Friday, September 27, 2013

The moon is as big as a basketball

The "space race" was actually a byproduct of the "arms race" between the USA and USSR and had its beginnings in Nazi Germany. In September 1944, Hitler's army began launching V-2 rockets, the world's first ballistic missiles, against Britain. And when the war ended the Americans and Soviets quickly spirited away any bit of this new technology they could find, including the scientists and engineers who had developed it.

But while America subsequently pursued a strategy of long-range bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, the USSR began a missile program which couldn't be defended against like a squadron of flying planes could be. The genius behind their program was a Soviet engineer named Sergey Korolev (or Korolyov) but known outside a very small circle only as the "Chief Designer." After getting the rockets to work he convinced Nikita Khruschev to pursue the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, and on October 4, 1957 Sputnik was launched. But while most leaders in both countries dismissed it as a ridiculous waste of resources, the public was fascinated and terrified by this newly demonstrated capability of the Russians. It quickly turned into a public relations coup.

But Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age isn't just a history of the beginnings of the space program. Matthew Brzezinski delves into the internal politics of both the Soviet Union and the United States, and that is perhaps the strongest part of the book. From Khruschev and the Kremlin to Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon, the politics of the space race are discussed in detail which never became boring. He also mixes in relevant side stories, such as the U-2 spy planes which so infuriated Khruschev, as well as Korolev's rivalry with Valentin Glushko, another brilliant Soviet rocket scientist. Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi developer of the V-2 who later helped Walt Disney pitch Disneyland's Tomorrowland on ABC television, became the head of America's missile program, and is a central part of the American story.

Brzezinski's story-telling skills are superb, and although news from NASA has became fairly mundane, he takes the political intrigue and technological setbacks behind the scenes and turns it into a gripping narrative. You could feel the exhilaration at the successful launch of Sputnik, and the disappointment when the American Vanguard rocket exploded on the launch pad. Alternating back and forth between the Soviets and the Americans, he keeps the information and action flowing fast. If you liked Annie Jacobsen's Area 51 or just enjoy Cold War history this book will become one of your "all-time most favorite books ever," too.

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