As a 30-plus-year veteran aerospace systems engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Semion Kizhner knows how to stare down a challenge and emerge victorious.
The Owings Mills resident 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 and its allied powers 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 of 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 and never looked back. 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 entrance to 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 that “happened to be a school that was preparing people to work on the space program” and earned a degree in applied mathematics and cybernetics, a new discipline at the time. Kizhner had evolved from speaking Hebrew and Yiddish in a small village, studying Ukrainian and Romanian in middle school, going to 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 with a big smile, now his wife, Sophia, of 47 years, and they had their first child, Helen. 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 and five mighty warriors crossed the frontier into Austria,” he said, unsure of the destination.
People met refugees at the Vienna train station offering immigration to Israel, Kizhner recalled, but then “an Austrian officer came up to us and said, ‘These people are too pushy — you’re in a free world now, you can go to the moon. It’s up to you.’”
The officer directed the family toward a railway building where an American embassy representative waited.
“They asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’” Kizhner recalled, chuckling over the memory. “So I said France. I didn’t know — it was close, and I like hiking; they got very mad, because France was an impossible option.” He asked about other options — Canada? Australia? “They said no. So I said United States, and they said ‘OK, this is possible.’
“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,” where Kizhner would join relatives.
Ever since I remember, I wanted to be involved in working on something challenging, that is bigger than myself. Here at NASA Goddard we’re working on problems that are larger than I am. I’m always challenged. — Semion Kizhner
The family arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport on April 22 at 2 a.m., he said, then traveled to Baltimore the next day where HIAS settled them into an apartment.
“So when we came here I changed once more, to a new culture, to a new language.”
Stripped of his professional credentials upon exiting Russia, HIAS directed Kizhner to Johns Hopkins University, where he tested out and qualified for master’s-level study. He worked hard and completed a computer science master’s degree in 22 months, considerably less than the five years he was quoted. HIAS helped find him work, which led to a contract with Lockheed Martin at NASA Goddard. After the contract ended, Kizhner applied and got the job.
“Ever since I 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 such as 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. I’m forever obligated to NASA [for] giving me challenging assignments and challenging problems, but when NASA poses a problem, it comes with means to do it — money resources, equipment, laboratories, teams. … We’ll go to the edge of the universe to find a solution, and if it exists, we’ll find it. This is our challenge.”
Kizhner, who feels “forever indebted to this country,” paid back every dollar of assistance he and his family received from HIAS and gives back to his work and community via mentoring as well.
R. Scott Leszczynski, an aerospace engineer for Raytheon Corporation and former mentee of Kizhner’s, said via 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’s 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.”