on 9 October 2007
I ordered this book not expecting much; an uninspired retread, totally biased towards the Americans, illustrated with the same old photos we've all seen hundreds of times before; Saturn V on Launch Pad, Korolev Holding Dog etc etc ... how many times have I been let down while trying to find out something new about the Space Race!
Imagine my delight, then, when this book turned out to be the complete opposite! The writers (and the picture researcher) have really pulled their fingers out, and have taken their remit seriously. The book is full of new information (I was particularly fascinated by the accounts of the building of the Cape Canaveral and Baikonur spaceports) as well as a set of rare and fascinating photographs, which really succeed in capturing the atmosphere of that astonishing time. I was particularly captivated by a charming photo of a group of little boys excitedly launching toy rockets - where has that joy and wonder gone, in these more dreary and cynical times?
The book is also exceptionally well bound, in high-quality paper, and a rather marvellous cover, featuring a silver-blocked map of the Moon - front and back. This one won't fall to bits in a hurry.
There are a few caveats - the scientific protagonists (unlike the astronauts) without whom this incredible adventure could never have happened, are not well delineated at all, and as a result the book has, at times, a rather hollow feel to it. I was disappointed to find little information on a scientist and visionary I find particularly interesting, the Russian Mikhail Tikhonravov (a biographical study is surely well overdue) and there are some careless errors (Korolev has been given the wrong patronymic at one point). But these quibbles are more than counterbalanced by the book's sparkling writing style, meticulous and accurate research, and, amazingly, a really splendid evocation of the intense and thrilling atmosphere of those times.
Yet there is one thing about the book that is both jarring and disturbing - the introduction by Sergei Khrushchev (son of Soviet leader Nikita) which is a very funny read indeed. To my astonishment, Professor Khrushchev spends pages of his introduction in blaming, squarely, Sergei Korolev for the failure of the Soviet effort to get to the moon first. He portrays Korolev as a vicious, petty, small-minded egomaniac who is more interested in doing down his rivals than in reaching the moon. The fact that the rivals in question were, motivated by jealousy, doing their best to destroy and discredit Korolev is something on which he remains silent. He also neglects to mention that, at the time of the Appollo 11 moon landing, Korolev had been dead for more than three years. Surely, if his rivals had been as great as Professor Khrushchev says they were, they could have caught up with the Americans in that time, surely. But he does explain why his father denied Korolev his Nobel Prize - apparently, it was because Khrushchev didn't want the aforesaid rivals to fly into fits of pique, and refuse to play any more. I burst out laughing on reading this - of all the excuses to deny a great man his well-deserved award, that has to be the most mean and tiny-minded of all.
I have the kind of mind that looks for answers in what came before. The reason the Russians lost the moon race can be squarely blamed on Josef Stalin. Stalin murdered, as a deliberate policy, most of the Soviet Union's best and brightest citizens, including the scientific elite. Rocketeers were not spared - the best were shot or imprisoned, including, of course, Korolev himself, who only survived torture, starvation and slavery in petrifying cold by a series of miracles. So, of course, by the time the space age dawned, the Soviets were severely hobbled by the loss of so many specialists in the field of electronics, optics, computerisation and so on. Korolev's unique genius overcame this by sheer force of personality, but even he could not design a rocket with the Saturn V's lifting power, because the electronics were too heavy and primitive. And, of course, he died at the early age of 59, as a direct result of the dreadful damage done to him in Stalin's death camps.
The book itself fails to make this clear, but it is, notwithstanding Sergei Khrushchev, absolutely correct in putting the blame where it really lies - in the Soviet system itself. The system destroyed the once-close friendship between Korolev and the brilliant rocket engine specialist Valentin Glushko (poor Glushko was tortured into denouncing Korolev during Stalin's Terror, which sent him to the Gulag) it killed most of its finest scientists, and it preferred to leave, in charge of great projects, a collection of mediocre bureaucrats who had about as much vision as a mole, and none of the charm.
Sergei Khrushchev does point out that his father preferred to spend money on feeding the Soviet people than in a hugely expensive moon race. One can sympathise with that ... if only his father had paid less attention to the evil charlatan Trofim Lysenko, whose ridiculous 'theories' about plant genetics condemned the Soviet people to permanant hunger. But then Lysenko had seen to it that all the best Soviet genetecists ended up dead ... if he had not, maybe the USSR could have afforded to borth feed its people and go to the moon.
This book shows clearly why the American Way is best. If only Korolev had done a Sikorsky, and fled there! He was a more brilliant man than Wernher von Braun; just think what he could have done, in America!