Books by Cadbury, Deborah

Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race. London: Harper Perennial, 2005. ISBN 0-00-720994-0.
This is an utterly compelling history of the early years of the space race, told largely through the parallel lives of mirror-image principals Sergei Korolev (anonymous Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, and beforehand slave labourer in Stalin's Gulag) and Wernher von Braun, celebrity driving force behind the U.S. push into space, previously a Nazi party member, SS officer, and user of slave labour to construct his A-4/V-2 weapons. Drawing upon material not declassified by the United States until the 1980s and revealed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the early years of these prime movers of space exploration are illuminated, along with how they were both exploited by and deftly manipulated their respective governments. I have never seen the story of the end-game between the British, Americans, and Soviets to spirit the V-2 hardware, technology, and team from Germany in the immediate post-surrender chaos told so well in a popular book. The extraordinary difficulties of trying to get things done in the Soviet command economy are also described superbly, and underline how inspired and indefatigable Korolev must have been to accomplish what he did.

Although the book covers the 1930s through the 1969 Moon landing, the main focus is on the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s. Out of 345 pages of main text, the first 254 are devoted to the period ending with the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard in 1961. But then, that makes sense, given what we now know about the space race (and you'll know, if you don't already, after reading this book). Although nobody in the West knew at the time, the space race was really over when the U.S. made the massive financial commitment to Project Apollo and the Soviets failed to match it. Not only was Korolev compelled to work within budgets cut to half or less of his estimated requirements, the modest Soviet spending on space was divided among competing design bureaux whose chief designers engaged in divisive and counterproductive feuds. Korolev's N-1 Moon rocket used 30 first stage engines designed by a jet engine designer with modest experience with rockets because Korolev and supreme Soviet propulsion designer Valentin Glushko were not on speaking terms, and he was forced to test the whole grotesque lash-up for the first time in flight, as there wasn't the money for a ground test stand for the complete first stage. Unlike the “all-up” testing of the Apollo-Saturn program, where each individual component was exhaustively ground tested in isolation before being committed to flight, it didn't work. It wasn't just the Soviets who took risks in those wild and wooly days, however. When an apparent fuel leak threatened to delay the launch of Explorer-I, the U.S. reply to Sputnik, brass in the bunker asked for a volunteer “without any dependants” to go out and scope out the situation beneath the fully-fuelled rocket, possibly leaking toxic hydrazine (p. 175).

There are a number of factual goofs. I'm not sure the author fully understands orbital mechanics which is, granted, a pretty geeky topic, but one which matters when you're writing about space exploration. She writes that the Jupiter C re-entry experiment reached a velocity (p. 154) of 1600 mph (actually 16,000 mph), that Yuri Gararin's Vostok capsule orbited (p. 242) at 28,000 mph (actually 28,000 km/h), and that if Apollo 8's service module engine had failed to fire after arriving at the Moon (p. 325), the astronauts “would sail on forever, lost in space” (actually, they were on a “free return” trajectory, which would have taken them back to Earth even if the engine failed—the critical moment was actually when they fired the same engine to leave lunar orbit on Christmas Day 1968, which success caused James Lovell to radio after emerging from behind the Moon after the critical burn, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Claus”). Orbital attitude (the orientation of the craft) is confused with altitude (p. 267), and retro-rockets are described as “breaking rockets” (p. 183)—let's hope not! While these and other quibbles will irk space buffs, they shouldn't deter you from enjoying this excellent narrative.

A U.S. edition is now available. The author earlier worked on the production of a BBC docu-drama also titled Space Race, which is now available on DVD. Note, however, that this is a PAL DVD with a region code of 2, and will not play unless you have a compatible DVD player and television; I have not seen this programme.

October 2007 Permalink