Wednesday’s Book Review: “Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age”

red-moon-rising-sputnik-and-the-hidden-rivals-that-ignited-the-space-ageRed Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age. By Matthew Brzezinski. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007.

The fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, sparked the publication of several new books reconsidering the origins of the space age. It was an important demarcation point, to be sure, and fully deserving of reconsideration and perhaps reinterpretation. Matthew Brzezinski, a former Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, has written a richly detailed, personality driven account of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States that led to the launch of the first human-made Earth satellite. Red Moon Rising contains many wonderful anecdotes and little-known details. As such it is a useful new work on a subject already much plumbed by many skilled historians and journalists.

Brzezinski is a vivid storyteller, and his extraordinary narration is a great strength of this book. The author’s flamboyant style makes Red Moon Rising a joy to read, rather than a chore. Unfortunately, too many historians seem to inflict dense prose on those interested in their subjects. The richness of Brzezinski’s narrative, coupled with the recounting of little-known aspects of the story are the principal reasons students of the history of spaceflight will pay attention to this account.

Brzezinski’s version of this story benefited greatly from the end of the Cold War and the opening of Soviet archival materials as well as access to many interview subjects in Russia. He demonstrated an indefatigable obsession for tracking down stray facts and recreating unknown scenes. A review of his sources reveals Brzezinski’s multi-layered efforts to gather primary materials from wide-ranging archives of private sources.

For all of his research—and I applaud his efforts on that score—there are several troubling aspects of Brzezinski’s work. Perhaps the most important is his complete inversion of the account of how the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to support the International Geophysical Year (IGY) with orbital satellite programs.

The IGY was an international scientific effort to undertake coordinated measurements of various aspects of the Earth’s meteorology, geology, magnetism, geodesy, and a host of other physical sciences. Brzezinski’s account notes: “A few weeks prior to the IGY’s 1955 convention in Rome, Radio Moscow announced that the Soviet Union would launch scientific instruments into space…In response, the National Academy of Sciences promptly declared that the United States would also send up a satellite to study the earth’s protective cocoon” (p. 92). Unfortunately, this sequence of announcements is totally wrong; the U.S. announced that it would launch a scientific Earth satellite and then the Soviet Union responded.

It is both amazing and troubling that Brzezinski mischaracterized these actions so thoroughly. Of course, this story is well known and has been discussed at length in Asif A. Siddiqi’s impressive account, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974 (Washington, DC: NASA SP-2000-4408, 2000), the gold standard for understanding the Soviet side of the space race.

In addition, some of Brzezinski’s details seem more inventive than is acceptable in works of history. Factual errors are present throughout the book, and their persistence forces readers to question the larger story that the author seeks to tell. Brzezinski too often comments on “the spare historical record” of a particular event and then describes it in great detail, discussing at length the thoughts, motivations, and even body language of the actors involved. Scene setting is to be expected at some level in any work of history, but on what did he base such vivid accounts of obscure events? Filling in missing gaps in the record is something all historians do, but how far may we legitimately go in structuring the past? How much dramatic license is appropriate? Those are questions of significance, and readers are always empowered to ascertain how far they wish to trust an author’s narrative.

When Edmund Morris published his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, in which he inserted himself as a wholly artificial participant in the story it set off a fire storm of controversy. Many questioned the appropriateness of such a literary device but at least Morris was forthright about his style. In the case of Red Star Rising readers may appropriately ask how much of the narrative is based on solid historical research and how much of it is dramatic recreation. At sum, this is a philosophical debate in which individuals of good intentions may disagree.

Whatever strengths this work might possess, there is nothing in Red Moon Rising whatsoever that will change the contours of the larger story of Sputnik and its place in world history that has already been mapped out by such scholars as Walter A. McDougall and Robert A. Divine. Indeed, some of that larger story of Sputnik as a world changing event is lost amidst all of Brzezinski’s enriching details. At best it is a lucid recounting of the creation story of the space age, in which the image of the Soviet Union as a technological backwater is reversed, spaceflight as an exemplar of progress and forward thinking is advanced, and the destiny of humanity is placed in a cosmic perspective.

In the United States, moreover, the launch of Sputnik touched off a crisis of confidence in the nation’s scientific and technological elite and led to a series of important decisions, among them the creation of NASA and the establishment of major educational programs. As Duke University historian Alex Roland observed about this type of narrative in 1994, it is not so much history as it is “tribal rituals, meant to comfort the old and indoctrinate the young” (Alex Roland, “How We Won the Moon,” New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1994, pp. 1, 25).

As a story of creation for the space age, Red Moon Rising is probably acceptable for most space enthusiasts. It offers a usable past for those interested in this subject, but I recommend reading it with a critical mind and questioning its dramatic recreations. As a statement of “Truth,” if such a thing exists and if we can define it, Brzezinski’s narrative has holes that are readily apparent to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the early history of spaceflight. All are cautioned to be appropriately hesitant to accept any particular version of the past; that caution is doubly appropriate with Red Moon Rising.

Of course, historians have been wrestling with the nature of truth about the past since the profession first emerged. Who has the authority to decide what the history says? Is it professional historians, journalists trained in turning a good phrase and telling a story, actors recollecting the events the way they wish, some combination of these or others of disparate vantage points? No less a figure than historian Carl L. Becker said in the 1920s that everyone had to be their own historian. He wrote presciently about this issue in one of his seminal essays, “What Are Historical Facts?” Becker commented that we all assign value to facts based on the concerns personally felt, the perspectives invoked, and the concerns of the age: “the simple historical fact turns out to be not a hard, cold something with clear outline, and measurable pressure, like a brick. It is so far as we can know it, only a symbol, a simple statement which is a generalization of a thousand and one simpler facts which we do not for the moment care to use, and this generalization itself we cannot use apart from the wider facts and generalizations which it symbolizes” (Carl L. Becker, “What Are Historical Facts?” Western Political Quarterly 8 (September 1955): 327-40).

Is Brzezinski’s book simply a statement of a set of perspectives about the past and that his perspective is as valid as another other, or are there such things a right and a wrong, accurate and inaccurate accounts of the past? I have always believed that historians must strive for an accurate recording of the past insofar as possible, while always understanding and acknowledging that such a goal is unattainable. But some histories are more accurate than others. In that sense, while I value much of what Brzezinski has accomplished I am also concerned about how well it reflects historical truth insofar as we can know it. Accordingly, I will be hesitant to recommend it as a standard work to read about the origins of the space age.

An old baseball joke seems apropos here. Three umpires were discussing how they call balls and strikes behind the plate. The first said, “I call them as they are,” a pre-modern, absolutist position that I wish I could embrace but I know is unattainable in history. The second said, “I call them as I see them,” a position reflecting rationality and modernity that I accept as the most workable approach to history as each contributes to the marketplace of ideas and individuals are then asked to sort out the divergent positions. The third opined in a fit of post-modern existential angst, “They ain’t nothin’ til I call them.”

It seems that this last perspective is the critical element in considering such books as Red Moon Rising. Is it possible that the reality of what happened does not matter all that much; the only thing that is truly important are decisions about meaning? That may well be an intensely personal decision predicated on many idiosyncrasies and perspectives. Intellectually, I can understand this; in practice I find it an epistemological cul-de-sac which if carried to its logical conclusion no one will be able to say that they know anything about anything.

Ultimately, Red Moon Rising will probably serve most readers quite well in offering a usable space age creation story. I hope also it will motivate readers to explore further, recognizing that Brzezinski’s narrative is simply one among several offered in the marketplace of ideas. It, like all of the others, needs to be reviewed in order to reach an informed decision about the past.

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