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To a Distant Day

The Rocket Pioneers

Chris Gainor

Publication Year: 2008

Although the dream of flying is as old as the human imagination, the notion of actually rocketing into space may have originated with Chinese experiments with gunpowder in the Middle Ages. Rockets as weapons and entertainment, whether sprung from science fiction or arising out of practical necessity, are within the compass of this engaging history of how human beings actually gained the ability to catapult themselves into space.
Chris Gainor's irresistible narrative introduces us to pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth, who pointed the way to the cosmos and created the earliest wave of international enthusiasm for space exploration. It shows us German engineer Wernher von Braun creating the V-2, the first large rocket, which opened the door to space but failed utterly as the “wonder weapon” it was meant to be. From there Gainor follows the space race to the Soviet Union and the United States and gives us a close look at the competitive hysteria that led to Sputnik, satellites, space probes, and—finally—human flight into space in 1961. As much a story of cultural ambition and personal destiny as of scientific progress and technological history, To a Distant Day offers a complete and thoroughly compelling account of humanity’s determined efforts—sometimes poignant, sometimes amazing, sometimes mad—to leave the earth behind.


Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Outward Odyssey: A People's History of Spaceflight Series


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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-ix

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pp. xi-xiv

I was born and raised, along with five brothers and sisters, on a small farm in Michigan. By the time I was twelve I was working full days in the fields and milking cows. This was just after the Great Depression and at a time before space travel, before jet engines, in a year when the world's most sophisticated rockets were generally not getting much higher than a couple ...

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xv-xix

This book got its start in 2003 when Colin Burgess, editor for the Outward Odyssey series of books on the history of space exploration, contacted me to ask if I was interested in writing a history of space exploration leading up to the time of the first human spaceflight in 1961. I had never thought of writing such a book, but as I considered the proposition and looked into ...

Acronyms and Abbreviations

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pp. xxi-xxiii

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1. Space Dreams and War Drums

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pp. 1-17

This famous assertion by Tsiolkovsky is always cited to support the idea that humanity must go into space to survive and flourish. Yet few people have noted the implications of the first part of his statement. Instead of saying humans originated on the earth, he called the earth our "cradle." Tsiolkovsky chose his words to reflect his belief that life is widespread throughout the ...

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2. Tsiolkovsky and the Birth of Soviet Astronauts

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pp. 18-35

The technological changes that emerged in the nineteenth century brought with them far-reaching social, economic, and political changes. Growing populations and industrialization forced millions of people in Europe to shift from agrarian to urban settings, a transition that was difficult for most. The American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 heralded ...

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3. Robert Goddard's Solitary Trail

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pp. 36-52

The 1927 exhibition of "interplanetary vehicles" in Moscow gave prominence to the work of an American physics professor named Robert Goddard. The grateful Soviet space enthusiasts sent Goddard a scrapbook of the exhibition, but Goddard and his wife Esther felt that the exhibition gave Goddard insufficient recognition for his accomplishments. The Soviets lavished ...

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4. Hermann Oberth and Early German Rocketry

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pp. 53-69

The dreams of aviation and space travel weren't confined to America and Russia early in the twentieth century. Although the Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to fly a heavier-than-air powered craft, they weren't far ahead of many people in Europe. Indeed, many of the advances in aviation between the Wrights' historic 1903 flights and World War I ...

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5. Von Braun, Dornberger, and World War II

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pp. 70-88

On December 1, 1932, the twenty-year-old engineering student Wernher von Braun reported to work for his new job at the German army's Kummersdorf proving ground southwest of Berlin. That simple act signaled the beginning of rocketry's move from the realm of theorists and lone inventors to the large military-industrial-academic teams required to build rockets ...

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6. Rockets, Balloons, and the Right Stuff

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pp. 89-108

Five months after he and his colleagues surrendered to the United States Army in the German Alps in May 1945, Wernher von Braun, the former technical director of the German rocket team at Peenemünde, arrived by train in El Paso, Texas, in the custody of U.S. Army major James Hamill. After months of interrogation in Germany, France, England, and the ...

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7. Korolev and the First ICBM

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pp. 109-125

Late in the evening of June 27, 1938, Sergei Korolev heard the knock on his Moscow apartment door heralding his arrest by the Soviet secret police. His incarceration marked the beginning of an odyssey that nearly cost him his life and left him with lasting physical and psychological scars. Korolev was just one of the estimated 4.5 to 5.5 million people who were caught up ...

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8. The Military-Industrial Complex

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pp. 126-143

As he lay on his deathbed in August 1945, Robert Goddard read newspaper stories announcing the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. Though Goddard knew that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant World War II was over, we can only speculate whether he realized that the creation of atomic bombs would in a few years' time give new life to ...

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9. Sputniks and Muttniks

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pp. 144-162

Arguably the most famous dinner party in the annals of twentieth-century science took place on April 5, 1950, at the home of physicist James A. Van Allen in the Washington dc suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. The guest of honor was the distinguished British geophysicist, Sydney Chapman. Another guest was Lloyd V. Berkner, a radio engineer who shifted into ...

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10. The Birth of NASA

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pp. 163-181

Although Nikita Khrushchev's boastful dismissal of the American Vanguard satellite as a "grapefruit" played to American worries that Sputnik constituted a "technological Pearl Harbor," President Dwight Eisenhower sought to assure Americans that the Soviet lead in technology was more illusory than real. Eisenhower had access to classified information that he couldn't ...

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11. Man in Space Soonest

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pp. 182-206

The launch of the dog Laika aboard Sputnik 2 in November 1957 was an unmistakable signal that the day was not far off when other living beings—this time human—would fly into space. The fact that Laika had survived her first hours in space answered the first questions about whether humans could survive the rigors of a spaceflight. Any living being going into orbit ...

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Epilogue: July 16, 1969

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pp. 207-210

In the roads, beaches, islands, and waters surrounding a space center in Florida named after John F. Kennedy, an estimated one million people had gathered to watch the sixth launch of Wernher von Braun's greatest creation, the Saturn V rocket. Every launch of this 363-foot behemoth was an event due to the 7.5 million pounds of thrust it packed at liftoff. But this particular ...


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pp. 211-218


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pp. 219-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780803222588
E-ISBN-10: 0803222580

Page Count: 363
Illustrations: 30 photos
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Outward Odyssey: A People's History of Spaceflight Series