Liftoff to the Space Race

Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
Sunday, September 16, 2007


Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age

By Matthew Brzezinski

Times. 322 pp. $26

Let's face it: No one cares about space. NASA long ago became the governmental equivalent of NASCAR. The only time non-fans even notice it exists is when something crashes or explodes -- or when an addled astronaut dons space diapers in a bizarro cross-country bid to mace a romantic rival. (These things happen.) Ask any magazine editor: Nothing sells worse than a space cover. And space books? Oh, the horror. Mine sold 17 copies. And that counts my wife's book group.

The latest author to sink his pitons into this Everest of apathy is Matthew Brzezinski, a former Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. His Red Moon Rising chronicles the Russo-American space race of the mid-1950s. Authors of popular history tend to rise from two schools: those who seek to hook the reader with new information, and those who rely on storytelling skills. Brzezinski, no doubt aware of the challenge before him, springs with vigor from the latter camp. He is a storyteller on steroids, a savvy young cowboy who seizes the narrative bull by the horns, wrestles it to the dirt and furiously ropes up an energetic tale that owes less to F. Scott Fitzgerald than to F. Murray Abraham.

To say his prose is cinematic is an understatement. At times Red Moon Rising feels more like a screenplay than conventional nonfiction; all that's missing is camera instructions. The story opens on a chill Dutch dawn, 1944. A German V-2 rocket rises into the gloaming, arcs toward London and vaporizes a suburban street. Cut to: a Soviet scientist poking through a secret German rocket facility outside the ruins of Berlin, lifting its secrets. Cut to: a lonely GI stumbling upon a Nazi rocket factory deep in a German mountainside. Think I'm exaggerating? In his acknowledgments, Brzezinski thanks one old Russian for memories that form "some of the book's best action scenes."

When Brzezinski reaches the meat of his tale, you'd swear you were reading Francis Ford Coppola. He tells the entire story of postwar Soviet political and missile development during a single visit Nikita Khrushchev and other Politburo members make to a Russian missile base in 1956. It's a device straight out of "The Godfather," only instead of all the players being introduced during a festive Italian wedding, they're shown smoothing their goatees and bickering as they inspect rockets. Amid all the digressions and asides, you half expect Luca Brazzi to slink into the frame. Or Enzo the Baker.

In time, Brzezinski calms down, settling into a kind of pop-eyed, neo-Wolfean style. The characters parade by on brightly painted floats: Khrushchev, unlettered but unfettered, soiling the odd Polish toilet; Sergei Korolev, the Soviets' supersecret Chief Designer, pining for his daughter's love even as he samples his sister-in-law's; Wernher von Braun, the German aristocrat reborn in rural Alabama, sniffing at the stupid Americans. In spots Brzezinski overdoes it, his prose growing a tad ripe. The U.S. secretary of defense, Charles Wilson, is repeatedly referred to by his nickname, "Engine Charlie." Rockets "fling" nuclear warheads. Scientists don't work. They "beaver away."

Yet, however broad Brzezinski's strokes, one comes away not only entertained but informed, with a clear sense of why the pennywise Soviets leapt ahead in missile technology while the Americans, focused on developing bombers to reach Russian soil, failed to realize the importance of space until they woke beneath a communist moon. What interests Brzezinski most, aside from his characters' myriad foibles, is the bureaucratic struggles leading up to Sputnik's launch -- the internecine squabbles between arms of the Soviet bureaucracy as well as those between the Army and Air Force. Few officials on either side, it appears, had any clue what a very big deal Sputnik was until the Western press learned of it, declaring the Russians had won the first heat in a race no one had quite understood they were running.

Throughout, Brzezinski remains in firm control, carving a fast-moving narrative from his own interviews and the research of others, bringing the story to a close when von Braun matches the Soviets by launching a U.S. satellite. Some of the book's set pieces -- er, action scenes -- show real promise, especially Sputnik's nail-biting launch from a Central Asian spaceport. In the end, what you think of Red Moon Rising probably depends on what you expect from popular history. Want a fun, easy read, something you can gulp down while idling in the after-school pickup line? Buy it. Want something comprehensive, authoritative, Caro-like? Pass. Whatever your preference, keep in mind the name Matthew Brzezinski. This book feels like a practice run from a young author destined for big things. *

Bryan Burrough, a special correspondent at Vanity Fair, is the author of four books, including "Dragonfly."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company