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Review: The First Space Race

From: SB&F (Science Books & Films) American Association for the Advancement of Science VOLUME 41, NUMBER 2 • MARCH/APRIL 2005

Bille, Matt, and Erika Lishock, with a foreword by James A. Van Allen. The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites. (Illus.) College Station, TX: Texas A&M, 2004. 214pp. $19.95. ISBN 1-58544-374-3. Index.

Reviewed by Roger D. Meicenheimer


This is a well-documented treatise of the people, events, and scientific discoveries that led to human beings’ initial excursion into near earth space. The intertwined competitive web of the three major engineering teams that existed in the first half of the 20th century and ultimately proved the practicality of the theoretical orbital mechanics espoused by Kepler and Newton is chronicled in this thoroughly researched and informative book.

The early contributions of Russia’s Tsiolkovsky and Korolev, America’s Goddard, and Germany’s Oberth and von Braun, which set the stage for modern rocket development, are examined. The transfer of the sophisticated V-2 rocket technology, to the United States via von Braun’s group, and to important V-2 sites in the USSR by many technicians who worked under him, at the end of WWII is described within the context of competition for military advantage, political influence, and technology superiority between the United States and the USSR. All of these factors served as critical driving forces underpinning technological advancement toward a permanent human presence in space as these nations advanced the space front of the Cold War.

That the U.S. effort was spread among various military and civilian groups, compared with the less diffuse Soviet effort, which ultimately allowed the USSR to achieve many “firsts” in the early space race, is critically examined. The extension of human knowledge that resulted from the Soviet Sputnik and the American Vanguard, Explorer, and classified NOTSNIK projects is succinctly described.

This book is a “must read” for anyone interested in an authoritative account of this critical period of space-flight development.

-Roger D. Meicenheimer, Miami University, Oxford, OH