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The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites.

The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites. By Matt Bille and Erika Lishock. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004. Illustrations. Photographs. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 214. $19.95 Paperback ISBN: 1-58544-374-3

Nobody should assume the history of American and Soviet space programs during the 1950s has been chiseled in stone. The authors make this clear. Through thoughtful analysis of events familiar to space historians and vigorous pursuit of details obscured by the passage of time, they supply new insights to one of the Cold War's most dramatic chapters. As the legendary James Van Allen admits in the Foreword, this volume even provides still-living participants in that race with a much improved context for their own fragmentary knowledge.

Laying the foundations for successful launch of the first artificial, Earth-orbiting satellites took several centuries. During the 17th century, Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton formulated the necessary theories of motion. Edward Everett Hale and other science-fiction writers in the 19th century inspired serious spaceflight theoreticians like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Robert Goddard at the dawn of the 20th century. The pace of hardware development quickened at mid-century under the leadership of brilliant engineers like Wernher von Braun, Sergey Korolev, Theodore yon Karman, and others. Long-range rockets built by the U.S. and USSR could travel through outer space to deliver thermonuclear warheads halfway around the globe. Informed visionaries recognized the feasibility of using those same rockets to launch satellites.

While long-range rocket and satellite development occurred within the U.S. and Soviet military establishments, plans for the International Geophysical Year (July 1957-December 1958) committed both countries to launching satellites for scientific research. The Soviet Academy of Sciences created a Commission for Interplanetary Communication, chaired by academician Leonid Sedov, to oversee its IGY satellite program. Meanwhile, a committee headed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Homer Stewart selected the U.S. launcher and satellite from among several proposals by the military services. On October 4, 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. After the U.S. Navy's failure to launch a Vanguard satellite on December 6, the Army put America's first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit on January 31, 1958. Both nations commenced "storming the heavens" with civil and military satellites.

Bille and Lishock drew information from a variety of sources (written and oral, primary and secondary, older and recent) to tell this complex story in a relatively straightforward style. They discuss how erroneous "facts" crept into the literature over time. For example, the color scheme on museum models of Explorer 1 differs from the actual flight article. Furthermore, Goldstone could not have confirmed that Explorer 1 was in orbit, because the Goldstone tracker became operational months later to support the Pioneer lunar probes. The authors analyze the Stewart Committee's choice of the Navy's proposal over the Army's, the relationship between early military and civil satellite programs, and the question of whether the U.S. purposely refrained from becoming first to launch a satellite. Finally, they describe NOTSNIK, a "secret competitor" who aimed to place tiny satellites in orbit via a five-stage booster launched from a U.S. Navy fighter aircraft.

Readers will have difficulty putting down The First Space Race before turning the last page. The authors have achieved a wonderful balance between the American and Soviet sides of the story. Their new research and refreshing analyses correct inaccuracies that have crept into the literature over the years and prompt space historians to question causal connections once taken for granted.

Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant, Deputy Command Historian, HQ Air Force Space Command, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
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Title Annotation:book by Matt Bille and Erika Lishock
Author:Sturdevant, Rick W.
Publication:Air Power History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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