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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 382-384

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Book Review

Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age

Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age. By Tom D. Crouch. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. Pp. xiii+338. $29.95.

This is a narrative history of spaceflight from the scientific revolution to the international space station. Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, originally wanted to produce a colorful coffee-table book for a general audience, and these origins appear in the book's eighty black-and-white photos, footnotes-for-quotations-only, and narrative style. Although scholars seeking new interpretations will be disappointed, Crouch has written a wide-ranging synthesis of current research. Instead of a strong thesis, the book offers an examination of the "dreamers and doers" of space exploration that shows how their experience "mirrors the deep complexities of twentieth-century history" (p. xii).

Crouch keeps personalities and anecdotes in the foreground, especially the colorful characters of the era before bureaucracy induced blandness. We learn that Johannes Kepler wrote a fictional story about the space travels of [End Page 382] his mother, and accordingly authorities arrested her for witchcraft. Robert Goddard feared that others would steal his work, and so he conducted his research in secret and sought patents rather than publications. The young Wernher von Braun performed centrifuge experiments on mice in his apartment, horrifying his landlady with blood splatters on the walls.

In this personal approach, Crouch describes dreams of space exploration, including images from sleep and visions of the future. Kepler, using his new ideas of the universe, illustrated his visions of traveling to the Moon in a story called "Somnium." Generations of science fiction writers drew lessons from contemporary science to generate enthusiasm for space travel. Dreaming of spaceflight day and night, early pioneers sought to make their dreams real; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky believed that dreams preceded scientific calculation and research; Goddard drew on dreams to guide his rocketry experiments. Nations dreamed too, as expressions of cultural settings and social values; chaos during the Weimar era in Germany prompted a rocketry craze. Ironically, Crouch notes, astronauts on prolonged Earth-orbit missions were typically lonely, and they dreamed about Earth. Although Crouch's focus on dreams often romanticizes space cadets, he does show that some dreams were dark. Nazi leaders envisioned building missiles with slave labor, and they brought that dream into reality.

Crouch pays due attention to the political aspects of space exploration. His narrative shows how governments used engineers and scientists, and vice versa. Modern states backed innovation in space technology in part because leaders thought it would offer propaganda opportunities. The new Soviet elite tried to validate its revolution through rocketry, and the United States sought prestige by racing the Soviets to the Moon. Political leaders sponsored space technology because it would lead to economic progress, long-range weaponry, or military spy satellites. By the same token, Crouch explains that space engineers were willing to swear allegiance to fulfill their dreams, the most notorious example being von Braun and his rocket team. In fact, the author provides his best analysis in recounting the Faustian bargains between the Nazi state and von Braun's team, and later between that team and the United States. Ultimately, however, he concludes that the primary impetus for space exploration came from a drive that was "a hallmark of Western Civilization" (p. 310).

Though Crouch describes the successes and failures of the major spacecraft and presents enlightening summaries of human spaceflight, he regards robotic satellites and scientific spacecraft as "the real space flight revolution" (p. 276). In most cases his reliance on current scholarship--for example, his use of Michael Neufeld's work to interpret the German V-2 as a failure--works well. In a few cases, however, the conventional wisdom does not suffice. Crouch portrays the space shuttle rather negatively, emphasizing NASA's political compromises and wildly extravagant claims before the flights, and...


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