If there’s one thing more difficult than making history interesting to a general audience, it’s writing a history of scientific achievement. While Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race is not a perfect work, it does a worthy job of telling the history of the race between the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve supremacy in space. Cadbury makes this more than dry science history by looking at the two programs from the standpoint of the two men leading the projects.
Space Race is a companion to a television series of the same name that aired on the BBC last year and is scheduled to air on the National Geographic Channel next month. Cadbury tells the story by alternating in each chapter between Wernher von Braun and the American program and the Soviet program during roughly the same time period with a focus on von Braun’s Soviet counterpart, Sergei Korolev.
While von Braun was appearing before television cameras and gracing magazine covers, Korolev was unknown even in his own country. The Soviet obsession with secrecy meant that he was known only as the “Chief Designer.” When Yuri Gagarin was honored in Red Square for being the first man in space, Korolev was not on the balcony or at the head table for the celebratory events. In fact, he never even made it to Red Square because his car broke down.
Cadbury uses this approach to take us from Korolev’s imprisonment in the Soviet gulag during the Stalinist purges and the race to find Nazi rocket scientists as World War II came to a close to Korolev’s death in 1966 and the ultimate success of America’s lunar program. Where Cadbury excels is in taking us inside Korolev’s life, work and struggles. Using some of Korolev’s personal archives, Cadbury helps us learn not only about the successes and failures in the Soviet program but also in the life of the man who directed it.
On the other hand, von Braun’s history is an area in which Space Race seems to suffer. The work often refers to von Braun’s Nazi ties and details the conditions of the slave and concentration camp labor used in the Nazi rocket program. At the same time, there is little definitive about the extent of von Braun’s involvement.
Similarly, while Cadbury tells a compelling tale of the search for the Nazi rocket scientists at the close of the war, there is little on the deals that were struck or the records that may have been destroyed as part of Project Paperclip, the name for the operation that brought Nazi rocket scientists to the United States. Perhaps no one really knows those details. If that is the case, Cadbury needed to be more clear, rather than throwing out sentences like, “Von Braun’s own secrets have only recently been unraveled.”
The fact Space Race is a companion to a television series also works against it at times. Television series episodes occasionally require repetition to remind viewers of what they saw in a prior installment or to educate new viewers. In the written word, though, material stays in memory or it is easy to look back.
Thus, for example, in discussing the ongoing difficulties faced in building larger rockets, it may not be necessary to tell the reader numerous times how the failure of fuel components to adequately mix can cause explosions in the fuel chamber and disastrous consequences.
In the greater scheme of things, however, these problems are minor compared to the way Cadbury personalizes this Cold War-fueled rivalry. While educating the reader on the technological and political problems facing these space programs, von Braun and Korolev serve to exemplify the struggle between their nations and the real people behind the programs. Particularly with Korolev, we see the single-mindedness and personal price exacted in this race and a perspective with which very few in the west are aware.