Red Moon Rising

Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries
That Ignited the Space Age

By Matthew Brzezinski

Times Books. 310 pp. $26.

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Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis


Up until the 1950s, most Americans thought of the Russians as a simple, boorish, backward people, good at farming, perhaps, but not capable of producing a decent car, a dependable radio, or even quality shoes. Although a nuclear power since 1949, the Soviet Union possessed no long-range nuclear delivery capability. Its overall scientific-technical expertise was, to say the least, held in very low regard.

Then, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, their shiny, 184-lb. "simplest satellite." The world was stunned and the United States, which had taken great pride in its recent scientific achievements, was thrown into a paroxysm of alarm and self-doubt. Politicians, scientists and ordinary Americans all fearfully asked, "How in the world could they pull off something like this?" Meanwhile, the small sphere orbited the Earth at 15,625 m.p.h., beeping derisively as it crossed the equator every 96 minutes.

In his fascinating and highly revealing book, Red Moon Rising, Matthew Brzezinski, former Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of Fortress America and Casino Moscow, chronicles the origins of the space race. The rivalry really began, Brzezinski writes, with the successful launching of Nazi Germany's first V-2 rocket, in 1944 from Wassenaar, the Netherlands, to its deadly detonation in the West End of London.

Brzezinski writes that in the closing weeks of World War II in Europe, in Sept. 1945, a Col. Holger N. Toftoy was ordered to beat the Russians in finding and retrieving any parts or information pertaining to the V-2 rocket. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered that 100 top Nazi rocket scientists be rounded up and immediately evacuated to the United States. In short order, 100 V-2 rockets, 360 metric tons of component parts, and the 100 scientists - among them rocket genius Wernher von Braun - were shipped secretly to America. The country's missile program had unofficially begun.

Initially, according to Brzezinski, it seemed that the United States had beaten the Russians to the precious technological prizes. But, in their haste or neglect, the Americans had left behind for the Soviets the highly sophisticated components for a next-generation, gyro-stabilized V-2 rocket with advanced long-range guidance capabilities.

From there the author details the Soviet Union's 10-year development of the R-5 and R-7 rockets whose conception began with the retrieved German rocket parts. This project culminated with the Soviet Union's successful test-firing of the world's first nuclear-capable ballistic missile on Feb. 2, 1956. Meanwhile, the United States was focused on using bombers as the sole means of nuclear delivery.

Brzezinski meticulously describes the politics and personalities behind the space race, which was, in reality, an integral part of the Cold War. There is the politically amoral and insensitive von Braun, who was just as comfortable overseeing the U.S. space program as he was heading Nazi Germany's rocket program, which rained death upon London. There is crude, coarse Russian chief designer Serge Korolev, who "looked like a heavyweight boxing coach" but was the brilliant prime mover of the R-7 rocket program that eventually launched Sputnik.

Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, under murderous political pressure since denouncing Joseph Stalin in 1956, redeemed himself by giving the go-ahead and then claiming credit for the huge propaganda payoff of Sputnik's success. And then there was President Eisenhower who, when the entire world felt acute anxiety over Sputnik's profound technological and political implications - H-bomb inventor Edward Teller went so far as to call the event "a technological Pearl Harbor" - simply stated, "I can't understand why the American people have got so worked up over this thing. It's certainly not going to drop on their heads."

Red Moon Rising is filled with revealing information. We learn, for instance, just how vicious was the squabbling between the Army and Air Force over who got control over which missiles. And we learn that a satellite did not necessarily have to be spherical, but that Sputnik was purposefully constructed as a sphere and made "entirely of highly reflective aluminum material, polished to a mirror like sheen," because a "spinning spherical object simply caught the light better." According to Brzezinski, Korolev wanted to maximize Americans' ability to clearly see and be awed by Sputnik as it streaked through the nighttime sky.

Riveting history, dramatically told, Red Moon Rising is excellent in evoking the palpable sense of alarm felt by Americans upon realizing, for the first time, that the Atlantic and Pacific could no longer be counted upon to protect their country.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.