Review :

I had a really nice surprise on Friday afternoon - a package from the University of Nebraska Press with a copy of the next installment of their Outward Odyssey series, To A Distant Day, by Chris Gainor, about the human history of space exploration. I was a big fan of the first two books in the series, Into that Silent Sea and In The Shadow of the Moon, both of which dealt heavily with human space flight, with Silent Sea taking much of the earlier days from Mercury to very early Apollo and with Shadows taking the lead up to and half of the first lunar landings. In both, I was incredibly impressed with the amount of detail and narrative style of history that laid the American and Russian space programs out in the open, almost comprehensively. After reading both, I have been eagerly awaiting the next one, To A Distant Day, which is due out in April of this year, with the fourth installment due out in the fall of 2008.
To A Distant Day takes a step back in the development of human space flight. Where the first two books took care of the rock-star elements of the space program, this book went back - far back to the birth of rocketry. Mercury, Gemni and Apollo would never have taken flight without the vast history of rockets behind them. Gainor's book covers the history of the development of the rocket, from Ancient China's development of gunpower and tracing the development of military rockets across Asia to Europe, through to the First and Second World Wars, while looking at some of the major figures who worked out the mathmatics and physics of rocketry.
While it's arguably a more important and vast history, this book is the shortest yet of the Outward Odyssey series, clocking in at 264 pages. The earlier developments of the rocket is gone over a bit briefly, while a bulk of the attention is paid to the efforts of the German Scientists in and around the Second World War, and the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Russia. What we get is facinating, and the shorter read holds the same level of detail and care that the first two books contained.
One of the things that I noted was the influence that Jules Verne, whose works constitute the first Science Fiction, had on a number of the early rocket scientists, sparking their imagination as to what was possible in the future. What's even more facinating is at how the rocket scientists around the world, linked by this book, shared a vision of a human in space.
Having just started my Master's Degree in Military History through Norwich University's graduate school, it was interesting to me as to the degree to which military elements helped influence the creation of the US and Soviet space programs, especially when one considers the reluctance of multiple governments to weaponize space. The common sci-fi phrase "We come in peace" seems like hypocrisy when one considers the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets, which helped influence both the Russian and US space programs to a huge degree.
Like in the first two books, we also get a good look at how the US and Russians built up for the Cold War. This book provides a better look at the military aspects of the arms race, as much of the rocket science that the US government used was also used to build bigger and better missiles, and takes a good look at some of the technical aspects of the arms race.
The author does skirt around some issues, such as the use of German scientists in the space program. A number, who had joined the Nazi party and utilized concentration camp labor, were used by the US government to build up a space program that would eventually superceed that of the USSR. While NASA and it's predecessors would not have succeeded without then, it's an uncomfortable topic that's not really addressed.
This aspect of history in the space program is a lot more vast, touching on social and military aspects, and covers a lot more ground than the first two books. It's a weighty task, and the book succeeds extremely well at it, covering everything in a fair amount of detail that is neither dry nor hard to get into. I can't wait for the next installment.

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