Book Review: Space Race

History isn’t the recitation of facts and dates. It’s about bringing to life the spirit and passion of those who’ve gone before. Deborah Cadbury in her book “Space Race – The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space” shows the power and grace of reliving bygone events. With her book, returning to those bygone days is great fun.

The space race grew from the insecurities of two nations. Both the United States and the Soviet Union feared attack from each other, especially from the horrible new weapon, the atomic bomb. For as World War II brought a boom in technology, it also brought amazing new ways to destroy. Thus, with little communication between each other, the two nations perceived real and imaginary events and twisted them into cries for supremacy. Thus, in a case of both fearmongering and politicising, the two nations embarked on a course to master the new arena of space.However, the belief in humankind’s ability to access space came as a direct result of German inventiveness during World War II. As such, Cadbury starts her book with the events at Peenemunde in the early 1940s. She writes how, at that location, Von Braun and many others engineered and flew the first ballistic rockets. Her writing stays focussed upon individuals as they tried to escape the onrushing front lines while at the same time deciding on what to do after the inevitable German loss. She shows how many of the Germans who went to the United States stayed together and remained a core for the Apollo program, though they had to wait 15 years for it to begin. She also shows how the Soviets effectively absorbed the information from the Germans, then replaced them with their own citizens. From this starting point, she follows a chronological path that ends with the Apollo lunar landings.

Though Cadbury includes many historical facts, these appear as antecedents. Rather, her writing breathes life back into the principal characters, especially Sergei Korolev. For example, she writes about his savage treatment in a gulag camp followed not too many years later by a meeting with Stalin. Even though Stalin was arguably the person responsible for his incarceration, the meeting remained focussed on the Soviet’s space program. She also describes personal relationships of Korolev as well as some less pleasant business ones such as with Glushko. With most of her spotlight on Korolev, Cadbury considers others, including von Braun, more in counterpoint. Therefore, though the title implies a space race between nations, the book is more a description of a few people’s almost super human drive to enable humanity to fly into space.

To support the presentation of history as a fast flowing narrative, Cadbury uses a first person presence to describe events. She describes a rocket that majestically rises from Baikonur but then explode in a shower of sparks that cover the immediate desert area in hot scraps of metal. Given this flowery prose, the reader can easily forget they are reading a non-fictional work. However, Cadbury includes enough technical details and a solid bibliography, especially with ex-Soviet sources, that the reader will remain convinced of its accuracy.

Because of this, Cadbury’s book falls into the popular history genre. It’s accurate, but also pleasant to read. As a results, there’s no desire to memorize facts, yet the spirit of the participants will remain with the reader. It’s a great read for those looking for a book on real life adventures. It’s also worthwhile for those wanting to learn more about the lives of people who participated in the space race between the two nations, especially for those interested in people of the Soviet Union. As well, perhaps because Cadbury is neither from the Soviet Union nor the United States, there is almost no nationalist fervour between the covers, which may add even more pleasure for some readers.

Great events in history makes for great stories. Deborah Cadbury’s book Space Race – The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space is a great story on a great subject. Though not a physical battle, this conflict was a battle of wits and engineering. And this book brings history and technology of a great event into a fun, warm book.

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