Over the past few years, we’ve been treated to a stunning array of achievements in space exploration, such as the Juno Mission (inserted into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016), New Horizons (passed Pluto on July 14, 2015), and Rosetta (landed on a comet on November 12, 2014). These missions are all mind-boggling accomplishments, and naturally raise the question: how did we get so awesome at space travel? I’m not even talking about the reasonably well-known early history of NASA’s manned space flight program, but even earlier, when rocket travel out of the earth’s atmosphere was considered an impossible dream by many.
Breaking the Chains of Gravity (2016), by Amy Shira Teitel, takes an in-depth, fascinating, and compelling look at this early history.
Breaking the Chains of Gravity begins with the early rocket hobbyists in Germany in the 1930s and ends with the formation of NASA in 1959. The path to space would be driven by some of the greatest minds and boldest hearts in the world, and would take many dramatic twists and turns along the way. Among the stories told are the dramatic escape of Wernher von Braun from the Germans and into the protective arms of the Americans, the dramatic rocket-powered flight of Chuck Yeager that broke the sound barrier, and the insane self-experimentation of John Stapp on the biological effects of high g-forces. All these stories are woven into a compelling and enjoyable narrative that gives a clear impression of how everything came to pass.
Amy Shira Teitel is the perfect person to write a book of this nature. She has had a literal lifelong passion and interest in space and space exploration, beginning at age 7! Though she started pursuing this passion on a conventional academic track, getting an MA in the history of science and technology, she then forged her own path in online communication. Now she is a writer and journalist for a number of sites and news outlets, and also a host for Discovery News Live. She has worked as a journalist covering a number of groundbreaking space exploration events and has interviewed an almost countless number of astronauts. (I’ve known Amy for a number of years and feel like I can boast now “I knew her when…”!)
As one would expect from someone with this long history and experience, Breaking the Chains of Gravity is filled with lots of intriguing technical and historical details. I will mention only one that stood out for me, though there are many more. Have you ever wondered why Germany had such a tremendous advantage in rocketry during World War II? It turns out that, although Germany was restricted in developing weaponry due to the treaties signed after the first world war, rocketry was not covered: it was a loophole that the German military could exploit!
Wernher von Braun, of course, is covered extensively in Breaking the Chains, as he was Germany’s rocket pioneer and then America’s, playing a pivotal role in both countries. It was fascinating to learn about von Braun’s vision for space as well as his struggles to realize it. In Nazi Germany, his life was in danger from both the Nazis as well as Allied bombing runs. Many Americans, myself included, mostly know von Braun from a rather unflattering Tom Lehrer song.
The most dramatic stories occur in the first 2/3rds of the book, which cover World War II and then the initial and dangerous tests of hypersonic rocket aircraft. The latter third of the book, however, is equally fascinating, describing the internal politics of the United States military and how it led to the Soviets reaching orbit first. Shira Teitel is a talented writer, and even these political stories are compelling to read.
The book includes four pages of high-quality historic photos that help readers visualize the rockets developed and bring to life the characters involved. For those interested in learning more, it also includes a full bibliography.
In summary: Breaking the Chains of Gravity is a wonderful book about the early history of rocketry and spaceflight. It has broad appeal both to historians and casual readers alike — recommended!