"A great and interesting life"

Boris Kit, world leading space scientist who turned 103, worked in standardization

Life’s course can be decided by a string of unexpected events and encounters, some lucky, others unfortunate. This has certainly been the case for world-renowned US space scientist, Boris Kit, who turned 103 on 6 April 2013. Kit's life has been shaped to a remarkable extent by the twists and turns of 20th century history. In December 2012 e-tech met Kit in Frankfurt, Germany, where he lives. He shared some of the striking episodes of what he described, rather unassumingly, as "a great and interesting life".

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Space scientist who worked in standardization was 103 on 6 April 2013

Eventful early years

Kit was born into a Belarusian family in Saint Petersburg, then capital of the Russian empire, in 1910. Following the Bolshevik revolution, the family left Russia in 1918 and moved to a village in western Belarus that was under Polish control at the time. Kit attended the local Polish school and later a Belarusian school in the town of Navahrudak.

After completing his secondary education Kit moved to Vilnius, Lithuania, which was then under Polish administration, to study at the Stefan Batory [Vilnius] University.

One small [side] step for a man, a significant leap for space research…

Queuing up to register for a history course Kit, tired of waiting, changed his mind and switched to the shorter line for enrolling in the mathematics course. Not the last or least significant chance decision or encounter in the life of that aspiring student.

After completing a master's degree in mathematics and physics, Kit embarked on a teaching career at the Belarusian college in Vilnius, before being appointed director of the college, aged just 29.

As Vilnius became part of Lithuania at the end of 1939, Kit returned to Belarus and became headmaster of Navahrudak Belarusian school. Later, as a school inspector of the regional district, he was instrumental in setting up hundreds of primary and secondary Belarusian schools.

Spent a month in jail

Following the Nazi invasion of Belarus and the USSR in June 1941, Kit continued his teaching work and even got permission to open a higher education school that managed to provide a university programme in spite of the German ban. Kit was arrested one day as German troops rounded up people in the street. Suspected of having contacts with the partisans he was thrown into jail. "Every evening they'd come and take some at random to be shot When I was released after a month, there were only 5 of us left!", he recalls.

Go West Young Man!

As the Red Army advanced, Kit fled to Germany with his young family. Settling in Munich, he studied medicine and taught mathematics at the Ukrainian school. In 1948 he immigrated to the US and worked first as a chemist in New Jersey.

"I always wanted to see California", he recalls, explaining his move to Los Angeles where he was employed as a chemist and pharmacist by various companies from 1950.

A chance encounter at a reunion of a local Polish organization was to change Kit's life. There he met a scientist. "He told me he had studied at Warsaw Polytechnic and asked me about my background,” Kit recalls. "When I told him I held a Master of mathematics from Vilnius University, he said: 'I work for North American Aviation; you're the kind of person we need – come join us!' Which I did."

At the time the company was working on the Navaho intercontinental missile project, but most test flights failed as "the company didn't have the right approach to ballistics and used the wrong fuel", Kit explains. The programme was cancelled in 1957 and some 10 000 scientists, engineers and technicians out of 13 000 were laid off, but Kit was kept on to work on other rocket and missile projects.

No minor rocket scientist

With his background in chemistry and his experience with North American Aviation, Kit realized the potential of liquid hydrogen as a rocket propellant and co-authored the first "Rocket Propellant Handbook", published in 1960 but still considered a seminal work on the topic.

As US-Soviet competition in the space and missile domains was hotting up, Kit's competencies as a leading scientist and fluent Russian speaker were particularly valued. In 1964 he published a second book, "USSR space program: Manpower, training and research developments".

"I worked then as a mathematician and systems analyst for three US government departments," he recalls: "the Departments of the Army, of the Air Force and the Space Administration [NASA]."

During his 25 years with the US space administration, Kit worked closely with Werner von Braun, the man often described as the leading architect of the US space programme. Kit was involved in many space projects, including the Apollo programme that culminated with six missions landing men on the moon. Kit also headed the first bilateral Soviet-US meeting that paved the way for the 1975 joint Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Multiple interests

In addition to, and often in parallel with, his extensive work in the space domain, Kit managed to maintain activities in other fields. He taught mathematics at the University of Maryland, worked for the Federal Highway Administration and other federal and state departments, and was involved in standardization in the US.

As US representative in many space, engineering and scientific circles, Kit said he enjoyed the opportunity of travelling the world and seeing many countries and cultures. 

Staying active is Kit's secret

In his 60s, Kit decided to pursue a career in Europe and started teaching mathematics at the European College of the University of Maryland in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1973.

The ever active and inquisitive Kit, not content with teaching, also embarked on doctoral studies and was awarded a PhD in 1983 for his thesis on the work of Polish-born Antoni Zygmund (1900-1992), an outstanding mathematician and professor at Vilnius University (1930-1939).

Kit strikes his visitors with his warmth, good humour and constant chuckles. He has an amazingly positive outlook on life, in spite of the many tragic events he witnessed and survived. He also maintains a keen interest in scientific matters, in particular in developments in the space domain, which he still follows closely. He told e-tech he kept informed by reading newspapers, mainly in English and Russian. Besides an active life, Kit's other secret to longevity is, as he told a German newspaper on his 100th birthday, that "he maintained a clear heart and conscience" throughout his life.

tech-4_Kit02 B Space scientist and erstwhile IEC expert was 103 on 6 April 2013
tech-4_Apollo_launch02_org Kit played a key role in the US space programme including the moon expeditions (Photo: NASA)
Kit_Book cover Books, articles and a museum in Belarus celebrate the "most famous living Belarusian"