Monday, 6 June 2016

Book Review: Who Really Won the Space Race?

Thom Burnett, Who Really Won the
Space Race?
  Conspiracy Books (2005)

The first thing to say about this book is that it's not some loony conspiracy theory.

I don't normally have to start reviews saying that, but at first glance the signs aren't favourable: there's the publisher (an imprint of Collins and Brown); the racy title (my edition also has the cover strap-line 'uncovering the conspiracy that kept America second to the Russians') and the fact that Thom Burnett 'Is a pseudonym for one of Britain's leading experts on security and military matters.  Having served with UK Special Forces* in the 1990s, he is now a researcher and writer."  So I stated reading this half in the expectation of giving up in disgust after the first chapter. but because it's a subject that interests me.

*Why is it always the Special Forces?  Why not 'having served in the Logistics Corps, he knows his stuff'?

The second thing that needs pointing out is that the 'Space Race' of the title is the early space race - the book is only interested in the period up to the launch  of America's first satellite Explorer 1 on 31 Jan 1958 - three months after Sputnik 1 and two after Sputnik 2.

Burnett takes as his starting point Bob Hope's gag that Sputnik was nothing to be worried about because it "simply means that the Russian's Germans are better than our Germans" and, more seriously, President Eisenhower's statement that since the Russians had captured all the Peenemünde rocket scientists in 1945 they had been in a better position to concentrate on rocketry.  As Hope's joke shows, even American popular culture knew this to be untrue.  Burnett's story therefore an account of 'our Germans' and why they didn't make it to space before the Russians.

The first third of the book is taken up with an account of  British, American and Soviet attempts first to find information, and later to capture material, on the V-2 ballistic missile programme, based in Peenemünde on the German Baltic coast.  The accounts of various (and competing) attempts by the allies in the immediate post-war period to reconstruct and test V-2's makes interesting reading, as does the story of how the Americans spirited away train-loads of materiel and hundreds of personnel from under their allies' noses* in contravention of previous agreements.

*Not just the Soviets, but the British and French too.

No Nazis here.
von Braun with Walt Disney, 1954
The purpose of all of this wasn't space exploration of course, but to perfect ballistic (and later, inter-continental) missiles.  Burnett runs through the well-known story of Operation Paperclip, which sought to bring German scientific expertise to the United States.  Alongside this he also tells us of the Soviet equivalent, though perhaps unsurprisingly, the Soviets were less willing to overlook the war-crimes committed by their experts.  As a result of this - and because it was always the Soviet intention that 'their' Germans be repatriated at the end of the contracts laid out in the reparation agreements* - German scientists and technicians in the East were not allowed to do original research or even to see how their work was being used.

*An information-gathering exercise - Operation Returning Dragon - existed to pump the returnees for information on Soviet missile programmes.  The Western intellegence agencies were astounded by how little the scientists knew about life outside their enclave.

In contrast, the von Braun group (who had gone to great lengths to ensure that they ended up in the American camp) were purged of their Nazi past, fast-tracked into American citizenship and given key positions in the American missile programmes.  From his position in the US Army's rocket programme, von Braun now sought to press for, and publicise, the peaceful uses of rocketry*.  Which brings us to the next part of the tale...

*As we all know, von Braun "aimed for the stars" but sometimes missed and hit London instead.

In 1950, several scientists proposed that in order to encourage scientific endeavour, it would be a good idea to have an International Geophysical Year (IGY) along the lines of previous International Polar Years.  The IGY, which ran for 18 months* from July 1957 to December 1958 was soon a battlefield in the Cold War.  The reason for holding the IGY at that time was that it was a period of increased solar activity: one of the aims of the proposers of the IGY was to encourage the launch of artificial satellites.  The Superpowers saw a chance to further their own interests - the Soviets were interested in developing rockets that could deliver ICBMs and the Americans in the development of spy satellites** - while at the same time gaining a large amount of kudos.  A race had begun.

*I know.  those crazy scientists, eh?
** The British preferred to pootlle around Antarctica, and discovered Plate Tectonics instead.

Eisenhower at Cape Canaveral
And it is here that the conspiracy, if any, begins.  

The Eisenhower Administration never really gave wholehearted support to the Space Race.  Eisenhower was ambivalent to the idea of the exploration of space and down-right distrusting of those pushing for bigger and better rockets - his parting jibe at the military-industrial complex was aimed at those who sought to profit from the supposed 'missile gap' between the US and USSR*.   Yet it was publicly committed to launching a satellite during the IGY.   

*Burnett points out how the Space Race was to become a partisan tool in the hands of Lyndon B Johnson and that the 'missile gap' probably won the 1960 election for JF Kennedy.

Von Braun and his team at the US Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, thought that their time had come, but in a move that remains controversial, their project - Project Orbiter - was rejected in favour of the US Navy's Project Vanguard.   Much wrangling - and some downright dishonesty - kept the Redstone project alive and when Vanguard failed to deliver in time to beat the Russians and then, through sheer bad luck proved a 'flopnik', it was von Braun's team that put America's first satellite into orbit.

Pickering, Van Allen and von Braun celebrate the launch of Explorer 1

Burnett explores the reasoning and goes into the politics behind the choice of Vanguard over Orbiter Inter-service rivalries certainly played a part.  Was it due  the Navy's system being deemed more 'civilian' than the Army's?  The CIA was a great advocate for the development of satellites, but pointed out the IGY's commitment to sharing technology - was that a factor?  Was it because the Defense Department wanted the Army to concentrate fully on their military missiles?  Von Braun believed that it was because his team weren't considered sufficiently 'American'.  Others that it would be unwise to back a programme with such close ties to the V-2 and the Nazis.

All these factors probably played their part to a greater or lesser extent.  But one thing Burnett makes clear was that von Braun was not liked.  He was arrogant, a self-publicist, not a team player, not 'one of us' - and yes, his membership of the Nazi Party and the SS did score against him. Such things make a difference in smoke-filled committee rooms.

Had Vanguard been successful, von Braun would have been a footnote in the US Space Programme rather than it's Grand Old Man.  It is clear that in the 1950s some would have preferred that to be the case.

Overall this gets a solid Four Stars.  There's one major quibble though.  Throughout the book Burnett quotes from first-hand accounts and official documents: other than a brief bibliography there is no indication of where these sources can be found.  


  1. Interesting review Edwin. I agree that the title, publisher and author bio all say "beware" but the content looks very interesting. I remember well the jokes about the Russians (or Americans) getting all the "good" Germans after WW2.
    Cheers, PD

    1. Def worth a read if you're interested in the V-2, the Cold War or the Space Race. Certainly better than a 'reputable' biog of von Braun (published by the Naval Institute Press for heavan's sake!) I bought a while back, which turned out to be a hagiography by the former editor of the Huntsville Times.

      And nobody's mentioned Dr Strangelove yet.

  2. Good review. I find the lack of referenced sources more than a major quibble in my book. On something like that it gets elevated up to near deal breaker. I guess studying history has made me kind of snobby like that but given everying else about the book and as you highlighted the authours 'covert' career I'll admit to being suspicious.



    1. "Major quibble", "near deal breaker"? Aren't they the same thing? ;)

      I was reading for pleasure rather than anything else, or it would be a bigger factor. I do wonder whether this was the 'popular' edition and an earlier one was choca with notes.

      At least you didn't mention the Chicago Style Guide as one review I read did. What is it with some people and the CSG? Is it a covert way of saying they were educated to a certain level?

    2. I have to stop myself and switch of being overly critical about stuff all the time. "Lighten up Pete" say all my friends.



    3. No, I think you made a good point. It was just my musing over the difference between "major quibble" and "near deal breaker" that prompted my subsequent post.


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