Categories: History, Non-Fiction
The Space Race is an exciting time in history for me, although somehow the implications of the Cold War on its development and how insanely tight the deadlines were completely went over my head until picking this up. All I had really absorbed in school were “cool space things” and a vague notion that this was going on during the Cold War.
Deborah Cadbury writes this incredibly interesting story as a thriller, and you follow both men (von Braun and Korolev) follow their dream of space at great cost, with lots of political and personal dramas, at times lauded as heroes or eyed with suspicion. While this makes for amazing storytelling, I had some issues with the portrayal of Wernher von Braun.
Korolev is a more obscure figure, he was not in the media as von Braun, nor publicly portrayed as the face of the space program. So it’s understandable that there was a lot more material from which to write von Braun from the perspective of the media, of the public, of the politicians, whereas Korolev’s story is told in a more neutral tone (which I much preferred). My issue with the portrayal of von Braun is exactly that: because he was the face of the space program and caused such awe in the public with his achievements, he’s very often in the book described in a biased manner.
His storyline starts with his work for the WWII military rocket program and has constant observations similar to “Oh maybe he was just too busy with work to think about the human cost of the slave labor”, and “He was just building the missiles but in fact his dream was space”, which is at best naïve and at worst, irresponsible. This separates his work for the Nazis from any affiliation to them, which is absurd. It’s possible that some of those observations were meant sarcastically by the author and I missed her tone, but this was an impression I had throughout the entire book so I suspect not. He often complains about the US public thinking of them as “the Germans” and “the Nazis” and I’m like, yeah no shit? You were literally building missiles for the Nazis in WWII using slave labor, not that long ago?
I had an old-ish edition, and I’m curious to see if some words have been updated on newer editions, like manned to crewed and so.
Apart from that, I really, really enjoyed this book. The first 50-100 pages drag on a little, but once the space race actually starts, this picks up pace and it’s such an interesting story. I am shocked at the kind of deadlines they had and the conditions, and the pressure Korolev was working under, the constant threats and political games in the USSR, as well as the US government doing whatever they could to erase von Braun’s and his team’s Nazi past. If it wasn’t for two powerful and paranoid nations threatening nuclear war on one another, who knows what would have happened to space technology, how much longer it would have taken for any kind of space program to be created at all.