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Review: Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age

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Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age
by Jared S. Buss
University Press of Florida, 2017
hardcover, 336 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8130-5443-8

At the dawn of the Space Age 60 years ago, the public turned to a few key experts to better understand rockets and the promise—and threat—they posed to America. One, of course, was Wernher von Braun, the German rocket engineer who came to the country at the end of World War II after designing the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. There was, however, another German who was, at the time, arguably just as prominent in describing the nascent field of spaceflight: Willy Ley. Author of numerous books and articles, he had to many become the go-to figure to explain the potential of rockets and spacecraft.

In Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age, history professor Jared Buss examines the life of Ley, who has faded in the decades since the birth of the Space Age. “Willy Ley was the most important publicist of the American Space Age,” Buss writes in the book’s introduction, adding that readers “may feel bewildered” by the large number of books about people like von Braun but the lack of books about Ley. This book helps rectify that oversight.

“Willy Ley was the most important publicist of the American Space Age,” Buss writes.

Ley grew up in Germany, primarily with relatives (his father was in England when World War I broke out, and was interred there through the war.) Germany’s post-way financial crisis kept him from going to university full-time, so he worked and attended some classes, while finding other ways to satisfy his curiosity about the wider world. In 1925, he saw in a bookstore window the book The Advance into Space by Max Valier. “As far as I am concerned,” he later recalled of seeing that book, “the Space Age began.”

Ley pursued his newfound interest in spaceflight in two ways. He decided he could do a better job than Valier and others in explaining the subject, and started writing about it. But he wanted to be more than an observer, ultimately joining the German Rocket Society, known by its German acronym VfR. (While it’s been widely stated that Ley was a co-founder of VfR, Buss notes he was not heavily involved in the organization’s earliest years, in part because the up-and-coming science writer was branching out into other areas, like natural history and zoology.)

Ley remained involved with the VfR into the 1930s, as German public interest in rocketry rose and then faded, and as new individuals, like von Braun, came onto the scene. But when the Nazis took power, and rocketry became militarized, he decided it was time to leave the country, using the contacts he had made with rocketry societies in Britain and America to make his way to the United States.

Once in America, he continued both his interest in writing about rocketry (and many other topics, including science fiction) as well as trying to develop rocket engines. The latter was less successful: a series of tests of a small “rocket plane” for air mail in the mid-1930s barely got off the ground, and a company he joined near the end of World War II to work on sounding rockets failed to secure the government contracts it sought.

His writing, though, was far more successful. He had built up a reputation as an expert in rocketry over the years, and in 1949 wrote The Conquest of Space, with illustrations by Chesley Bonestell. The book was an “instant hit,” Buss notes, making Ley a leading expert in the public’s minds about the possibility of spaceflight just as the public was starting to become aware that spaceflight could soon no longer just be the stuff of science fiction.

Ley was involved in many efforts related to publicizing spaceflight in the 1950s, from updated editions of his books to articles to serving as a consultant for the TV series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. When the Chicago Sun-Times hired him to write a series of articles about space shortly after the launch of Sputnik, the newspaper published a full-page ad to promote it.

When the Chicago Sun-Times hired Ley to write a series of articles, the newspaper published a full-page ad to promote it.

Ley was less prominent in the 1960s, but Buss doesn’t agree with others who argued that his last years were a failure. Ley, while doing fewer articles and public talks about spaceflight, was still engaged as a writer, completing books on histories of astronomy and the “pre-history” of modern science. “If there is anything inherently sad about this last decade of his life, it is the fact that younger historians of science ignored his contributions,” he writes, as historians of science became more sophisticated in their studies of the field. Ley died of a heart attack less than a month before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.

In the book’s conclusion, which in part puts Ley’s career into a bigger picture of changing perspectives about science and society, Buss argues that Ley had a major role in the early Space Age. “In spite of his outsider status, he effectively retained the title of a ‘scientist’ and ‘rocket expert,’ who could educate millions of Americans about the field of rocketry and the cutting edge of space exploration,” he writes of Ley. “He should be remembered as one of the chief architects of the Space Age as well as the movement’s chief publicist.” Even publicists sometimes need a little publicity.