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You’ve heard of the space race, but do you know the whole story?
The most ambitious race humankind has ever undertaken was masterminded in the shadows by two engineers on opposite sides of the Cold War: Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi officer living in the US, and Sergei Korolev, a Russian rocket designer once jailed for crimes against his country—and your textbooks probably never told you.
These two brilliant but controversial rocketeers never met, yet together they reshaped spaceflight and warfare. From Stalin’s brutal gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps to Cape Canaveral and beyond, their simultaneous quests pushed science—and human ingenuity—to the breaking point.
Von Braun became an American hero, recognized the world over, while Korolev toiled in obscurity. But as each of these men altered human history, they were eclipsed by their troubled pasts, living out their lives in the shadow of the same moon that drove them to such astonishing feats of scientific achievement.
From Amy Cherrix comes the extraordinary hidden story of the space race and the bitter rivalry that took humankind to the moon.
I was fascinated to read Ms. Cherrix’s account of two opposing rocket engineers in the US/USSR space race and the ethical dilemmas surrounding them. I’m writing this from notes I just found a year after finishing the book so I’ll just list my bullet points.
- I found the contrast between the two engineers to be interesting. Wernher von Braun was a former SS officer who was brought to the US in the aftermath of WWII to develop rockets for our part in the space race. During his time in Germany, his rocket program directly benefited from the labor of concentration camp prisoners. When he arrived in the US, his background was deliberately hidden but he and his advancements were celebrated. In contrast, Sergei Korolev was the lead engineer for the Soviets. He served six years in a gulag before he was raised to that position. He was sort of hidden from sight even after he took his leadership role. But after their deaths, the opposite happened–the US buried its association with von Braun and the Soviets celebrated Korolev.
- I liked reading more about Operation Paperclip, the program by which the US quietly brought in top German scientists after WWII, regardless of their status within the Nazi party. I’d only come across a reference to it one time before, in a review for a science fiction graphic novel, of all places. There are some ethical thorns to chew over in that program, for sure.
- I’ve read Moon Shot and a couple of other American space books so I was already fairly familiar with our history, though I don’t remember reading about von Braun before. The Soviet history was newer to me and interesting.
- At the end, the author visits the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum in Germany, which invites visitors to weigh the question of whether von Braun’s contributions outweighed the damage he caused as an SS officer. She invites her readers to weigh the same question. Her answer seems clear but she does refrain from sharing it explicitly. There’s lots of room for thoughtful discussion here. The author provides background throughout the book for some of it (How much did he know about concentration camps? When did he know it? Why did he join the Nazi party? etc.) There’s also room for discussion about space travel in general. (Is the cost of space travel worth it when we have so many unaddressed problems on earth?) In that vein, I do wish the author had included some details of how space technology has addressed some of our more terrestrial problems.
- This is a small thing but as someone who loathes books where the dog dies, I found it saddening to see a picture of Laika, the first animal to orbit the earth. It was a one way trip for her. The author shares details of her vital signs on the mission and her probable cause of death, which just broke my heart. It will bother others who are sensitive to animal deaths too.
This book is an interesting read about two complicated men in a complicated time. I found it fascinating to read on my own but it would also be a great choice for a book group or classroom discussion.
Buy In the Shadow of the Moon: America, Russia, and the Hidden History of the Space Race from Malaprop’s Bookstore in beautiful Asheville, NC or