Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age. Matthew Brzezinski. Times Books. 2007.
Already jittery from nuclear drills and the threat of “reds under the bed,” America in 1957 could still find solace in the comforting illusion that the Soviets, while dangerous, were hopelessly backward. “If the Russians built a dam,” an Army officer stationed in Berlin was quoted as saying, “the water would flow backwards.” True, the Soviets had the bomb. But the perception, from the halls of government to John Q. Citizen, was that they had acquired atomic capability not through honest research but through the efforts of American traitors like the Rosenbergs.
The launch of Sputnik, the world's first space missile, on October 4, 1957, changed all of that. Panic spread across the land, encapsulated perfectly by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson's avowal that the Soviets now possessed the capability to drop nuclear bombs on the United States “like rocks from a highway overpass.” Soviet science was suddenly seen as a formidable threat. American engineers and test pilots, soon to be labeled astronauts, now had as much importance as bomb makers and the Air Force Interceptor Command. The space race had begun.
Matthew Brzezinski, a former Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, captures perfectly the desperation of that era. But he takes us beyond mere panic and shows the personalities involved: a President Eisenhower frankly perplexed at his hysterical country; a gloating Nikita Khrushchev; the sinister chief designer of the Soviet rocket program, Sergei Korolev; and the German scientist Werner Von Braun, whose Nazi background was overlooked in favor of his rocket expertise, first demonstrated with the V-1 guided missiles that the German Luftwaffe aimed at London in 1944.
Culturally, Sputnik became a code-word for more than American terror. Navy and Army officers wanting to put down their Air Force comrades would ask them, “How are you handling Sputnik, fly boy?” Hollywood soon tried to make a buck on these fears by producing such B-movies as “Red Planet Mars,” whose title echoed the warring superpowers’ ambitions to colonize space.
The author has produced more than a time-capsule history of the Cold War. He reveals how Sputnik reinforced Khrushchev's political position in a period when communist hard-liners were attempting to oust him. And he solves the mystery of why America was seemingly behind the Soviet Union in 1957: a cost-conscious Eisenhower, his eye always on slashing the budget, concentrated on building bombers capable of reaching Russian soil -- that is, until the public relations fallout from Sputnik forced him to respond.
Eisenhower initially thought that the Democrats were trying to make a campaign issue out of Russian superiority, and he was right. Senator John Kennedy sensed a campaign slogan forming, and his speeches were soon peppered with lines about “getting the country moving again,” which in a sense meant propelling up and away. And the big, deceptively clumsy, American government did get moving again: Von Braun, after several embarrassing attempts, was able to launch U.S satellite spaceward.
From the vantage point of the third-world conflict that the Cold War would become, the space race was a non-violent contest in which capitalist America, failing to win hearts and minds in Vietnam, would nevertheless eventually prevail. Never mind Kruschev's boasts of communists putting the first human footprints on the moon. It was an American boot that touched down on the moon in 1969, placing a plaque bearing the name of Kruschev's nemesis, Richard Nixon.
The value of this book derives from its breathless sense of pace. The reader hurtles ahead as desperate Americans lash fuel to rockets, draft test monkeys to ride them, and subject their astronaut subjects to painful and often unnecessary tests (e.g., semen samples). Despite all that, the space race would prove to be that rare thing: a big-government project that worked.
Unfortunately, by the time the United States symbolically won the space race in 1969, the nation's focus was on Vietnam. Red Moon Rising recreates that pre-Vietnam time, when symbolism in a conflict was everything and getting to the moon involved more than advancing science; it was a proxy for the superiority of one political and economic system over another.