As a 30-plus-year veteran aerospace systems engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Semion Kizhner knows how to stare down a challenge and emerge victorious.
Kizhner has received accolades for projects he’s worked on, such as the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform, some of the first deep-space satellite communications; the Space Transportation System Program, a precursor to the International Space Shuttle program; the Hitchhiker Program that allowed fast-turnaround testing of electronics in space; Wfirst, a white infrared space telescope that will allow study of dark matter and dark energy; and, most recently, ADAPT “that will give us insight about the structure of cosmos,” he said.
The creative approach and perseverance in the face of adversity has served him well — outside of rocket science, too.
Kizhner, 75, small in stature with sparkling eyes and an impish grin, was born only months before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, including Kizhner’s village of Khotyn in western Ukraine on the Dneiper River. His entire village was sent to concentration camps, he said.
“I wasn’t a year old, but I do remember toys falling from the sky,” recalled Kizhner. “They were paratroopers from the Nazi army. … I ended up with my family in a concentration camp, where I was for four years until the Russian army liberated us.”
Kizhner lost his parents to the Holocaust, so his grandparents, of whom he speaks dearly, raised him. They had 13 children of their own, and only eight survived the war.
“Things happen in life — and nobody is that unique — but you must have the ability to change and adjust, not to be bitter and go on with your life,” he said.
“Change” and “adjust” became words to live by.
Seeing education as a way to transform his life, Kizhner left his village after seventh grade. He arrived in Chernovitz, Ukraine, where he studied and apprenticed at an industrial vocational school, earning a stipend. He graduated as a technician in construction materials with distinction, and that allowed him entry into any university without exams. Kizhner applied twice to one school until he finally understood what was happening.
“In the old county there were rules, and if you had certain things written in your documents, like where it says your nationality, if it was saying you’re Jewish, some schools were just closed,” he said.
Still determined, Kizhner went to Gorky State University in Moscow. It “happened to be a school that was preparing people to work on the space program” and he earned a degree in applied mathematics and cybernetics, a new discipline at the time. Kizhner had gone from speaking Hebrew and Yiddish in a small village, and studying Ukrainian and Romanian in middle school to going to a university, and perfecting his Russian and ultimately learning several computer languages.
“As I see it now, I changed my personality — or my being — drastically,” he said.
More change was on the horizon.
University graduates were required to work in exchange for free tuition. Because Kizhner finished at the top of his class, he had first choice, so he taught at the same university, but he also unloaded coal trains and dug trenches, he said, always working toward bettering his situation.
At the university he met “a beautiful Russian girl of Jewish descent,” he said. That girl, Sophia, is now his wife of 47 years. In 1974, the political climate changed, and colleagues and neighbors were immigrating to Israel.
“I woke up one morning and I said, ‘I’m not going to die in this country,’ and I applied for exit visas,” he recalled. “Three months from the day I woke up with that idea, I left.” The government was stripping Jews of their credentials upon emigration, “so I took all my books; my 4-year-old daughter, Helen; my wife, her mother and her brother,” he recalled. “Five mighty warriors crossed the frontier into Austria.” They were unsure of the destination.
They were directed toward a railway building where an American embassy representative waited.
“That person disappeared, and we were approached by representatives from JDC and HIAS,” he continued. “They took over and were in command from then to when we arrived in Baltimore.” Kizhner joined relatives in Baltimore.
“So when we came here, I changed once more, to a new culture, to a new language.”
HIAS directed Kizhner to Johns Hopkins University, where he tested out and qualified for master’s-level study. He completed a computer science master’s degree in 22 months. HIAS helped find him work, which led to a contract with Lockheed Martin at NASA Goddard. After the contract ended, Kizhner applied to NASA Goddard and got the job.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be involved in working on something challenging that is bigger than myself,” Kizhner said. “Here at NASA Goddard, we’re working on problems that are larger than I am. I’m always challenged.”
As an electronics subsystem architect, Kizhner leads and collaborates with teams that develop electronic devices to measure science phenomena including rainfall, ice, pollution, cosmic events, gamma ray events or X-ray events from space, he said.
“Everything that science is interested in, using in-orbit devices and instruments, we build the electronics systems that support that demand.”
At NASA Goddard, “the goal is to find a solution — be it an ugly solution, a very rude solution, we have to find a solution to the problem,” Kizhner said. “Then we’ll optimize and make it elegant and beautiful if cost allows. … And this is what attracts me.”
R. Scott Leszczynski, an aerospace engineer for Raytheon Corp. and former mentee of Kizhner, said in an email, “Semion takes a large problem and breaks its down into smaller pieces. He keeps plugging away … He is very patient. He doesn’t get discouraged, even if it takes him months or even years to determine a final solution.”
“He really cares about people,” said former mentee Katherine Heinzen, now an electrical engineer.
“He’s incredibly well-rounded. He’s so well read … and loves being outdoors, poetry and camping.”
Kizhner won a prestigious Silver Snoopy Award for his work, a distinction less than 1 percent of NASA employees receive, as well as three exceptional service medals.
“The first service medal belongs to Caledonia State Park, site 17, that’s where I got the ideas,” Kizhner said. “And the second one belongs to Caledonia State Park, site 57. You work wherever you are. You hike in the mountains or at a lake, and in a tent, when it’s raining, you sit there and there’s nothing to do and you get ideas.
“The mind, the human spirit, never stops.”
Melissa Gerr is acting managing editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times.