One was a Nazi-turned-American who became a star scientist, the other a Communist known to his country only as the Chief Designer. But the two men who led the space programs of their nations had plenty in common: nerves of steel, unlikely dreams, and pasts they'd rather forget. Space Race: The Epic Battle between America and the Soviet Union for the Domination of Space is a fresh and revealing look at one of the most crucial battlefields of the cold war.
On one side is Wernher von Braun, a handsome, aristocratic German rocket developer and Hitler favorite who barely escaped being killed by panicking Nazis at the end of World War II. He joined a diaspora of German scientists sought by both superpowers but ended up in the US.
Sergei Korolev, meanwhile, toiled in the shadows for fear he'd become a target for assassination. Emotional and frail, he steered the Russian space program through a thicket of politics, personalities, and poverty.
Many authors have chronicled the American drive for the stars. But Deborah Cadbury, a British TV producer, gained unprecedented access to declassified Russian archives. Together with transcripts of BBC interviews with Russians, they make her book the first to paint a full picture of the Soviet Union's struggles to dominate space and its near victory over the US in the race to the moon. (A National Geographic Channel documentary based on the book is airing this month.)
After the war, space travel was never a given. Both von Braun and Korolev had to cope with leaders who balanced the prestige of spaceflight against skepticism and military needs. Yet, as frantic Americans and Russians obsessed over each other's advances, their cold war rivalry spurred them to greater and greater accomplishments. Despite the doubters, rockets gave way to satellites, orbiting spacecraft, and human spaceflight.
Through it all, von Braun lived the high life in the US, while the cash-strapped Russian government relegated Korolev to horrible living conditions in the middle of nowhere. But both men had their share of triumphs and disappointments. Again and again, rockets (and occasionally astronauts) fell victim to disaster. American tragedies like the Apollo 1 fire are well known, but some of the Russian mishaps were kept under wraps for years, including an explosion during a 1960 rocket takeoff that killed as many as 150 people.
Other secrets are exposed in "Space Race" as well. Korolev became a newly minted Russian hero after his identity was revealed upon his death, but his countrymen had no idea he'd been thrown in a gulag on trumped-up charges in the 1930s. The ultimate survivor, he kept his anger hidden and went back to work in Moscow upon his release.
Von Braun had spent time behind bars too, but hid a much grimmer secret: He was a war criminal who had played a major role in a murderous Nazi slave operation. Full details emerged only recently, decades after what some consider to be an American whitewash of his past.
Unfortunately, Cadbury didn't interview surviving American astronauts or politicians, relying instead on books and memoirs written long ago. The surprising lack of footnotes, meanwhile, makes it hard to determine the origin of much material.
But despite a few flaws, "Space Race" is often gripping, especially in Cadbury's accounts of von Braun's escape from the Nazis and the space missions that failed or came within inches of disaster.
Space travel is still an incredibly dangerous endeavor, perhaps more than most of us realize. But "Space Race" reminds us that human ingenuity - along with plenty of stubbornness, courage, and confidence - can bring us the moon, if not the stars.
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.