Years ago, I read James Oberg’s awesome book, Red Star in Orbit, which chronicled the Soviet Union’s space program and its competition against the United States’ newly formed NASA, up to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program. Brzezinski’s work, Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age, reads as a prequel to Oberg’s but from the political side of the situation.
After WWII, the Soviet Union struggled to get back on its feet after the devastation and consumption of its resources. However, in the United States, life could not have been better. The economy was booming. WWII hero Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and the US had a large arsenal of missiles ready for military purposes if the need should arise.
The Soviet Union had only a handful. Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary, wanted to close that gap. He was not interested in space. He just did not want to appear vulnerable and defenseless if the Americans were to launch missiles at them.
Sergei Korolev managed to get Khrushchev to consider putting a satellite in orbit, one that could carry warheads into space where they could be launched to anywhere on the globe with impunity. With Khrushchev’s blessing, the Chief Designer (as Korolev is referred to in Brzezinski’s work) proceeds to accomplish what no one had done before. Successfully put an artificial satellite in orbit around the world.
Brzezinski follows Korolev’s journey through set-backs, financial difficulties, disasters, rivalries and mounting pressure from all sides.
I found it humorous that Korolev and Khrushchev did not immediately understand the impact of what they had done. Not until the whole world reacted with awe at Earth’s new artificial satellite.
Brzezinski did stumble in the epilogue. He states that when the Chief Designer died in January 1966, “Russia’s moon dreams died with Sergei Pavlovich Korolev”. As any student of history will recall, during the 1960’s, the space race between the US and the USSR rose to fever pitch and ran hot and heavy from Yuri Gagarin’s 1962 orbital flight until Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969.
Despite this, the book is an important read for anyone interested in space history.