WALTER McDOUGALL has written elsewhere that space historians come in four varieties: the journalistic historians concentrating on manned spaceflight, the "nuts and bolts" technical historians, the historians of science, and the social-scientist space historians. In this book, at least, McDougall is clearly in the last category. He traces not only the political history of the space age, as the book's subtitle promises, but also adds a metaphysical analysis of the fundamental meaning and value of spaceflight to mankind.
This is not an exciting book, except insofar as one can get excited by watching a superlative craftsman at work. Thoroughly researched, painstakingly documented, this is a big book, with 453 pages of text followed by nearly 1,300 footnotes. It's also an important book, tracing the evolution of the space age back to its roots on both sides of the Atlantic with a historian's sense of perspective. It is part encyclopedia and part detective story, as the Soviet Union pushes toward Sputnik and the United States responds with Apollo.
The chapters on the Soviet space program are especially strong. Anyone who thinks that Sputnik was a spur-of-the-moment idea, slapped together by captured German rocketeers, should examine the voluminous evidence presented here of the organized science and technology efforts of the Russians, going back to the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55). Of course, today Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is universally recognized (along with Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth) as one of the three great pioneers of modern rocketry, but McDougall goes beyond the usual paean to Tsiolkovsky, describes his environment, and shows that his interest in space flight was a natural result of his reading Western science fiction and studying Russian science. I was astounded to learn that "as early as 1866 Russian technicians founded the Russian Technical Society with the aim of coordinating science, technology, industry, and government for the development of the economy." How this effort got sidetracked makes fascinating reading, one clue being that, of the Bolshevik regime, McDougall concludes that "no previous government in history was so openly and energetically in favor of science, but neither had any modern government been so ideologically opposed to the free exchange of ideas, a presumed prerequisite of scientific progress."
THE CHAPTERS on the American space program are equally well done, although this material will be more familiar to most readers, and hence contains fewer surprises. McDougall does, however, give us some new behind-the-scenes looks at the Eisenhower and Kennedy years. He also reminds us how great nations muddle through important decisions. For example, most of us oldtimers remember Kennedy's bold, decisive statement to the Congress in 1961 proposing to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade (with Alan Shepard's short lob as the total U.S. manned space flight experience). But few remember that two years later, in a speech at the United Nations, Kennedy bowed to domestic criticism and invited the Russians on-board. "Let us do big things together . . .," he said. The Soviet government remained silent for a month, and then Khrushchev demurred, joking that "He who cannot bear earth any longer may fly to the moon. But we are all right on earth." Then Khrushchev muddied the water further by telling reporters that he had not said that the U.S.S.R. had dropped out of the moon race. To this day we don't know precisely what investment Khrushchev and his successors made in seeking the moon, but I do know I met a cosmonaut in 1967 who said he was in training for a circumlunar flight, and that a group of cosmonauts was training on helicopters (certainly not to practice earth landings).
McDougall's prose is a bit heavy. It flows well enough, like number-10 bunker oil that has been heated slightly, but is in frequent danger of coagulation due to the chill of such words as teleolgy and eschatology. If McDougall had been the first man on the moon, he would have said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant saltation for mankind." He loves that word saltation. He is also fond of mellonolatry and misconcism, although he's kind enough to define them as he goes along. But he has a nice turn of phrase as well. For example, he describes Pioneer 10, the first man-made object to leave the solar system, as "mankind's first celestial homerun."
The book rambles in places and would have benefitted from stronger editing, especially in the final chapter, which is a metaphysical meander linking space, science and religion.
These details aside, this is a fine book, a superb piece of work that is long overdue and which will be of value for a long time to come. I don't agree with some of its conclusions because I am more bullish than Professor McDougall on the beneficial influence of manned space flight. But that's not the point, and I yield concluding remarks to the author, "History . . . has been speeding up, and the leading nations justify their accelerating pace of innovation by the need to maintain military and economic security. Yet that very progress may undermine the values that make a society worth defending in the first place. That . . . is the dilemma of the Space Age."