Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Space Race – Deborah Cadbury *****

We have seen snippets of the story of the race to get people into space – and eventually to the moon – particularly about the way the US took in the Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun to kickstart its rocket programme – but this book provides a wonderful opportunity to see both sides of the story, and to uncover much more of the sometimes sordid details of what lay behind the race for space.
The first section opens up von Braun’s work in the Second World War. One small surprise is the deceitfulness of US intelligence, taking the essential information provided politely by the British, but failing to share anything in return and even rushing to grab documents from the British sector before their “allies” arrived. But the shocking impact comes from the realities of the slave labour camps used to build and man the secret factories for the V2 rocket weapons and the disgusting conditions the liberating armies found there.
Next comes the early days of the Russian side. Disadvantaged initially both by the rapid US removal of as much material as they could from what was about to become Russian controlled territory, and the Russians’ own terrible treatment of the man who would prove to be the driving force behind the Russian space programme, it’s quite amazing that they achieved as much as they did.
Once we get into the 1950s we are onto more familiar territory – but even so, this a wonderfully engaging telling of the US national shock that the Russians got there first with Sputnik, a Russian artificial satellite that seemed the equivalent of planting the red flag in space. Reinforced by being first to put a man (and woman) in orbit, it seemed only inevitable that Russia would also reach the moon first – and it’s real page turning stuff as we see just how close it was, and what a dramatic effort the US team put into getting the Apollo programme up and running. It’s nail biting all the way.
Although this is an excellent book, there was one small problem – it has been very shoddily proof read. A good number of pages have word break errors that cause irritation each time they come up. At one point two occur in sequential sentences: “The general was feeling benign for he had collected another important post: to his dis-tinguished list of titles had been added ‘General Commissioner for Turbojet Fighters.’ This required him to be away for a while he ex-plained, but von Braun was not to worry…”
But layout apart, this is a cracking story, well told. Those of us who can remember the excitement of the race for the moon can still recall that thrill – but we can now add a chilling context when we discover just how and where that expertise was born and bred. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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