Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review - A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins by Michael D'Antonio

Short review: The Russian launch of Sputnik signals the beginning of the space race.

Sputnik plus a dog
Kick the U.S. into gear
To reach outer space

Full review: A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins is a tightly focused history concerning the brief time period between the launch of the first Sputnik satellite by the U.S.S.R. and the formation of NASA as an effective agency of the U.S. government responsible for space exploration. Looking back from a perspective of more than fifty years, D'Antonio recounts the heady first days, from the quick succession of Soviet public relations triumphs in the early going of the space race, to the mixed response in the U.S., past the inter service rivalries that characterized the early U.S. space efforts, and finally to the creation of NASA to marshal the U.S. effort into a unified front that, as history shows, allowed the U.S. to leap past their Soviet rivals in technological prowess and claim the Cold War prestige of being the dominant player in space exploration.

The book starts with the launch of Sputnik I, a tiny piece of hardware that amounted to little more than a ball with a radio transmitter. D'Antonio then takes the subsequent events in more or less chronological order, detailing the combination of fear, admiration, hysteria and indifference that Americans displayed in response to this Soviet achievement. D'Antonio puts the Sputnik I launch into historical perspective, but also details how Stalin sought to leverage it for public relations and why the Eisenhower administration's response, at first, seemed to be little more than a yawn. Taking events more or less in chronological order, the book then describes the Soviet follow up to launch the dog Laika in Sputnik II and points out the huge consternation caused by the now little-remembered fact that Laika's trip was, from its inception, a one way ticket to the dog's demise. And D'Antonio details why the U.S. government's response to Laika's fate was muted, due to its own use of animals in aircraft and rocket testing. But where the story really gains traction is when D'Antonio recounts the bitter feuding between the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy over which service would take precedence in the U.S. space effort, and Eisenhower's determination that the primary U.S. effort should be civilian, and not military in nature. Focusing on outsize personalities like the egotistical General Bruce Medaris and the officially sanitized ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun, the story shows how unfocused and haphazard U.S. efforts were, and how this inter service conflict served to hinder U.S. efforts, and diminish the civilian NACA (National Committee for Aeronautics) at a time when it should have been pushed to the forefront.

D'Antonio assembles a collection of impressive resources, ranging from government documents to media reports, and interviews with a wide variety of people who were involved in the early U.S. space program, from those intimately connected with the program, to reporters who covered it, to those who were only tangentially involved by being at the right place at the right time. Some, such as the reports of Bradford Whipple, among the first to hear Sputnik I as it orbited the globe, and who was involved in a strange clandestine theft of Sputnik I from the Soviet pavilion at the world's fair, or the accounts given by Cocoa Beach resident Roger Dobson whose family owned a trailer park where many of the early rocket engineers who worked on what would become Cape Kennedy made their homes give a very human feel to what could have been a story dominated by political infighting, cold war paranoia, and engineering reports. Others, such as Jay Barbree, a reporter in the Florida area who covered all of the rocket launches serve to give a perspective on the media response to the repeated U.S. failures, and the handful of triumphs. Among the more interesting elements of the book is the information concerning Wernher von Braun's past as an SS officer directing the construction and use of the V-2 rockets in World War II, and the efforts made by the U.S. government to sanitize and hide his past and true involvement in war crimes (and the involvement of many of the other German rocket engineers brought to Huntsville, Alabama to work on rockets for the U.S. Army). Even with the perspective of fifty years distance, it seems almost shocking that a man who was directly responsible for selecting concentration camp inmates to work as slave labor to build missiles could have his image rehabilitated to such an extent that he would appear in Disney specials espousing the wonderful future that space travel would bring to the U.S. populace.

The most important element of this book is that it covers a time period in U.S. history that is cloaked in nostalgia and recounts it with all its glories and flaws with an unflinching eye. Sweeping away the nostalgic vision of a happy America presided over by the grandfatherly Eisenhower, D'Antonio recounts how Democrats such as Lyndon Johnson jumped at the chance to score political points at the expense of a seemingly out of touch Eisenhower (whose health problems, including a minor stroke, went unreported). Also breaking up the idyllic view of the era is the treatment of women and minorities (despite most of the rocket research being done in the South, minorities are almost completely absent from the book, and oddly, one of their strongest advocates is ex-Nazi von Braun). Most accounts of the U.S. space program, such as The Right Stuff, more or less begin with Project Mercury, with NASA already an established fact, and the rocket program already well on its way. A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey, in contrast, ends with project SCORE, an unmanned launch of an Atlas rocket intended to do little more than show that the U.S. could throw four thousand pounds of payload into orbit just after NASA had been created, but before it had actually pulled together all the elements that would eventually make up the space agency (including von Braun's rocket research group, explicitly blocked from joining NASA by the Secretary of the Army). The account in this book, demonstrating the repeated and frustrating failures to even successfully fuel some of the rockets that the U.S. expected to use to get itself into space puts into perspective the truly brilliant triumphs of the later years, and how it seems almost a miracle that there were no human fatalities on any of the launch vehicles until Apollo 1. Reading this history makes it seem almost amazing that only twelve years separate the fitful and halting efforts described in this narrative and Apollo 11.  Anyone interested in the history of the U.S. space program should read this account of its painful birth of NASA and first feeble steps taken on the path that eventually led to the Moon.

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