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One reads this exhaustively documented account of rocketry over four decades with a strange mixture of feelings. The rocket team, you see, is the German team, led by the indomitable Werner von Braun. For openers, we have von Braun's younger brother bicycling to the Americans near the war's end with the crazy story that a group of civilian scientists wants to surrender; they are in danger of being killed by the Germans themselves, as too valuable to lose. Then we backtrack to the Thirties when von Braun, barely out of high school, is already an acknowledged expert among amateur rocketeers. He and his fellows are soon plucked into the German army to form a new research team assigned to develop long-range missiles--what became the famous V2s. And so on to Peenemunde on an island in the Baltic and the war years--with improbable arrests of the Team by the Gestapo, visits by Hitler and Speer, rivalry between army and air force. Plus: absurdly limited intelligence by the British--who also refused to believe that the Germans would be foolish enough to work on rockets. Then, in the postwar U.S., we have the wonders of Huntsville and the glories of Cape Canaveral, with the Germans still sticking together, developing ever bigger and more powerful rockets climaxing in the Saturns that boost astronauts to the moon. In the immortal lines of the authors, ""A final solution to the German problem"" (they were, after all, a clannish lot) came in forced retirements, deaths, reassignments. . . and finally von Braun's own death in 1977, shortly after receiving the National Medal of Honor. Ordway and Sharpe can certainly be congratulated for getting the facts. They interviewed the principals on all continents, laboriously tried to declassify Top Secret and Secret documents, and provide believable anecdotes and dialogue. Theirs is straightforward reporting with accents on the statistics of each generation of rockets, all the mishaps, and some of the perhaps's. An ironic tale, though not for everyone--especially those not versed in the lingo of LOX, Thrust, and multistaging.

Pub Date: June 13th, 1979
Publisher: T. Y. Crowell