From Death Row to the Moon

An Informal Conversation with Barys Kit

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Barys Kit is a 106-year-old Belarusian-American scientist, astrophysicist, physicist, mathematician, chemist, rocket scientist and developer of a space fuel based on liquid hydrogen which made moon flights possible for the United States. Mr. Kit’s name was included in a time capsule detailing the greatest scientists in the world of cosmonautics, which was immured in Washington DC. For several years now, Barys Kit has been living in a nursing home in Frankfurt, Germany.

OCA: Hello, Mr. Kit, how are you doing?
BK: I’m fine, thank you, I’m all right.

OCA: How is your life in Frankfurt?
BK: Pretty good; I’m pleased to be here. You see, I spent most of my life in the States, but also lived in Germany a lot, where conditions were very different for me. At the time when I came here after the WWII, Germany was conquered. Me and America made ourselves comfortable together here in Germany (laughs). But in the end, it turned out that I left, and it was in the United States that I found happiness.

OCA: Having such an incredible life story, what achievement would you call your greatest? What are you most proud of?
BK: As an astronautic, I was able to figure out how to use liquid hydrogen as a rocket fuel. The discovery of the viability of using liquid hydrogen was the gateway to further studies for many scientists. Prior to this, rockets rose into the air, but not so high, and through this breakthrough, we were able to make flights to the moon possible.

Another thing I am proud of are my sons, I believe that it’s right to be (laughs).

(He indicates a large family photo on the windowsill).
Now, see, this is my son, Vladimir. He was born in Belarus. He was an assistant to the head of the American space agency, NASA, but he died of cancer. To the left of this photo, this is my younger son, Victor. He became a famous surgeon in America.

OCA: What would you say was the most difficult period in your life?
BK: That’s easy; it was when I was in a German prison on death row. I spent thirty days in there. The cell held thirty inmates and every morning someone would come from the Gestapo to take out a few people to be shot. We were waiting for death every day, and we died again and again. I survived, however. I was saved by my student, Kastus. He then was hung by the Bolsheviks.

OCA: You are a person with a long and breathtaking history. How did you go from being a teacher in a small Belarusian village to become a world-renowned scientist? What was the most important step?
BK: I’ve always tried to move to places where I can learn and grow. In my case, it was the way to the West. Although it wasn’t only about developing myself, it was also an opportunity for me to survive (smiles). In 1944, many of us fled the Soviet Union because of the political situation.

OCA: Which factor contributed most to your success?
BK: It’s hard to say. God has always helped me. Life is hard, but if you don’t believe in God, life is just dark then, I think. I’m sure sooner or later scientists will prove the existence of God. If you believe in nothing, as the Communists did, that is a deeply unpleasant thing.

OCA: Do you consider yourself a role model? Do you have a motto?
BK: I do think that, to be honest, (laughs) although I don’t have a motto. Many adages come to mind and it’s difficult to single out one sentence. While I have my own principles, throughout my life I’ve sought to defend all people; I’ve never wanted to harm anyone. In my opinion, this is the most important thing: to be a good person, a happy person, and never seek to injure anyone.

OCA: What is the greatest value in life for you?
BK: I have two things. One is to teach people; I’ve always loved to teach young people. I was a professor to hundreds of talented students at a University in Germany. I was a teacher in Belarus, then in Germany, and in the US for a long time. The second thing is projects like Lunar. The discovery of liquid hydrogen gave me a lot in life, but not just me. The whole of humanity has risen because of this discovery.

OCA: What is the secret of your longevity? Can you give any piece of advice here?
BK: In fact, it doesn’t depend on me. In many ways, as you know, it’s genetics. But I also think that you just need to behave well in life. And in terms of diet, there’s no need to be glutinous. You just need to be a good person, enjoy every moment and try not to get into trouble.

OCA: The world has changed a lot since the time of your youth. What would you like to say to modern politicians?
BK: History is a complicated thing. These are different people, nations and politicians, each with their own pressing issues and priorities. Based on the fact that I had a chance to experience life in Germany and the United States after coming from a small village in the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union, I think democracy is the best form of government because people can develop and think for themselves. I would like to wish people in all countries – and in my historical homeland especially – freedom and happiness. To have competent, intelligent and distinguished leaders means a lot.

OCA: Mr. Kit, do you have friends here?
BK: Everyone is my friend here. I don’t really have enemies. All you need is to live in peace and help each other. So now you’re my friend too.

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