TODAY WE USE hundreds of spacecraft to communicate, forecast weather, explore the solar system and even warn of attack. These activities are made possible by the rocket.

Also today, the two superpowers go about their normal everyday business with nuclear arsenals cocked and aimed at each other. Should the order to fire these missiles be given, hundreds of millions would be dead in less than an hour. The rocket also makes this possible. In fact, while the rocket itself is not a weapon but only a tool, its development has been pressed by governments interested primarily in its potential as an instrument of war.

Germany, the first nation to attempt to exploit this potential, assembled a team of scientists and engineers to develop what became the V-1 and V-2 missiles used by Hitler against England. (The "V" stood for vengence.) Members of this group continued their research after the war -- most in the United States, but a smaller number also worked in the Soviet Union. The offspring of their work are nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and spacecraft.

Authors Frederick I. Ordway III and Mitchell R. Sharpe in The Rocket Team have brought fresh light to two facets of the early work by the German rocket team. Through extensive research they have traced the German development programs, highlighting the bureaucratic conflicts and revealing how, ultimately, the emergent weapons were militarily ineffective.

At the same time, the authors have reconstructed events on a personal level. Using interviews with many of the key members, they have recreated events in a human context and laced their narrative with individual anecdotes. Wisely, the authors have kept technical details to an absolute minimum. (In fact, more technical detail and jargon is encountered in Thomas Pynchon's fictionalized account of the same events, Gravity's Rainbow.)

The authors' intimate knowledge of the German scientists and engineers is obvious, but what is a virtue on one hand, is a fault on the other. Ordway and Sharpe clearly admire their subjects and this seems to have lead them to ignore the position of moral compromise in which these men found themselves.

The German rocket pioneers were idealists who formed clubs and first built rockets in sheds. Their dream was spaceflight. However, when the German government became interested in rocketry, it was to develop weapons. Albert Speer (and ultimately Hitler), deemed it more useful to the German war effort to spend millions of marks on the Peenemuende rocket test facility than to provide money for tanks and artillery. Obviously they thought the rocket would become an extremely effective weapon. While the German rocket team (and Wernher von Braun in particular) may have dreamed of spaceflight, they developed rockets that were used as long-range weapons by the Nazi government. This is a painful point around which Ordway and Sharpe have skirted.

In a similar vein, the authors have skipped over the matter of the transplanted rocket team's work in the United States. Again, the reason for government funding of the first American rocket programs was to develop weapons.The U.S. military (and similarly, the Soviet military) wanted to exploit captured German rocket weapons and technology. As Ordway and Sharpe have documented, the V-2 missile was militarily ineffective -- primarily because it was not accurate and carried too small a warhead (i.e. it did too little damage to justify its cost). However, the marriage of an atomic bomb and a ballistic missile, if not made in heaven, at least served to solve these shortcomings and make a very effective weapon system.

This was the incentive behind the early U.S. rocket development efforts and why such fear existed about a potential Soviet lead ("missile gap").

It was only in 1958, more than 20 years after the German rocket team began to take shape, that they started to work specifically on space flight and then only because the United States perceived itself to be in a "cold war" with the Soviet Union. The prestige associated with purely scientific accomplishments took on high value in the political/military realm. This lead to the monumental and climactic achievement of the rocket team when the Saturn-5 rocket launched a man to the Moon in 1969.

After the manned lunar program ended, the original members of the rocket team began to disperse, and the NASA space program wound down to a much lower level of effort.The authors end their narrative here, but their story points out a lesson for space enthusiasts regarding the future. Governments are by necessity myopic and their priorities reflect short-term concerns in such areas as national security and national prestige. Long-term ideals like those of the German rocket team for manned spaceflight are strongly supported only when they coincide with near-term priorities. Today the majority of space programs both in the United States and the Soviet Union are military. A smaller number of projects are carried out because they are economically profitable (notably communications) but only a few are pursued purely because of potential benefits in the distant future.

The authors have made a commendable contribution in detailing this portion of important but frequently overlooked history. Moreover, they have presented it in a manner that focuses our attention on the past but at the same time encourages us to examine the future.