Nick Smith’s review of Red Moon Rising, by Matthew Brzezinski (originally published in Engineering Management… archive stuff)

According to Nikita Khruschchev, first among equals in the Presidium (or the Politburo as we think of it today), ‘the most honourable profession a man could have’ was that of engineer. This from a man at the helm of the former Soviet Union, of one of the great superpowers of its day, and one that under his influence would start to free itself from Stalin’s ‘Terror’, only to become embroiled in the biggest game of rise the 20th Century was to witness… the Cold War.

Red Moon Rising is journalist Matthew Brzezinski’s account of the technological race that both caused and ran parallel with the Cold War. This autumn we celebrate, if that is the right word, the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s secret launch of their first satellite PS-1 (short for prostreishy sputnik, Russian for ‘simple satellite’). As news reached the western world that the Soviets had the technology to launch the world’s first artificial moon, US president Eisenhower desperately tried to downplay Sputnik’s military significance. The game was now afoot, and its name was nuclear proliferation.

Brzezinski’s narrative is nothing if not fast moving and accurate. His story goes beyond the political intrigue and right into the engineering, bringing the likes of Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev to life in plausibly dramatic fashion. He really relishes describing the physics of what it takes to get a rocket off the ground, and is never more comfortable with his material than when he is recounting the components of ballistic missiles, such as the V-2’s lateral radio correction sets, firing control panels, combustion chambers and ‘gyro-stabilized platform’. He combines this with a sensitive understanding of the human politics of enforced labour and the purges that accounted for the meaningless loss of millions of lives.

Red Moon Rising is a great story, brilliantly told by a writer with a deep understanding of the technical and human issues involved.

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