Review: Space Race
by Taylor Dinerman
|This book is largely a simplistic exercise in building up Sergei Korolev’s reputation by tearing down von Braun’s.|
Von Braun began his career building rockets for the weak democracy of Weimar and ended it building them for America. In between, during the years 1933 to 1945, he served the German National Socialist government with the same mix of enthusiasm and opportunism that he’d brought to his work for Weimar and later for the US. His behavior was little different from that of millions of other Germans: often despicable but mostly the normal actions of a ordinary citizen of a totalitarian state. The only difference was that he was developing rockets, revolutionary weapons that could potentially lead to the colonization of the solar system.
It might be interesting to imagine what von Braun’s career might have been like if he had not been interested in rockets and spaceflight. Perhaps, like many of his fellow German aristocrats, he might have ended his life strangled by a piano-wire noose after the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944? Might he have commanded an armored unit on the Eastern front, or have been one of Eichmann’s flunkies implementing the murder of Europe’s Jews?
It was his work with rockets that made him what he was and led him to throw his lot in with America after the war. Cadbury implies that there was something shameful about America’s effort to collect as many technical and scientific secrets from the ruins of the Third Reich as possible, particularly about the US Army’s refusal to share the results of this project with its British allies. However, any American with access to the London papers at the time knew that Britain was in the middle of a big wet sloppy love affair with “Uncle Joe Stalin” and the USSR. Over all, Britain’s politico-literary intellectual attitude towards the US was summed up nicely by George Orwell as, “a whole string of petty insults”.
|Even without Sputnik and Gagarin, and even without Von Braun, it is likely that the US would have launched some sort of space exploration program in the 1960s. The appeal of a new frontier is too deeply engrained in America’s cultural DNA for it to have been otherwise.|
The author seems to be carrying on in that tradition. It leads her to make some questionable judgments; for example, she references some of the best secondary sources on the origins of America’s spy satellites, but she fails to explain that the Eisenhower administration was far more interested in the comprehensive coverage of the USSR that spy satellites could deliver than in the secondary or even tertiary question of the “freedom of space”. The shock of Sputnik and the administration’s attempt at a low-key response was based in part on the fact that the American people had a better imagination than their government.
Von Braun had plenty of imagination. He also had both a strong sense of what the US public wanted the future too look like. His articles in Colliers and his appearances on ABC’s Disneyland show would never have had the effect they did if he had not been tapping into the deep desire on the part of a significant number of Americans for a new frontier.
The Apollo program was not simply something that von Braun sold to Kennedy and Johnson, it was a rational political and technological response to the Soviet Union’s early success in the space race. It would never have been carried out unless it matched a real but intangible element in the body politic. Even without Sputnik and Gagarin, and even without Von Braun, it is likely that the US would have launched some sort of space exploration program in the 1960s. The appeal of a new frontier is too deeply engrained in America’s cultural DNA for it to have been otherwise.
Her lack of understanding of this element in American culture prevents this book from being the thorough, up-to-date history of the US-Soviet competition in space that we still need. Today, it looks as if Russia under Putin is not going to be the friend and ally that so many Americans had hoped Russia would become after 1991. Cadbury hints at the combination of weakness and bluster that characterizes so much of Russia’s foreign policy, but her admiration for the Soviet achievement tends to detract from the value of her observations.