Space Race’s Birthplace

Afew years back, when the possibility of “space tourism” arose, I wrote a novel fantasizing about winning a seat on the shuttle. Not only was it hugely enjoyable to write, it gave me permission to dive into the NASA archives and read all the space-related books I could find.

I wish I had this at hand at the time. Half history, half coffee-table book, “Kennedy Space Center” is the next best thing to a guided tour. “Kennedy Space Center” traces the story of the Cape Canaveral site with vivid prose and 150 pictures, many of them rare.

There’s so many excellent shots that it becomes difficult to pick the highlights. There’s a satellite view of the site that clearly show the launch pads and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, so big that the 35-story-tall Apollo rocket could be assembled inside. There’s a lovely time-lapse shot of Columbia lifting off, its contrail arcing over two of its predecessor rockets, that could have popped off a cover of Astounding Stories. There’s photos from NASA archives of Mercury and Redstone launches; technicians at work on the shuttle; the mammoth 6,000,000-pound crawler that crushes rocks into sand as it transports rockets to the launch pads at a speed of under a mile per hour (the speedometer, however, goes up to two); the Skylab and shuttle missions.

While the photos are good, the prose is better. David West Reynolds interweaves descriptions of the facility with a history of the space program that’s concise, elegant and moving.

Reynolds thoughtfully begins the story, not with President Truman’s creation of the Joint Long Range Proving Ground in 1949, but earlier. In fact, if this book had been made into a movie instead of “The Right Stuff,” it would have bracketed its story not with Chuck Yeager, the rowdy test pilot who had nothing at all to do with the space program, but a Nazi.

It was Wernher von Braun whose life paralleled the development of rocketry. At 19, he built and flew model rockets for a Berlin club. When they ran out of money and room to test the larger prototypes, the German Army stepped in. They were impressed by the possible military applications, and were allowed to develop rockets because the Treaty of Versailles didn’t mention them; thus, drawing a tenuous line between a decision made by diplomats in 1919 and the Apollo moon mission 50 years later.

Von Braun was chosen to direct Germany’s rocket program. He oversaw the development of larger and larger models, and the construction of the launch facilities at Pennemunde, on the Baltic coast. He joined the Nazi Party in 1940, but his loyalty was single-mindedly focused on rockets. Amid the chaos of Germany’s defeat, he preserved his part of the German rocketry program — 500 scientist, engineers and support crew and 300 boxcar loads of plans, documentation and V-2 components — and turned it over to the Americans. Cold War expedience earned, if not forgiveness, then ethical amnesia, over the 4,200 V-2 missiles launched during the war that killed over 2,500 English civilians, and inspiring Tom Lerher’s song, describing von Braun as “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience”:

“Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some say our attitude should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples of old London town,
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun”

By the time of his death in 1977, he had moved rockets from the drawing table to the surface of the moon.

Unfortunately, the future of NASA is unclear. Thompson devotes a chapter to President Bush’s space initiatives, but the costs are high, there are many constituencies to satisfy, and there are questions over NASA’s ability to turn the massive agency in new directions. It may be that the future lies in privately funded enterprises such as Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. If so, “Kennedy Space Center” may stand, not as a signpost to the future, but a memorial to a glorious past.