A genial look at the earliest days of the space race.
With the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit the earth, the Soviet Union delivered arguably the most severe psychological blow of the Cold War. Keeping other failed attempts quiet, the Russians quickly followed up this propaganda victory with two more satellites, one carrying the camera-friendly dog Laika. With a light and companionable touch, Pulitzer Prize–winner D’Antonio (Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, 2006, etc.) examines a shaken America’s answer to this challenge. Predictably, ambitious politicians criticized Eisenhower for allowing America to lag. Competitive military services squabbled among themselves while U.S. scientists went quietly to work. Chief among them were dogged James Van Allen, discoverer of radiation belts surrounding the globe; intense Nicholas Christofilos, responsible for the first big experiment in space, albeit one requiring the detonation of atomic bombs; and brilliant Wernher von Braun, the erstwhile German rocketeer so indispensable that the government quietly airbrushed his Nazi past. (For more on this, see Michael J. Neufeld’s Von Braun, 2007.) The story’s charm, however, lies in D’Antonio’s evocation of the average American’s response to the dawning space age, which makes a nice contrast to Matthew Brzezinski’s big-man approach in Red Moon Rising (2007). The public evinced a mixture of dread—it’s no accident that this period brought a rash of UFO sightings—and excitement that ranged from the provincial boosterism of rocket-building Huntsville, Ala., to the wide-open, boomtown atmosphere of Cocoa Beach and rocket-firing Cape Canaveral, Fla. Within two years America caught up, launching four satellites and one monkey named Gordo. Ahead lay the formation of NASA, the beginning of the manned space program and momentous triumphs almost obliterating the fumbled beginning, when the failure of a Vanguard rocket launch allowed critics to cry, “Flopnik.”
Recovers for a new generation the thrill of a pioneer quest and the spirit of an age that already seems like ancient history.