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Massevitch, Alla G. (1918—)

Massevitch, Alla G. (1918—)

Soviet astrophysicist, university professor, and vice-president of the USSR's Academy of Science, who organized and administered a network of stations that tracked movements of Soviet Sputniks . Born Alla Genrikohovna Massevitch on October 9, 1918, in Tbilisi, capital of the Georgian Republic (now Georgia); eldest daughter and one of three children of Genrikh Massevitch (a lawyer) and Natalie (Zhgenty) Massevitch (a nurse); graduated from the University of Moscow with a degree in physics, 1940; candidate's degree (the equivalent of a Ph.D.) from the Sternberg State Astronomy Institute in Moscow, 1946; married Joseph Friedlander (a metallurgical engineer), in 1941; children: one daughter, Natalie Friedlander .

Pursuing an interest in science that began at 13, Alla Massevitch entered the University of Moscow in 1937, intent on a career in space science and astronomy. After she earned her degree in 1941, her postgraduate studies were interrupted by the war and her marriage to a young engineer nine days after their meeting in an air raid shelter. She left the university and joined her husband in Kuibyshev (now Samara, Russia), where she worked with him at the Institute of Physics and taught astronomy at the Kuibyshev teachers' college. In 1943, when the military threat to Moscow ended, she returned to the capital and continued her studies at the Sternberg State Astronomy Institute. After completing the equivalent of a Ph.D. in 1946, she remained at Sternberg to pursue her research into the structure and internal energy sources of giant red stars, and to begin one of the first nonstatic approaches to the evolution of the sun. In 1946, she became a lecturer in astrophysics at the University of Moscow and in 1952 was named vice president of the Astronomical Council of the Academy of Sciences.

In 1957, the Astronomical Council was assigned the task of tracking space vehicles. With no precedent to guide her, Massevitch trained the leaders for a network of 70 tracking stations throughout the USSR and had them in place by October 4, 1957, when Sputnik I was launched. Her ongoing duties also included investigating new tracking methods and publishing the vast amount of data collected by the tracking stations. Known for her charming personality and inexhaustible energy, she also became a spokeswoman for Soviet science abroad, making trips to almost every European country and the United States. A strong advocate of international cooperation, she served as chair of the tracking group of the International Committee on Space Research and in 1962 became vice president of the IAU's Commission N44 on extraterrestrial astronomy. Massevitch was elected a foreign member of Britain's Royal Astronomical Society in 1963. In her own country, she was vice president of the Institute for Soviet-American Relations. During her career, she authored two books on stellar evolution and published over 60 papers, mainly in the Astronomical Journal of the U.S.S.R.

In an article for This Week (September 2,1962), Massevitch spoke to Eric Bergaust about Russia's seemingly enlightened attitude about women in space, especially when compared to that of the United States. "In a sense," she said, "women represent one of Russia's secret resources as far as the space program is concerned…. Ithink women can do better jobs than men in many areas of the space field." On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in history to be launched into orbit around the earth.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1964.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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