Kevin Orrman-Rossiter Reviews Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA
Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA by Amy Shira Teitel
Breaking the chains of gravity provides an entertaining account of German rocketry efforts in the 1930s and 1940s and US spaceflight post World War II and up to the formation of NASA in 1958. The development, by Werner von Braun and his team, of the V2 rocket that was used in the latter part of the World War II to bombard English civilian targets covers early chapters. The artifice that von Braun used in the closing weeks of the war in Europe to ensure their capture by the Americans rather than the Russians is told in a breathtaking chapter – without too much analysis of why this was the chosen path.
If Teitel added just one word to the title of this book I would have found it more acceptable. If the book was called Breaking the chains of gravity: the story of US spaceflight before NASA I would have approached it with a whole different expectation. This is important for non-fiction books – as the genre name implies. As a reader and reviewer of non-fiction books I expect the combination of author and publisher to be honest about the contents of their work. How much can I trust the detail content if they misrepresent the whole book in the title?
The story of German rocketry is told as a necessary explanation to the subsequent US story. What this misses out on is the parallel development by Sergei Korolev, “The Chief Designer”, who started developing rocket engines in Russia in the 1930s and is acknowledged by many as the father of astronautics. He led the Russian design of rockets originally based on the German V2 rockets. However by 1953 the development by led by Korolev, the Russians had disbanded the German teams that were captured at the end of World War II and repatriated these German engineers and their families. The story of spaceflight, prior to the successes of NASA in the late 1960’s is very much driven by both the real and imagined superiority of this Russian space program. This story is dryly presented in Asif A. Siddiqi’s Sputnik and the Soviet space challenge. For completeness it should also be noted that the British used captured German V2 technology to develop their own missile program; most successfully resulting in development in 1955, and deployment in 1963 of the Blue Steel missile.
Teitel gives a fascinating account of the internecine warfare between the post-World War II US Army, Navy and Air force for control of the development of rocketry, guided missiles, supersonic flight and von Braun’s grand dreams of manned space exploration. The shifting sands of influence and funding for the various programs make for entertaining history. But none of this is new. A great disappointment of this book is that Teitel brings nothing new to the table with this book – neither facts nor analysis nor synthesis of narrative. It is a tertiary history book, relying on secondary sources rather than any analysis or citing of original primary material. This is quite disappointing for an author who self-professes to be a science-journalist.
This method results in a story that has many names that are probably familiar, even to someone who is aware only of the latter NASA moon race. Make no mistake though, despite the familiarity of many of the names, the Russians made more firsts than the US: first into space, first animals into space, first satellites into space, first man into space, and first woman into space. The US was the laggard – spaceflight prior to the moon-race is a multi-faceted story. This book is a well written and a good, if somewhat one-sided introduction, to early space exploration – for those who are unfamiliar with the pre-NASA story.
Kevin Orrman-Rossiter is a freelance science writer and reviewer. His writing has features in COSMOS magazine, Books&Publishing, and online on Australian Science lucid thoughts and dragon laughing . Originally studying physics, Kevin had a successful research career, reaching the heady heights of an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellow, then after being lured into the fascinating world of industry research, he ended up some years later, in marketing and strategy. When not writing, reviewing, or reading books to review, Kevin is now found; forming links between Australian industry and researchers at the University of Melbourne, reading (what a lovely quaint term) History & Philosophy of Science at University of Melbourne, and, in defiance of ageing