Spaceflight didn’t start with Neil Armstrong, or even with Sputnik, as this well-researched account of the early days of rocketry makes clear.
In her debut, science journalist and blogger Teitel begins with the German rocket enthusiasts of the 1920s. Inspired by the science fiction of Jules Verne, Hermann Oberth kicked off the craze with a book touting the potential of rockets for getting human explorers off Earth. His writings became vital for a group of experimenters who spent the ’20s launching increasingly sophisticated rockets. By the 1930s, the German army was taking notice, and thanks to a loophole in the Treaty of Versailles, rocket research wasn’t prohibited. The main beneficiary was Wernher von Braun, a young engineer who was soon in charge of a Nazi program to create weapons that could bomb distant targets with no chance of interception. At war’s end, von Braun managed to find his way to American lines, hoping to get a chance to work on rockets for the victors. He became America’s top rocket man and eventually put the first American satellite in orbit. Teitel effectively captures the bureaucratic infighting among different branches of the armed services, and she offers interesting insights into lesser-known facets of the early space race, such as the high-altitude balloon program. She also provides solid coverage of the treatment of space exploration in the popular press—e.g., von Braun’s provocative series in Collier’s, a huge influence on how the next generation envisioned the conquest of space. The author excels at describing action, such as Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier or Joe Kittinger’s pioneering balloon ascent. She occasionally drops the ball—for example, skipping over the reasons for the failure of the much-ballyhooed Vanguard rocket in 1957—and she could have further explored how von Braun was responsible for the use of slave labor in the German V-2 program. However, the book is full of fascinating information on a central facet of 20th-century history.
A must-read for anyone interested in the early history of space exploration.