Book Review: Breaking the Chains of Gravity

By Guido Bibra, archived from the original blog entry.

The history of the space race between the USA and Russia is well documented, but what happened before NASA was founded in 1958 is much less common knowledge. In her new book Breaking the Chains of Gravity, spaceflight historian Amy Shira Teitel takes up the task of telling the story of the early days of what would ultimately launch humanity into space. On her Vintage Space Blog and her Youtube Channel, she has already often talked about this rarely mentioned era, but Breaking the Chains of Gravity is much more than just a simple collection of blog posts.

The books sticks close to the facts, but as the author mentions in her introductory video, this is not a technical reference manual. Instead, it centers around the people behind the technology, the inventors, engineers and even visionaries that have made spaceflight possible. One of the key figures is, of course, Wernher von Braun, but for Amy Shira Teitel telling just his story was not enough and so she went even further back to the hobby rocketeers in the late 1920s Germany around Max Valier, Herman Oberth and their Society for Space Travel. By necessity, the book is also partly a history of World War II, but the author has wisely kept close to the topic and does not dwell too much on the question of war crimes, although the devastation the V2 rockets were capable of does not go unmentioned.

After the end of WWII, the book shifts gears and tells the parallel stories of the German scientists and engineers around Wernher von Braun arriving in the USA and the efforts of the Americans themselves to successfully build rockets both as weapons and for space exploration. This is also the more well-known story of Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield and Neil Armstrong flying rocket planes to break the sound barrier and almost reaching space, but the equally harrowing tales of flight surgeons John Paul Stapp self-experimenting with deceleration and David Simmons’ high-altitude balloon flights are mentioned more than just in passing. American politics under President Eisenhower also take up a larger part of the book’s second half, which describes in detail the decisions of the US administration that ultimately led to the creation of NASA.

Amy Shira Teitel’s writing style closely resembles her many blog posts, but here it seems even more refined and improved. While she has chosen to omit technical details, her writing is far from dumbed down and actually full of minute details and facts rarely mentioned anywhere else. The narrative successfully avoids being a dry history lesson and instead conveys the author’s enthusiasm for the subject by being engaging and suspenseful, but at the same time not too emotional. The book has only two negative aspects: it ends in 1957 with the creation of NASA and the Russian spaceflight efforts are hardly mentioned at all – but both are entirely understandable and would have warranted a whole second book… which perhaps may be forthcoming in the future.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity has been released in Europe and Asia on October 22 and will be available in the US on January 22 next year. An audiobook version (sadly not read by the author herself) is already out in the US.