A red-hot race for the cold war moon

Every journalist deserves at least one epic story. For James Schefter - and this reviewer - it has been humanity's outreach to interplanetary space. Metaphorically speaking, our species has only waded along the edge of the cosmic ocean. But this hesitant excursion has been a transforming experience.

Journalists who covered the story sensed this. Even the skeptics were caught up in the adventure. It's doubtful that any of us can give a truly objective retrospective account of those epochal events.

This is especially true of Schefter for whom the unfoldment of human space flight through the Apollo moon landings was a full-time assignment. Because he could live with the Houston-based program and because of special access granted a Time-Life magazine correspondent, he had an intimate view.

That's the perspective from which he reviews the 1960s moon race. It was indeed a race. Never mind that Soviet space prowess later proved to be largely smoke and mirrors, as Schefter explains.

Russian program leader Sergie Korolev's clever use of slender resources produced a series of spectacular "firsts."

Lofting the first artificial satellites and orbiting Yuri Gagarin wowed the world. The equally spectacular, and often multiple, failures were kept secret.

Meanwhile, the United States embarrassed itself with well publicized bloopers. This spurred the Kennedy administration to reach for the ultimate "first" - human lunar exploration.

Schefter's take on that oft-told tale is a mixture of historical research and gleanings from his notebooks. Access to once secret Russian and American documents aided the research. Extensive interviews with many of the surviving Russian and American moon racers has fleshed out his notes and memories.

Unlike the reporting at the time, this warts-and-all narrative does not gloss over the human frailties of its heroic figures. With the exception of John Glenn, the Mercury Seven astronauts were womanizers and heavy drinkers - character flaws that took a toll on their families. The earthy language of these vignettes gives readers a feeling for the high-pressure lives the moon racers led.

This is a privileged reporter's personal retrospective, not scholarly history. Nevertheless, it corroborates several historically important points:

*In spite of their denials, the Russians were secretly trying to mount a lunar landing effort. Its failure was due to lack of resources and bureaucratic problems.

*Both the US and the old Soviet Union were victims of their paranoia. There was no need for Americans to panic over Soviet space successes. US determination and industrial strength soon established parity and sewed up the moon race. The Soviet government's passion for secrecy and fear of internal dissent handicapped its civilian space program. It didn't help cosmonauts' morale to know that their ships carried explosives that mission control could trigger should they head for "enemy" territory.

*The US won the moon race and wondered

what to do next. The Russians lost the race and pursued a permanently inhabited space station with spectacular success.

*Forget the transient politics. The American and Russian space programs of the 1950s and '60s were, to use Schefter's phrase, "the grandest adventure of the twentieth century." No amount of objective history could convince Schefter - or me - otherwise.

*Robert C. Cowen writes on science for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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