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The lunatic space race

22 February 2007

9:07 AM

22 February 2007

9:07 AM

Dark Side of the Moon Gerard DeGroot

Cape, pp.320, 18.99

The 1960s brought in the Beatles, drugs, long hair, hippy communes, eastern gurus and the alternative culture, so called. Against all this was the ‘straight’ world whose denizens were short-haired Frank Sinatra fans in suits. The two types seemed quite different from each other, but one thing they had in common was their obsession with fanatastical notions. The alternatives were into UFOs, ley lines, psychic healing and whatnot, while the straights believed in flying to the moon and founding colonies or military bases in outer space. And since the men in suits had the power and the money, they were in a position to realise their fantasies. In 1969 an American rocket deposited two men on the moon’s surface. The first, Neil Armstrong, recited his ‘giant step for mankind’ line, while Buzz Aldrin performed the ritual of Holy Communion. They then raised the stars and stripes flag which, though there is no air on the moon, mysteriously fluttered, and returned safely to earth. In subsequent flights ten other astronauts made lunar landings, but that was the end of the game. Its main purpose, to beat the Russians in the race to the moon, had been achieved. The astronauts were paid off and space travel gave way to other fads.

That is more or less how Gerard DeGroot tells the story. He is a Californian professor of history and, judging by his photograph, hardly old enough to remember the space age. But he has researched it thoroughly, not just the events that led up to the moon landing but the ponderous ‘man’s destiny’ type of rhetoric that went with it. He has a good ear for anecdotes and his narrative is highly amusing, sometimes barely believable. There was never any practical reason for putting a man on the moon. It was a theatrical performance, a boost to American prestige in the Cold War. The Russians, with their hopelessly inefficient Soviet economy, could never really compete, but in their chess-playing way they gave the impression of being ahead in the game, and thereby almost bankrupted their rivals. President Eisenhower saw what was happening, and so later did Kennedy, but neither could resist the popular outcry for billions of dollars to be poured into the space race. The common- sense solution, satisfying every scientific requirement, would have been to send a robot to the moon. That could easily have been done at an early stage and at no great cost. The trouble with sending a man was that he had to be brought back. A possible way round that, says DeGroot, was called the ‘poor sod’ method, the poor sod being some avid reader who would be rocketed to the moon with a bag of books and stay there, receiving regular supplies of food and literature until either he died or some way was found of retrieving him. The PR department disliked the idea and it was never implemented.

After the moon race was over, a popular joke asked, ‘Why did the Americans win it?’ The answer was, they had the best Germans. Specifically they had Wernher von Braun. This young genius, aged 21, was appointed by Hitler to create the rockets of mass destruction which, he hoped, would bring him a last-minute victory in the war. Given a few more months, Braun’s inventiveness might have turned the tide, but with the Red Army at the gates of his factory, he led his team westwards and surrendered to the Americans. Despite his Nazi membership, his rank in the SS and the use of slave labour in his establishment, he was made welcome in the United States and became the leading light in the space programme. It was largely due to his influence that such a huge part of the federal budget was devoted to rocketry. Was this perhaps his way of taking vengeance? It was probably a more effective way of damaging the US economy than the explosive missiles to New York he had wanted to make earlier.


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