Book Review

The History of Space Flight by Ted Spitzmiller

Review by Roger D. Launius
Published in Quest Volume: 28 #2 (2021)

It is no small task to write a general history of any topic, let alone the history of human spaceflight. Accordingly, Ted Spitzmiller should receive kudos for trying. If Spitzmiller gets an “A” for effort, however, he gets about “D+” for execution. Taking a chronological approach to human spaceflight, it is perplexingly he starts his discussion with early ballooning and it is not until chapter nine that the first humans enter space with Yuri Gagarin in 1961. More than 160 pages are expended discussing earlier activities, including the development of rocket technology, nascent space biomedicine, rocketplanes, and the race to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles. Moreover, there is little here that one would consider beyond the ordinary in space history. Much is said about Wernher von Braun, the German rocket team, and the development of the V-2 as a ballistic missile. Little, sadly, is said of the Frank Malina and the rocketeers at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) established in World War II.

At no point in this description of early rocket efforts does the author tackle the thorny questions of the von Braun team’s culpability in Nazi war crimes, the use of concentration camp labor to build the V-2, the deaths associated with conditions of those slave laborers, or the place of Arthur Rudolph in obtaining additional workers from the SS. There is a long, complicated, and sordid history here that any book that seeks to tell the history of human spaceflight must probe. Indeed, Spitzmiller celebrates Wernher von Braun as a far-sighted visionary with an integrated space exploration plan that would foster a future of great discovery in the “final frontier.” He continued the whitewashing of less savory aspects of the careers of the German rocketeers during World War II while overemphasizing their influence in American rocketry.

Likewise, the place of American rocketeers at Caltech under the leadership of Frank Malina get passing attention, at best. I have long found it both remarkable and dispiriting that efforts to develop very capable rocket technology in the U.S. in such locations as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been subverted to the story of von Braun and the Germans. During World War II Malina and his colleagues developed jet-assisted take-off (JATO) rockets at JPL and the WAC Corporal immediately thereafter. They even spun off a major corporation, Aerojet, that remains an important rocket engine entity to the present. Even so, Malina and the JPL rocketeers have been largely forgotten while von Braun and the Germans received overwhelmingly positive publicity. Why? I believe it is because Malina had ties to leftist organizations in the 1930s, although he always denied being a communist. Accordingly, his pedigree was not one of unabashed anti-communism and in the Red Scare era during the 1940s and 1950s it would not do for the keepers of this new and remarkably powerful technology of rocketry to have any propensity in favor of Marxism. Always conscious of the horror of rockets in war, Malina believed that his work in World War II was appropriate only to rid the world of a great evil. After World War II it did not take much hounding for him to leave JPL and accept employment with the United Nations. The U.S. government then ran Malina out of the U.N. as well, and he eventually became an artist in Paris where he died in 1981. This is a fascinating story that deserves wider dissemination. You will have to look to books other that this one to read this story.

Well over 200 pages of this massive tome—overall there is a total of 606 pages of text—is devoted to the race to the Moon. Having written about the Apollo Moon landing program myself, I cannot criticize the author for devoting so much space about the greatest human spaceflight initiative of all time, but I can fault him (1) for the mundaneness of the discussion provided here when there is so much more that could and probably should have been discussed, and (2) the short shrift descriptions of the post-Apollo spaceflight era.

There are some chapters toward the end of the book that gloss the end of the Space Shuttle era and the programs pursued to move beyond it. Spitzmiller briefly treats the development of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System, but utterly fails to offer anything approaching a complex discussion. The major development of the last two decades in human spaceflight has been the rise of commercial firms, nurtured by NASA, that can provide space access to low-Earth orbit and resupply the International Space Station. This is a subject of considerable significance and worthy of sustained investigation, but the author offers little of substance.

I believe this book has serious shortcomings that make it a work of limited value to those working in the history of human space exploration. It is an overview written very much for engineers and other non-historians. My fundamental concern is that the author concerns himself with the linear evolution of spaceflight to the very great exclusion of any social or cultural factors that might have influenced the timeline. There is little of the obscurity of choices, blind allies of research, or trial and error that might have enriched this story.

Part of this may be due to the limited reading that the author has undertaken in the subject. If the short, generalized bibliography included in the book is any indication, and I believe it is, the base knowledge of the author is considerably restricted. How is it that the work of Colin Burgess, Steven J. Dick, Alexander C.T. Geppert, John Krige, W. Henry Lambright, Monique Laney, John M. Logsdon, Howard E. McCurdy, Valerie Neal, Frederick I. Ordway III, Margaret L. Weitekamp, or any number of other well-respected historians and analysts fail to be reflected within either the bibliography or the narrative? Let me close by saying that I am disappointed, not only by the opportunity Spitzmiller missed but also especially by the niche that this book could have filled as a strong overview of the history of human spaceflight. I hope someone else pursues the synthesis that this subject deserves.


About the Book

Title: The History of Space Flight
Author: Ted Spitzmiller
Publisher: University Press of Florida
Year: 2017
ISBN: 978-0-8130-5427-8
Pages: 648


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More Information

  • Archive ID # G301207
  • Format: Document (PDF)
  • Author/Creator:
  • Publication Year: 2021
  • Publisher: Quest
  • Copyright Status: Copyrighted
  • Copyright Holder: SPACE 3.0
  • Language: English
  • Number of Pages: 2
  • Type: Book/Movie Review
  • Subject:
  • Collection: Quest
  • Availability: Digital Download