Amid the current spate of books concerning the 1960s comes this dramatic retelling of humanity’s first steps on its journey into space. Its starting point is World War II, where in Germany, a young Wernher von Braun is perfecting the design of the V2 rocket that will carry a new wave of destruction to London; and in Russia, Sergei Korolev, the man destined to be the inspiring genius of the Soviet space program, is released from the Gulag (on the instructions of Lavrenti Beria) to do his bit in the struggle against the Nazis.
There can be few episodes in recent history quite as exciting as this, and Deborah Cadbury does justice to the subject matter with a detailed narrative rich with personality and colour.
All the major landmarks, political and scientific, are here: the struggle for supremacy within the Kremlin following Stalin’s death; the crises that beset President Kennedy’s administration.
The major players are drawn, warts and all, with varying degrees of sympathy. In the space of half a dozen paragraphs this reviewer learnt more about Yuri Gagarin, for example, than in a hundred newspaper stories about this Hero of the Soviet Union. And while the author ultimately leaves the figure of von Braun ambiguously positioned among the colossal misdeeds of his original Nazi employers, she makes no secret of her admiration for Korolev and offers the reader no room for doubt about the privations he was compelled to endure and overcome to take his nation to the brink of triumph in this 25-year struggle for the dominance of space.
Be warned, however, that there is little science here.
Beyond the occasional and perfunctory discussion of competing rocket or fuel types, this history of science is disappointingly bereft of any scientific perspective. The compensation is, however, a well-penned social and political history of one of the periods that have shaped out planet.
Don’t miss Space Race.