- Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight by Michael G. Smith
In his intriguing prehistory of the space age, Michael Smith invites us to view rocket science as an infusion of cultural influences. In so doing, he suggests that rocketry can serve as an allegory of the human understanding of science, and also illustrate how a transnational flow of ideas can shape human knowledge. Smith’s emphasis centers on the Russian experience, but uses the metaphor of the parabola that brings ideas back to Russia or the Soviet Union. Purists may argue that a more accurate description would involve an ellipsis, but the parabola idea works if one accepts the linearity of history, a concept popular in the science fiction that also influenced early rocketry. [End Page 276]
Starting in the nineteenth century, Smith surveys the popularizers of science and how their message helped popularize not only relativism, but also such concepts as cosmism as well as a notion of plurality of worlds. A notable quality of his study involves the drawing on writings not usually associated with flight. (Henri) Bergsonian philosophy’s argument that human intellect is bound up with space, for example, helps frame the diversity of thoughts that characterized the start of the twentieth century. Moving on to rocketry pioneers, notably Konstantin Tsiolkovskii’s and Robert Esnault-Pelterie’s works, Smith ably demonstrates how fantasy played an important role in clearing the way for rational explorations of rocket propulsion. This canvassing of a seamless web of knowledge, though successful, is done to show how the arc heads to Russia, whether through private correspondence (including Robert Goddard’s dealings with Russian rocket enthusiasts), through popular media, or through the writings of Tsiolkoskii (who freely incorporated foreign ideas into his own work.)
Many elements of Smith’s canvas will be familiar to readers of Asif Siddiqi’s and Scott Palmer’s works on Russian aerospace, but Smith’s own combination of these sources provides a remarkable image of the fascination with space travel. Rocketry also served as a fulcrum to push the USSR toward a positive vision of technology, in stark contrast to the Western pessimism of Oswald Spengler and others. True, the Bauhaus and the likes of Joan Miró echoed technological fascination, but the Russian interpretation thereof emphasized ideology and revolutionary optimism reaching a form of escapism that carried interesting connotations of religiosity. This Russian, later Soviet, fascination with space extended beyond the obvious fascination with the “red planet.” Echoing cosmism, it emphasized the notion of immortality and thus served as a metaphor for ideological permanence. One could speak of worlds, rather than workers uniting.
Any cultural history, even one as rich as Smith’s, overlooks certain chronological elements. Very little is discussed in relation to the technological pessimism following World War I, for example, and Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity was devised in 1915, not 1916. Also, some interpretations may surprise readers. When Smith compares Tsiolkovskii to Charles Lindbergh, for example, he does not do so on the basis of their achievements but their inspirational effects on others. (Tsiolkovskii after all kept his eye on the future, whereas Lindbergh became obsessed with the past.)
On the other hand, the author offers an attractive interpretation of the stratonauts, an often overlooked realm of aeronautics at the intersection of ballooning, scientific inquiry, and treading on the edge of space. Western nations engaged in such “pre-space” races, but the place of stratonautics as an example of dialectical materialism fits nicely into the Soviet context: the balloon was revolutionary, the airplane matched Russian culture, and the rocket would be Soviet, with stratonauts acting as intermediate portents of [End Page 277] revolution. This element of Communist ideology paradoxically relied, through Friedrich Engels, on Newton’s third law of motion. As such, it confirms further the Soviet obsession with space flight, a fascination Stalin was only too happy to capitalize on even as his own actions sent the likes of rocket scientist Sergei Korolev to the Gulag during World...