Keldysh, Mstislav Vsevolodovich

views updated


(b. Riga, Latvia, Russia, 10 February 1911; d. Moscow, U.S.S.R., 24 June 1978),

applied mathematics, mechanics, aircraft design, rocketry, space science.

A famous Russian mathematician closely identified with the Russian space research program, Keldysh is ranked among the most prominent founders of the Soviet missile production centers serving both military and civil aims. He served as president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences between 1961 and 1975.

Origin and Educational Background . Mstislav was the fifth child of Vsevolod Mikhaylovich Keldysh (1878– 1965), a prominent civil engineer, who was a professor at the Riga Polytechnic Institute. In 1915, after the beginning of World War I and the German invasion of Latvia, Keldysh’s family moved to Moscow, following the evacuated Polytechnic Institute. After the war, in 1918, upon the return of the institute to Riga, Keldysh’s father decided to stay in Moscow together with a larger part of the other Russian professors. After holding various university and engineering ranks he became a member of the Military Engineering College in 1932, and, subsequently vice president of the Soviet Academy of Building and Architecture. Keldysh’s mother, Maria Alexandrovna Kovzan (1879– 1957), was a general’s daughter. She gave her seven children (three daughters and four sons) a good primary education and encouraged their interest in literature, music, and painting.

In 1927, after finishing secondary school, Mstislav, willing to follow his father’s footsteps, decided to enter the prestigious Moscow Civil Engineering Institute. However, his application was rejected because he was too young. Keldysh was only sixteen, while enrollment age into Higher Technical Schools commonly began from eighteen. Regular universities did not have any age limits, so Keldysh entered the Mechanics and Mathematics Faculty of Moscow University. He did not side with Nikolay Luzin’s “pure” mathematical school (the so-called Luzitania), which dominated at that time, and began to specialize in the theory of functions of the complex variable, which had a lot of practical applications. His main interest was applied mathematics with various contributions to engineering and technological issues. Keldysh’s first research, presented in 1932, dealt with aerodynamics and was devoted to a more precise definition of Nikolai Zhukovski’s formula (lift force of the wing) with regard to air compressibility.

From Aviation to Rocketry . In 1931, after his graduation, Keldysh joined the General Theoretical Group of the Central Institute of Aero-Hydrodynamics (CAHI). Simultaneously, he was appointed professor of mathematics at the Moscow Electro-Machine-Building Institute (1930) and then at Moscow University (1932–1953). At CAHI Keldysh began to work on different problems concerning aircraft construction. One of them was research on self-oscillation of a wing at high flying speed—the so called flutter phenomenon. At the early stage of aviation this unknown phenomenon had caused a few unexpected accidents. At the beginning of the 1930s, a special “flutter group” was created at the CAHI Experimental-Aerodynamic Department. During two years of work the group could not produce any satisfactory result. Solving the problem needed a combination of high engineering skills and advanced mathematical qualification. Keldysh united both these qualities in the same person. Soon after he became the head of the flutter group, the problem was successfully resolved. In coauthorship with Evgeny P. Grossman, Keldysh developed a general theory of the phenomenon and worked out ways to eliminate it for airplanes of various design.

Keldysh’s success in solving the most complicated scientific and engineering problems was combined with great organizational abilities and high personal qualities. For example, in 1939, when Keldysh realized that flutter required radical changes in the technology of airplane design and a sharp increase of mathematical calculations, he organized the All-Union Flutter Seminar. Regular participants of the seminar, represented by employees from different design bureaus, were obliged not only to attend theoretical courses, but also to conduct detailed flutter analyses of the airplane designs currently developed at their laboratories and institutes. From the very beginning he commenced to establish new forms of scientific communication, which helped him unite efforts of the most prominent Soviet specialists. In the course of work on the flutter problem Keldysh met illustrious and already well-known airplane designers, such as Semyon A. Lavochkin and Andrey N. Tupolev. In 1942 Keldysh and Grossman were honored with the Stalin Prize for scientific work on prevention of break-up of airplanes.

The next step in Keldysh’s scientific carrier was closely connected with the beginning of two major Soviet scientific projects—the space research program and the development of nuclear weapons. In 1944 he became the head of a newly established Mechanics Department at the Mathematical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. By that time Keldysh already had a doctoral degree in mathematics (1938) and was a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences (1943). During this period he began to shift to the fields of rocket dynamics and applied celestial mechanics. In 1946, immediately after his election to full Soviet Academy membership, he was appointed a director of the secret Scientific Research Institute of Rocket Aviation (so-called NII-1). As in the case of the flutter group, Keldysh came to the institute when it was on the brink of collapse. Because of the conflict with the Ministry of Aircraft Construction that arose during the postwar industrial reorganization, the institute lost almost half of its staff and a significant part of its working area. Keldysh undertook a number of immediate measures (including a personal appeal to Joseph Stalin) to adjust the institute to the new political and professional situation. He raised standards for theoretical background for employees, broadened laboratories, and equipped the institute with the latest test stands. The institute began to study air-breathing and liquid-propellant rocket engines, and develop their fuel and strength characteristics. The first achievement of the institute was the creation and successful in-flight testing of the ramjet engine.

The scientific and technological goals of Keldysh’s institute clearly meshed with the military ones. In 1948 he received an invitation to participate, as an expert, in the final testing of the ballistic missile R-1, developed at the secret Scientific Research Institute of Missile Armament. Here he met the legendary Soviet designer Sergey P. Korolev. Their friendship lasted for almost twenty years, till Korolev’s death in 1966. Very soon Keldysh met another powerful figure in the Soviet scientific establishment: the director of the Soviet nuclear project, Igor V. Kurchatov. Already in 1946 Keldysh began to participate in numeral calculations of atomic problems. Soon after that he became head of the Atomic Problems Department, established in the Mathematical Institute. In 1953 this department broke away into an autonomous body, the Institute of Applied Mathematics. Since the very

beginning Keldysh continuously was director. The alliance of these three prominent specialists—Korolev, Kurchatov, and Keldysh—was informally named the “Three Ks.”

Regime: Restrictions and Opportunities . Biographies of Keldysh written during the Soviet period do not reflect the reverse side of his brilliant carrier. During the Stalinist time he and all his family (his wife Stanislava Valerianovna, daughter Svetlana, and son Piotr) lived in constant fear for their lives. His “dubious” social origin (Keldysh’s parents belonged to the gentry) was a problem not only for him, but also for his senior colleagues, at least those who recommended him for leading academic posts. In 1935 the KGB threw his mother in the notorious Lubianka prison. She was freed in a few weeks, but soon, in 1936, Keldysh’s brother Mikhail (a postgraduate student at the Historical Faculty of Moscow University) was arrested and executed. The eldest brother Alexandr also was arrested on the pretext of being a French agent. Fortunately, before he could be sent to a confinement camp, the chief of Lubianka was arrested too. His successor started reviewing current sentences and found that Keldysh’s brother had been framed. There is no primary evidence how Keldysh responded to these dramatic events. Some of his former colleagues mentioned that he preferred to employ people with social status similar to his own. The reason was not only sympathy or the wish to render support. Different treatment of family members was common during Stalin’s rule (the most striking example is the case of two brothers, Sergey and Nikolay Vavilov: one was executed, but the other appointed president of the Academy of Sciences). Relatives of punished people usually worked with more diligence and could be subordinated with relative ease. Keldysh could simply reactivate that steady homology of Stalin’s regime.

Keldysh never associated himself with so-called pure science. The university supervisors reproached him for his passion for practical problems, thinking it might ruin his mathematical talent. However, the “practical instinct” of Keldysh utterly fitted the ideal image of the Stalinist science, which demanded a “definite materialistic basis and practical orientation.” This necessity to serve demands of both academic and administrative elites left its mark on a number of Keldysh’s activities. For example, the title of his first scientific paper, devoted to Zhukovski’s formula and concerning particular technical problems, sounded rather “academic”: “Exterior Neumann’s Problem for Non-Linear Differential Equation of Elliptical Type.” As a mathematician, he was elected a full member of the academy in the Engineering Sciences Division of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Such a practice of combining “technical” and “abstract” orientations provided more opportunities for certain specialists because, in Marxist terms, it demonstrated “the unity of science and praxis”—one of the most categorical slogans of the Stalinist ideology.

Both the image and related practice of science were transformed after Stalin’s death in 1953. The changes in political leadership obviously inspired some reevaluations of the existing policies, not only on the part of the top Soviet officials, but also on the part of various interest groups, including scientists. Nuclear physicists represented one of these groups. In the mid-1950s they used their increased political capital and social status as politically important scientists to push for a major change in the political organization and management of science. One of the most important results of their activities was a reversal in the relationship between science and practice. Stalinist science was expected to serve the goals of industrial and economic development of the country. The post-Stalin reformers succeeded in designing and establishing a new concept of scientific organization, which justified institutional separation of the most advanced academic research from the process of technological modernization.

Keldysh, as well as Korolev, did not participate, at least openly, in the political maneuvering undertaken by nuclear physicists. For example, he did not send appeals to the top officials (as many prominent Soviet physicists did, such as Petr L. Kapitsa, Abram I. Alikhanov, Lev A. Artsimovich, and Igor E. Tamm); he did not explicitly express his opinion at the so-called aktivy meetings—businesslike discussion of necessary improvements in Soviet science, undertaken by the academy leadership in 1956 after Nikita Khrushchev’s well-known secret report on Stalin’s “personality cult” presented at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party (1956); and finally, he did not publish articles in the Soviet media during the several months of heated public debate at the end of 1959. In the period between 1956 and 1959 Keldysh tried with all his might to solve the next pressing engineering problem: the creation of a stratospheric intercontinental winged missile (Burya). This work led him to pioneering studies in what is now known as astronavigation and applied celestial mechanics. Simultaneously, he participated in Korolev’s project on the creation of the intercontinental ballistic missile. Research undertaken under Keldysh’s leadership during that period is difficult to summarize briefly, for it included a number of studies in the theory of rocket engines, the theory of combustion, gas dynamics, hypersonic aerodynamics, heat transfer and thermal protection during atmosphere entry with cosmic speed, calculating the mobility of propellant in tanks, and many others. These studies helped Korolev construct his famous semi-orka (seven)—the two-stage ballistic rocket R-7, used for military aims and, simultaneously, for placing the first artificial satellite Sputnik into Earth orbit.

A triumphant solution of these complex engineering problems became possible owing to, at least, two of Keldysh’s personal contributions: the application of new methods of calculation to aerodynamic and design analysis, and the organization of close cooperation between different engineering and scientific groups. While director of the intercontinental winged missile project, Keldysh established an unprecedented state-sponsored enterprise, which unified the leading design bureaus with well-equipped scientific institutes. For example, under his general leadership, the CAHI developed aerodynamic designs of aircraft; Alexei M. Isayev’s design bureau constructed a liquid-propellant rocket engine for the first (accelerating) stage of the missile; Mikhail M. Bondaryuk’s design bureau created a supersonic ramjet engine for the second (sustainer) stage; and the system of missile orientation was developed at the department of the Institute of Rocket Aviation. In 1959 the missile was successfully tested in flight. By 1960, Keldysh occupied several leading positions both in the Soviet space program and official science leadership. In 1958 he was appointed the chair of the Interdepartmental Council on Space Exploration. In 1959 he became vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

President of the Academy . Meanwhile, the process of academy reform reached its final stage. Discussion on the future structure of the academy split academicians in two confronting groups: representatives of so-called fundamental science, headed by nuclear physicists, on the one hand, and “practical” engineers, consolidated at the Engineering Sciences Division, on the other. The president of the academy (from 1951) Aleksandr N. Nesmejanov had taken a compromised position and tried to ease tension between engineers and fundamental scientists. That tactic provoked the most prominent and still very powerful nuclear physicists against him. At the elections in May 1961 Nesmejanov was forced to withdraw his candidacy. A few days before, he had recommended M. V. Keldysh to become his successor at that post. This decision seemed to be quite logical because Keldysh’s hands-off policy toward academy reform kept him on friendly terms with both physicists and engineers. In other respects, it was rather a contradictory move, because Keldysh’s promotion resulted in the disbanding of the academy’s engineering science division—the scientific body of which Keldysh had been a member until he became president. Besides, Keldysh was an obvious “military scientist.” All prizes, medals, and orders he had been awarded before 1961 were for military achievements. Nominally, Keldysh hardly fitted expectations of the nuclear physicists, who tried to establish a scientific organization not allied to war purposes. Finally, Keldysh himself was not pleased with such a radical change in his career. He saw that administrative duties of a chief Soviet scientist would not permit him to develop his own scientific ideas.

Still, in May 1961, soon after issuing a joint governmental and party decree “On Measures for Better Coordination of Scientific Research in the Country and the Work of the Academy of Sciences” (Pravda, 12 April 1961), which legalized the institutional division between fundamental and applied sciences, Keldysh was unanimously elected president of the academy. After the election Keldysh put in practice the changes proposed by the reform proponents: increasing the number of divisions, each of which was responsible for a certain important problem; liquidation of the Engineering Science Division; international opening of Soviet science; transition from hostility to peaceful competition in science; and promoting the propaganda of Soviet scientific achievements in the West. Keldysh put his fondest hopes in the development of space research.

Indeed, his election coincided with the greatest triumph of Soviet science and engineering, the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin. Keldysh’s first presidential speech dealt totally with the Soviet space program. During the next decades the Soviet media kept singing praises for conquering the cosmos, referring to a number of Soviet victories. S. P. Korolev was formally named the “chief astronautic designer,” and Keldysh “chief astronautic theorist.” However, the real advance in spacecraft technologies and relevant theoretical fields was not as fast as it seemed. Soviet specialists paid dearly for their assurance of successful realization of space projects. At the early stage of astronautics almost every second Soviet interplanetary launch was ineffective. Keldysh was exactly the person to take responsibility for these unavoidable mistakes and develop ways to eliminate them. For example, in the mid-1960s the shortage of precise data such as planetary ephemerides and the gravitational field of the Moon, among others, caused failures of a few Venus expeditions. Traditional astronomical ways of calculating these events gave standard error of about 500 miles, which was not enough for effective realization of interplanetary flights. Keldysh initiated the foundation of radar sets with the express purpose to provide computation centers with precise astronomical data. There were a lot of such divergences between the habitual and the required accuracy in other scientific and engineering fields, concerning new problems of space exploration. One of the most significant of Keldysh’s results as president was overcoming these partly organizational, partly cognitive misapprehensions between both scientists and governmental leaders.

Engineering and scientific troubles were redoubled with aircraft designers’ squabbles over leading positions in the space program. In the beginning of the 1960s other design bureaus began to compete with the original Soviet space exploration enterprise, constructed by Korolev. Designer Vladimir N. Chelomey became one of these challengers. Being a brother-in-law of the General Secretary of the Communist Party Khrushchev, and an employer of Khrushchev’s son, he used his proximity to the Soviet political elite to deprive Korolev of his leadership. In designers’ circles this conflict was called the “small civil war.” Keldysh tried to be an impartial arbitrator in this struggle. After Khrushchev’s resignation, when Korolev’s proponents were ready to deal with Chelomey, Keldysh supported his project of the so-called light launch vehicle (Proton), which could place into Earth orbit a weight up to 20 tons. Successful realization of this project played the decisive part in the development of Soviet astronautics, in contrast to Korolev’s project of a “heavy” vehicle (with payload capacity about 100 tons), which was closed in the beginning of the 1970s after a series of accidents during in-flight testing.

Ten years of strenuous work undermined Keldysh’s health. In 1973 he went through a complicated operation on his legs (for thrombosis), after which he resigned from the post of president. Deep depression, caused by exhaustion, a serious disease, and an exaggerated sense of personal responsibility for the lag in the so-called space race, led him to an untimely death in 1978. Keldysh was buried with all due honors at the Kremlin wall.



“Nachalo Kosmicheskoy Ery” [On the eve of space era]. Vestnik Akademii Nauk SSSR 6 (1961): 16–18.

Kosmicheskie issledovaniya [Space research]. Moscow: Nauka, 1981.

Matematika: Izbrannye trudy [Mathematics: Selected papers]. Edited by K. I. Babenko. Moscow: Nauka, 1985.

Raketnaya tekhnika i kosmonavtika: Izbrannye trudy [Rocketry and astronautics: Selected papers]. Edited by V. S. Avduevsky and T. M. Eneev. Moscow: Nauka, 1988.


Bashilova, E. Yu. “‘Dvizhenie v period tekhniki poletov shlo gorazdo bystree, chem eto mozhno bylo ozhidat’” [“Advance in spacecraft techniques was going forward much faster than one could expect”]. Istorichesky Arkhiv 1 (2001): 14–18.

Grigor’yan, A. T. “Vydayushchi’sya uchenyi i organizator nauki” [The prominent scientist and organizer of science]. Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniya i tekhniki 1 (1981): 77–79.

Siddiqi, Asif A. Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945–1974. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000. Systematic review and analysis of the Soviet side of the space race.

Vestnik Akademii Nauk SSSR 6 (1961): 3–15. Fragments of discussion at the General Meeting of the Academy during the presidential elections.

Zabrodin, A. V., ed. M. V. Keldysh. Tvorcheskiy portret po vospominaniyam sovremennikov [M. V. Keldysh in memoirs of contemporaries]. Moscow: Nauka, 2001.

Konstantin V. Ivanov