Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA
By Amy Shira Teitel
Bloomsbury Sigma, 304 pages, $27
In theory, science is a perfectly objective realm. Its ideal is the impersonal pursuit of knowledge, its goal to describe the world as it is. To paraphrase the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but science provides the facts.
In practice, however, it rarely works that way. In his 1968 novel “His Master’s Voice,” the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem compared a scientist to a trained elephant who “uses the strength of his intellect the way the elephant uses its muscle — on command.” Scientists may want to pursue knowledge for its own sake, but more often they serve the powers that be.
Although this depressing view isn’t explicitly proposed by Amy Shira Teitel in “Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA,” it’s present between every line. When it came to rocketry and spaceflight, nothing would have happened without military backing. Purely scientific interests were also at play — it’s hard to imagine a military purpose for sending probes past the edge of our solar system, as NASA did with Voyagers I and II. But if some knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake did take place, it was on the back of weapons research.
The importance of military support has been at the heart of modern rocket science since its beginnings. Teitel, a science journalist and author of Popular Science magazine’s Vintage Space blog, starts her book with an account of the German hobbyists who, in 1927, founded the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), or VfR, in the back of a Breslau alehouse. But even if the first rocket enthusiasts were amateurs who fantasized about taking weekend trips to the moon, the VfR was very quickly co-opted by the German military, whose leaders found rockets attractive because the Treaty of Versailles had not explicitly banned them.
Rockets received even more support from the Nazis. Although Hitler was initially lukewarm on the idea, SS leader Heinrich Himmler was enthusiastic and tried to poach the rocket program from the army. As the war turned against Germany, Hitler also warmed to rockets, seeing them as a potential miracle weapon. By the time the infamous V-2s were ready to fly, it was too late for Germany — the Allies had landed at Normandy and the Soviets were advancing on the East — but the Germans were able to do damage to Britain and Belgium nonetheless.
After the war, the technology behind the V-2s formed the basis of American rocket research and, eventually, of its space program. The same was true of the Soviet Union, although you wouldn’t know it from “Breaking the Chains of Gravity.” Teitel’s book purports to be a history of spaceflight before NASA, but it is really only a history of American spaceflight, and of its German predecessors. The Soviet Union’s contemporaneous developments are unexplored, leaving the story only half told.
It wasn’t just German hardware that informed American rocketry, however — it was also the scientists who built it. The most famous was Wernher von Braun who, at age 20, was the first VfR member to be recruited by the Germany military. Von Braun was largely responsible for the success of the V-2 rocket, though there was plenty of credit to go around. In the aftermath of the war, the United States brought over some 350 German scientists and their families, including von Braun’s military superior, Walter Dornberger, who made his way to the U.S. after being detained for two years by Great Britain as a possible war criminal. The American space program was, to a very large degree, a continuation of Nazi rocketry.
Teitel points to these facts, but she doesn’t seriously grapple with them. Von Braun wasn’t just a scientist whose work was used in the German war effort — he was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party and of the SS. His rockets not only killed the civilians they were aimed at, but they were also built by concentration camp inmates with his knowledge and possibly cooperation. Although he was also on the receiving end of political pressure — he was briefly detained by the Gestapo in 1944 after expressing pessimism regarding Germany’s chances of winning the war — his involvement in Nazi atrocities was his own doing. As Teitel writes, when he was first pressured into joining the Nazi party in 1937, he “did have the option of not joining… and forsaking the half-decade he had spent developing the Aggregate Series, but it was not an appealing alternative.” Suffice it to say, others made far greater sacrifices.
Von Braun was always more interested in space exploration than in weaponry, however, even if he did put his own curiosity above moral considerations. Later on, in magazine articles and television programs, he helped popularize the idea of spaceflight to an American audience, proposing the construction of an orbiting space station that would serve as the base for a 70-person, 10-ship expedition to Mars. Nor did he have any great loyalty to Germany; as the war wound down, he desperately tried to surrender to American troops and to put his expertise at their country’s disposal.
This part of the book, which describes the flight from the rocket development site of Peenemünde of some 525 people and their families under the cover of a fake SS mission cooked up by a 33-year-old von Braun on the basis of phony letterhead, is the most riveting section. Science mostly takes place in offices and labs, and even a successful rocket launch can hardly rival a daring midnight escape for narrative drama.
But a moral reckoning is not forthcoming here, not for von Braun nor for the country that adopted him. Although Teitel’s book provides a comprehensible play-by-play of the countless engineering obstacles that had to be overcome on the way to space, the cultural and historical background behind these advances is only thinly sketched out. Most problematic, Teitel never tries to question or analyze the moral consequences of the scientific progress she describes.
Like a lot of amateur historians, Teitel tends to view the past in light of its outcome — in other words, to write history through the eyes of its winners. Thus, she seems to sympathize with the protagonists of her story, Nazi atrocities notwithstanding. When describing the 1943 British bombing of Peenemünde, for example, we find ourselves rooting for the Nazi scientists, despite the crimes they were in the process of committing. This moral confusion would be interesting if it were intentional, but Teitel seems unable to avoid the sympathetic pull of her subject, even when it was responsible for countless deaths on both sides of the English Channel.
However, through her accumulation of detail, Teitel does convey the degree to which science is the result of personal, political and bureaucratic interests and not just a series of Eureka! moments and perilous escapes through the Alps. The research that led to the American space program happened at the nexus of military, industry and government squabbles, with multiple companies, agencies and branches of the armed forces fighting over money, attention and the superiority of their own projects and plans.
This might seem like the American way — a marketplace of ideas rather than top-down command — but it put the United States behind the USSR in the early space race. Only with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 did the US realize how far behind it lagged, leading Congress and then-President Eisenhower to consolidate the various rocketry and aeronautics programs into a single agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The big surprise here wasn’t consolidation — it was that NASA was created as a civilian agency, taking the space program away from the military, especially the Air Force. Here, Teitel is a bit wide-eyed in extolling the idealism of the Eisenhower administration given the amount of military tampering that continued over the decades. But Eisenhower’s decision to put NASA under civilian control was one of those saving graces that makes humanity seem capable of intelligent decisions now and again. Science may often serve at the behest of its political and economic taskmasters. Every so often, though, it gets to spread its wings.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.