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Cover for Breaking the Chains of GravityAre you interested in the history of the US space program? Do you know the history of it prior to NASA? That’s what Amy Shira Teitel covers in Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA. It is a fascinating read with a timeline that will likely surprise you if you’re not already familiar with the roots of the famed space program.

Teitel starts off in Germany. Why Germany? The truth of the matter is that much of the successes in the early space program were due to technology based on the German V-2 rockets. Yes, the very same ones the Germans launched against Great Britain in WWII. Not only did we use captured German technology, but many of the leaders in the US space program were former Nazi scientists like Werner Von Braun.

Teitel covers Von Braun’s motivations well as well as several other key participants in Germany’s rocket program. Military use of rocketry was something they were forced into due to the times. And membership in the Nazi party was a requirement for survival in a fascist regime. Therefore, when the war came to an end, the scientists involved and any information on the technology around the V-2, especially spare parts, were high priority acquisitions. That’s effectively what they became as the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain all vied to get at the men and materiel.

Then Teitel delves into the next plodding steps of the US space program: not knowing what to do with the Germans, the test flights with the X-1 aircraft (which was used to break the sound barrier), the conflicting priorities, the infighting between the military services, and the shock when the USSR launched its first two rockets into space. As is pointed out elsewhere, any of these subjects could and have warranted books of themselves, but Teitel delivers a nice summary in a storytelling style that connects the pieces together. She finally ends the narrative with the formation of NASA from so many disparate parts and its first few steps as the center of US space research.

I enjoyed Breaking the Chains of Gravity greatly and would recommend it to anyone who has a thirst for space, for NASA, and for how science advances in the applied realm. It’s not a quick read. There are a lot of facts, a lot of agencies, and a lot of separate initiatives to keep track of, especially in the last one third of the book. This reflects the historic complexity and, for lack of a better word, mess that represented the US space program prior to NASA. If you happen to be a homeschooling family, this would be an excellent addition to any study of space and the US efforts in that arena.

Note: I received a pre-release copy of the book for review.

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