Forgotten space pioneer Ary Sternfeld was father of modern aerospace engineering
This week sees the 21st annual World Space Week, an event described by the organisers as "an international celebration of science and technology, and their contribution to the betterment of the human condition.”
But, if it weren’t for a Polish engineer born in a small town northwest of Łódź, there might have been no annual celebration - ever.
You may never have heard of him, but Ary Abramovich Sternfeld is considered the father of modern aerospace engineering and is also credited with introducing the word cosmonaut to our vocabulary.
Born in the town of Sieradz, on May 14th, 1905, Sternfeld was the author of the theory behind the flights of multistage rockets (those that require several detachable components to launch), devised the principles that allowed them to break through the atmosphere, calculated the trajectories of interplanetary flights and optimized them due to fuel consumption, engine thrust, capacity, overload and other parameters.
And all this he did before a single satellite had been launched into space. If that wasn’t enough, Sternfeld’s calculations had an error margin smaller than one percent. Oh, and he has a moon crater named after him too.
Sternfeld’s technical and mathematical talent was evident from an early age. As a child, he constructed a device for measuring the force of breaking an egg shell. During World War I, after the entire family moved to Łódź and he attended a Jewish Gymnasium he began to come up with his first ideas about implementing spaceflight.
After studying philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Kraków he moved to France and enrolled in the École nationale supérieure d'électricité et de mécanique L’ENSEM in Nancy to study engineering.
His time in France was the beginning of his serious work on what would became the foundation of space exploration. Sternfeld wrote and published ”Initiation a la cosmonautique” (Introduction to cosmonautics) there. He received the REP-Hirsch Award for it 1934.
The following year, he and his wife moved to Moscow where he joined the Jet Propulsion Scientific Research Institute (RNII), working on rocket dynamics and robots for space exploration – androids.
However, he managed to stay there for only for two years. With the Stalinist purges going on at that time, Sternfeld was lucky to lose only his job. During World War II, he and his family evacuated to the city of Serov in the Ural.
While Sternfeld’s work remains largely forgotten, it was only in the last years of his life that he received some recognition from the Soviet authorities for his input into the orbital mechanics.
He died in Moscow in 1980. Although the engineer never worked on the Soviet space programme, there are some traces of him outside of our planet.
One of the moon craters is named after him, and his name is commemorated with nine others on a bronze plaque that left the solar system in 2019 on board NASA’s New Horizon space probe.