Fifty years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. This event triggered a 12-year contest -- at once spirited, high risk and costly -- between the Soviets and the Americans to gain dominance in the new frontier of space. The so-called "space race" culminated with the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. National Geographic recaptures this momentous and gripping era in EPIC RIVALRY: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race (National Geographic Books; ISBN 978-1-4262-0119-6; Sept. 18, 2007; $28), by Smithsonian curator Von Hardesty and researcher and journalist Gene Eisman.
EPIC RIVALRY tells the story from both the American and Russian points of view, using a rich body of American and Russian sources, including many formerly classified documents now available to researchers. The book includes a foreword by Sergei Khrushchev, an engineer and one-time participant in the Soviet space program and son of Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet leader during seven of the space race years. It also contains 64 pages of rare, historic images, many never before published.
The book shows how each side played a vital role in stimulating the work of the other. "The narrative has a dual approach: to reconstruct the parallel universes of the American and Russian space programs -- and then to identify how these separate worlds interacted in necessary and fateful ways," write the authors in their introduction. "The race became a study in contrasts. Both nations used their existing military technology to help fashion their space programs. But while the American space program -- except for its military aspects -- remained open and dependent on public support, the Soviets operated under a shroud of secrecy, studiously concealing from view their specific goals in space for the near and long term, even declining to reveal the names of its chief space leaders."
The book also examines the role of key political figures who shaped the course of space exploration. Nikita Khrushchev took a keen interest in space activities, seeing clearly the propaganda value of space "firsts." The United States embraced the space age more cautiously at first, with Dwight Eisenhower being hesitant to pursue expensive space programs. John Kennedy presided over a shift in U.S. space policy. While not personally interested in space, he came to recognize its importance in the Cold War context and immediately after the Soviet's first manned orbital flight, Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of sending humans to the moon. His enthusiasm for a pro-active space program was shared by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Readers will meet the talented scientists, engineers and managers whose innovative work helped consolidate their countries' space programs. Wernher von Braun came to the United States after World War ll with an experienced group of German rocket technicians, and this team did much to advance the American rocket program. Later, James Webb, assisted by able administrators, oversaw the NASA space program. On the Soviet side, the space program was directed by Sergei Korolev, the mysterious "Chief Designer." At the remote spaceport of Baikonur, he, too, worked with a group of highly motivated designers and engineers. Both superpowers pursued their space program in tandem with missile research and development.
Also central to the book are the early space travelers. The skilled and courageous astronauts and cosmonauts, including Russia's Yuri Gagarin, German Titov and Alexei Leonov, mesmerized the world with their pioneering feats. America's John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom displayed equal courage and became instant celebrities. The Apollo 11 mission with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins brought a decade of heroic work by Soviet and U.S. space trailblazers to a fitting conclusion.
A series of six sidebars provides additional information on topics such as photo-reconnaissance satellites, nuclear-powered rockets, attaining orbit and returning home. While the book deals with technically advanced issues, it is written in a non-technical style, making it accessible to all readers. Approaching its subject from a uniquely balanced perspective, this important new narrative chronicles the epic race to the moon and back as it has never been told before, capturing the interest of casual browsers and science, space and history enthusiasts alike.
Von Hardesty is a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and is the author of "Air Force One," "Lindbergh: Flight's Enigmatic Hero" and "Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941-1945," among many other books and publications. Gene Eisman is a long-time aviation enthusiast and veteran journalist and was the researcher for "Air Force One."