In light of last night’s spectacular successful landing of the Curiosity rover on the Martian surface, now is the perfect time to read about the space program. Two books which frame the history of human space flight very well are Michael J. Neufeld’s Von Braun and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles.
One could be forgiven for thinking that everything interesting in the history of space flight happened in the United States and Russia during the Cold War. While this is largely true, neither the US nor Russia can claim credit for launching the first man made object into space. On October 3, 1942 that honor was irrevocably bestowed upon Nazi Germany when the A-4 rocket (later to be designated V2) was launched to an altitude of nearly 56 miles. The technical director of the project which made this feat possible, as well as the later brutal bombing of London and Antwerp with the same device, was a brilliant young German rocket engineer by the name of Wernher von Braun.
Michael J. Neufeld’s even handed biography of Von Braun traces his history from his birth and early upbringing when he discovered his passion for rockets, through the Faustian bargain he struck with the Third Reich and illuminates the incredible story of how after the war he came to be instrumental to the US space program even rising to the position of director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center from 1960-1970. It is hard to overstate Von Braun’s significance to the history of 20th century space flight.
The present state of space flight is somewhat diminished from its peak in Von Braun’s heyday. Astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium of New York, Neil deGrasse Tyson, argues in Space Chronicles that it’s high time we did something about it. Tyson believes and convincingly argues that increasing NASA funding from one half of one percent of the federal budget to one percent, would stimulate science and technology development in the US to such a degree that the investment would be returned many times over. He believes that the inspirational power of human endeavors in space can drive our economy by motivating the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Space Chronicles is a collection of previously published essays and speeches with some new material and peppered throughout with extremely amusing excerpts from Dr. Tyson’s twitter feed. It is an invigorating read for the space enthusiast and anyone who believes American science and technology sectors need big inspiring goals to revitalize their potential.
-Aaron K. Brumley, IT