A debut biography examines a groundbreaking rocket scientist.
It’s nearly impossible to overestimate the geopolitical significance of the intercontinental ballistic missile, a weapon that could deliver a catastrophic payload from the other side of the globe. The U.S. military, considering the pursuit of the missile quixotic, had essentially given up, but its development became imperative in the 1950s once the Soviet Union achieved one of its own. Karel Jan “Charlie” Bossart, trained as an aeronautical engineer, became the principal architect of the pertinent technology, briefly winning him some scientific acclaim. Bossart was born in Belgium, and his early experiences were formed by the convulsion that was World War I, and the ensuing German occupation of his homeland. He attended college in Brussels, and at the behest of his father obtained a degree in mining engineering. But he took an extracurricular course in aeronautical science, inspiring him to chase a master’s in the subject at MIT in defiance of his father. His true education in plane technology came after, at the Service Technique de l’Aéronautique Belge, and he then turned down a comfortable teaching job at Ghent University for an adventure in the United States. There he scored a job at the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, headed by one of the field’s greatest luminaries. Bossart would eventually work on a series of experimental planes during World War II, and would finally start to become acquainted with rocket technology, which had long been neglected in favor of heavy artillery as a tool of war. He ultimately headed Project Atlas, the scientific collaboration that produced America’s first ICBM. Mitchell’s historical research is impeccable, and his mastery of the relevant science is equally impressive. Especially considering the brevity of the work, it is remarkable in its scope; the author manages to provide brief histories of rocket technology, aeronautics, World War I and II, and the Cold War. Bossart emerges as a thoughtful innovator interested in much more than military supremacy: “Forget about the military applications of rockets for a minute, and think of all the peaceful applications: shooting mail from coast to coast by rocket, manned travel to Mars, interplanetary communications, better weather forecasting, detailed aerial maps.” Some of the science described is formidably difficult to comprehend, but Mitchell succeeds in making it as accessible as anyone could reasonably expect.
A meticulous portrait of an unjustly neglected figure in the history of American science.