From the Archives: Countdown: A history of space flight by T.A. Heppenheimer

Dec 18 2010 Published by under book review, engineering, history, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Countdown: A History of Space Flight, is from November 14, 2006.


The decision to read this book was certainly not rocket science, even if it is a book about rocket science. An engaging and fascinating read, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to understand it either, as it concerns itself as much with the human challenges in the history of space flight as with the purely engineering ones.

Since this book was published in 1997, it obviously doesn't cover any of the more recent missions from the last ten years or so, but I didn't really find that to be much of a problem, as what I was really looking for was information about the early years of rocketry, and this book covers those quite well, including the programs in Germany, Russia and the USA.

I really appreciated the focus on the early careers of Wernher von Braun in Germany and, in particular, Sergei Korolev of Russia, whose name was unfamiliar to me before. The hardships of the Russian engineers and other workers who were forced to work in incredibly bad conditions for Stalin were something that was also a revelation. Von Braun's story was also fascinating, perhaps the only flaw in the book's coverage is that I would liked to have learned more about the program under Nazi Germany. Von Braun was very likely an unacknowledged war criminal, and this was underplayed.

The great strides of the Soviet program in the 1950s is also well covered, including the determination by the Americans to ultimately overtake the Soviet program, which they did by the 1960s. The stories of the machinations of the US Army, Air Force and Navy and their jockeying for position and influence was very well presented. The seamless integration of the military and industry is also quite apparent, leading the Eisenhower's famous comment about watching out for the military industrial complex. Well, it's all here, laid out in the history of the space program. The main developments in ICBMs, spy planes, spy satellites, high altitude bombers are all covered.

In some ways, the most exciting part of the book is the chapters leading up to the dramatic Apollo moon landing, contrasting with the Soviet program's declining success at that time. The chapters following the moon landing could have been anti-climactic. However, I found the history of the various unmanned, exploratory missions very interesting; Heppenheimer is definitely a proponent of unmanned exploration versus the political showmanship of dangerous and expensive manned missions. This part of the book, leading up to the Challenger disaster, was very critical of the American decision to put all it's eggs in the shuttle basket and showed how the Europeans were able to capitalize on that and how even the Soviet/Russian program was able to make many positive strides.

The book ends on a positive note, hoping for a renewed international space program based on international co-operation. We're not quite there yet, but this book certainly gives the background necessary to understand where we are and how we got here.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight New York: Wiley, 1997. 398pp.

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