts sharing our vice in conspiratorial whispers.  I was very impressed with his willingness to do the academic grunt work.  He expressed a joy at being the first researcher to access long-closed space records of the former Soviet Union.  He also expressed his frustration at what was not yet available and told stories that sounded vaguely familiar, about how former space officials wanted to have it both ways--they wanted both to restrict the information but also get credit for their accomplishments.  They failed to recognize that in order for the story to be told, they had to actually release the information. And for a true modern historian, the government officials can never move fast enough.  Maxim and I both shared the excitement at what we were learning and the impatience with the glacial pace of declassification.

I have been told that some of Maxim's works in Russian are truly outstanding--the definitive book on strategic rockets, for instance.  I don't know that personally, but I can believe it.  His attention to detail was clearly evident during our brief encounter.  What did I get wrong? he asked me.  What new information do you have?  It did not offend his ego when someone corrected him--he wanted to be accurate.  If somebody had better information, he wanted to hear it so he could correct his own material.

Maxim struck me as the kind of researcher who was dedicated to the truth and willing to make personal sacrifices to find it.  The entire field of space history will suffer from his loss.  The best way to honor him is for those of us in the field to work harder at the subject that he so obviously loved.

Dwayne A. Day

Sven Grahn

What a terrible loss! I corresponded some with Maxim and met him twice: At IAF in Beijing and at IAF in Torino. When we met in Beijing I introduced him to my wife as "the well-known Maxim Tarasenko", to which he replied : "yes, widely known in narrow circles"! I really liked his translation of the talk by Boris Chertok in Torino when Chertok said something in Russian about "the capitalist bandit McNamara" which Maxim cooly translated as "Defense Secretary Mc Namara".

Sven Grahn

To which Dwayne Day replied:

I think that in many ways that perfectly sums up Maxim.  Whereas one of the main problems with reporting on Soviet-era space history is that so many of the Russian chroniclers/memoirists have an ideological or bureaucratic axe to grind (hence, ten different stories of an event), Maxim was interested in the facts and the truth and approached his subject with an objective view.  It was his greatest strength as a researcher and historian.

James Harford

It was a terrible shock to get the news of Maxim Tarasenko's death. He was surely one of the best, most forthright, and hardest-working of the Russian space scholars, and a gentle and close friend. I simply would not have been able to write the KOROLEV book without his immense help and advice. I have since had occasion to refer numerous Americans and Europeans to him and he has been invaluable to them as well. With deep sadness,

Jim Harford

Jonathan McDowell

I am terribly sorry to hear of Maxim's death. It was always a pleasure to communicate with him, and his work marked an
important step in space history and will live on. With utmost condolences,

Jonathan McDowell

Asif Siddiqi

I am still completely in shock about the news. He was one of the most truly brilliant historians in the field, and it was a joy to always read his works. He was also one of the most generous researchers in the field and helped me immensely in my work through the past few
years. My sincere condolences go out to his family and friends, as well as the staff of Novosti kosmonavtiki. This is a truly terrible loss.

Asif Siddiqi

David Woods

"I would like to add my voice to those who are mourning the loss of Maxim Tarasenko.  Maxim apparently died in an automobile accident Friday [14 May, 1999] evening, cutting short what promised to be a brilliant career.

Maxim was born in Protva, in the Kaluga Region south of Moscow on 20 June 1962.  He received a Diploma with Excellence, Physicist-Engineer in Spacecraft Dynamics and Flight Control from the Department of Aerophysics and Space Research of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) in 1985.  He studied shockwave dynamics for his graduate work and was awarded a PhD (Candidate of Science) degree in Physics and Math with a specialty in Fluid, Gas and Plasma Dynamics by MIPT in 1988.  Maxim became a Research Associate at MIPT and Chair of Continuous Media upon graduation.

His plans had been to work in aerospace engineering, but upon graduation he became interested in space policy and the history of cosmonautics, both domestic and foreign.  In the early 1990's he spent a year as a visiting student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.  The next year he was a Visiting Fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in Chicago where he studied Science and International Security journalism.

From 1991 to the present he was a Research Associate at the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT where he developed an independent expertise of national space activities, conducted analyses of space programs and policies both in Russia and abroad, and became an internationally recognized expert on space program histories.  His special interest was the development of both the Soviet and American space programs through the Cold War. The last of several times that I saw Maxim was at an arms control conference held at Cornell University in New York where he was to deliver several papers.  This was just one of many international speaking engagements of his.  He had delivered a paper on the 'Reorganization of the FSU Space Program and Its Influence on Space Activities Worldwide' at the IAF in Graz, Austria in 1993.  His 1994 IAF paper in Jerusalem, Israel was entitled 'From Confrontation to Competition and Cooperation:  Roadblocks and Bypasses'.  The list of papers and international places is too long to go into at this point.  I mention these two just to convey the scope of his international status and recognition as a scholar and researcher of the history of space exploration and its political implications Although I am sure there are other pictures of him elsewhere on the web, the only one that I know of is one that Sven Grahn has on his web site of the two of them at the IAF in Beijing, China.

Maxim was the author of numerous books and articles as well, with his most recent probabily being one in the latest issue of Novosti Kosmonavtiki.  Igor Lissov and Igor Afanasev are both correct that his tragic death will represent a tremendous loss to the space history research community.

One might expect that someone with such an impressive resume would be very arrogant and distant, but that was absolutely not the case with Maxim.  My first trip to Moscow was in 1995, and Maxim kindly made arrangements for me for transportation and access to a number of space program related facilities in the Moscow area.  I came back to Moscow the next year for the first of the FPSPACE workshops. Charles Vick and I made arrangements to come over several days early.  Maxim set up local accomodations for the both of us in what was one of the most enjoyable trips of my life.  Five of us packed into a little Russian automobile going all over Moscow to see the sights.  We saw so many things that absolutely would not have been possible without Maxim's intervention.  For example, that is a picture of me climbing up the ladder of the earliest LK Soviet manned lunar lander spacecraft at Kaliningrad College, literally across the street from the TsUP in Korolov.  At the 1997 FPSPACE workshop there was some free time before the conference got underway, so Maxim, Igor Afanasev, Mike Cassett, Charles Vick and I went on a tour of Moscow checking out model shops and book stores for space program related items.

I opened my remarks by saying that Maxim's death has cut short what promised to be a brilliant career.  On two recent, separate occasions, researchers, one from the New York Times, needed someone to accompany them to Baikonur for some work they were doing on the history of the Soviet/Russian space program.  Maxim was at the top of both of their lists as the one they needed for their work.  Maxim took along a camera and shot some incredible pictures from the N-1/Energia-Buran launch facility and of the Proton area.  He sent the film over here and I made up sets of prints for the various interested parties.  I mention this only to say that Maxim was gaining an international reputation as THE one individual with the depth of knowledge and connections to cover just about any aspect of cosmonautics.  Just before his death, he was considering accepting a position as the Moscow bureau chief for an internationally famous aerospace publication.

My last e-mail from Maxim was just a week or so ago, but, as I mentioned earlier, the last time I saw him was when he was at Cornell University, which is about 30 miles north of my home.  I brought along some pictures I had shot while I was in Moscow of various spacecraft instrument panels, and I was hoping that he could translate some of them for me.  Most were simple acronyms that meant absolutely nothing to me, but Maxim knew what just about every one was.  I think back to that beautiful clear blue sky day in August, sitting at a picnic bench outside one of the campus buildings looking at a stack of spacecraft photos with Maxim.  A truly brilliant individual who had extended so many kindnesses to me and to others, as people like Jim Harford has mentioned.  I will always remember Maxim, for the all too brief period of time that I got to know him and the many favors and acts of kindness that he extended to me.  He is irreplacable and will truly be missed by so many of his friends.


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