Red Moon Rising

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am

Red Moon Rising

by Matthew Brzezinski

Times Books, HK$297

A desire for knowledge and exploration was the driving force behind the 20th century's space race, right? Not really, according to Matthew Brzezinski's meticulously researched and clearly written history of Sputnik, the world's first satellite.

It wasn't the desire to take a giant leap for mankind, to echo astronaut Neil Armstrong's words, that inspired the USSR and US governments to divert resources into rocket science. The space programmes of both countries originally grew out of attempts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles so that they could destroy each other.

When the USSR became the first to launch a satellite in 1957, the Soviets used the event to claim that they were technologically superior to capitalist America. So the US had to carry out a successful satellite launch to prove to the world that they weren't.

Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age delights in setting the scientific discoveries in the context of cold war politics. Brzezinski, a former Moscow correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, examines the scientific infighting at both the cold war courts in a zesty, informed manner. He also describes the rocket science in a clear, understandable way.

It's fascinating to learn that both cold war leaders - Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev - had no interest in space. Khrushchev belatedly jumped on the bandwagon when he realised Soviet superiority in space was damaging the US international image. But Eisenhower remained stolidly disinterested even after Sputnik's launch. A military man, he felt missiles were more important than satellites, and saw a dip in his presidential standing as a result.

Sputnik (above) was a great leap for mankind. It ushered in a new technological age for humanity, and set the wheels in motion for America's mind-boggling manned moon landings. The satellite, developed by Russian scientist Sergei Korolev, was launched 50 years ago, on October 4, 1957. Scientists around the globe were impressed, but the main feeling in the west was one of fear rather than wonder. Americans thought this shining example of Soviet technical superiority meant the USSR had the military know-how to rain down missiles on their heads. (Ironically, that turned out to be false because precious resources had been funnelled into satellite rather than missile research.) Before Sputnik - which was launched just one year after the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising - most countries viewed the USSR as a brutish, uneducated peasant regime. After Sputnik, it

was regarded as a superpower to rival the US.

The truth is always dirty, and this story is no different. The rocket science that both superpowers used as their jumping-off point originated in Nazi Germany during the second world war. It was developed under the aegis of the SS, who used prisoners from a concentration camp as slave labour. The science was developed for a new generation of V-2 ballistic missiles - based on earlier models that targeted London - that were never made.

After the war, both Russia and America made a dash for the research and hardware in occupied Germany. The Americans came off best, managing to locate Werner von Braun, the Nazi architect of German rocket science. Von Braun and his colleagues were secretly taken to the US, and put to work developing thrust technology to launch ballistic missiles. Fascinatingly, von Braun, whose past was long kept secret, also became an American television star.

The Americans might have had the world's top rocket scientist, but they lacked the political will to use him. Von Braun was sent to a dusty desert location and pretty much ignored. The US missile programme was caught up in bitter in-fighting among the army, navy and air force, and it languished.

Over in the Soviet Union, Sergei Korolev - an angry, sometimes mad, scientist - was working on a similar missile programme based on German technology. Korolev, who was both a space visionary and an egotist, managed to trick and cajole Khrushchev into letting him develop a satellite as a sideline to his main research.

The result is world history.

Red Moon Rising reports the cold war years so well it could also be used as a primer on the politics of the era. But the book is also relevant to today. Space is once again being used for a variety of stated and unstated purposes.

China's entry into manned space flight with Shenzhou 5 four years ago, and its recent ballistic missile launch, had a similar, if more understated, effect on Americans as Sputnik. India also is entering this new space race.

A return trip to the moon is back on the agenda for the US. Once again, success in space has become the ultimate proof of a nation's superpower status.