Deborah Cadbury"s extraordinary history combines action and suspense with a moving portrayal of the space race"s human dimension. Using source materials never before available, she tells a riveting story of the espionage, ambition, ingenuity, and passion behind humankind"s mind-bending voyage beyond the bounds of Earth.
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Product DetailsDeborah Cadbury is the highly acclaimed author of several books, including Dreams of Iron and Steel, The Lost King of France, and Terrible Lizard. She has also won numerous international awards as a television producer for the BBC. She lives in London.
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"The Black List"
In the midwinter of 1945, the war in Europe had reached its final stages. Germany was crumbling under continued heavy Allied bombing. Cities were being obliterated, magnificent buildings reduced to stone, sand, and lime. The massive Allied raids had demolished towns and cities on such a scale that Bomber Command was running out of significant targets. The attack on the Western Front was unrelenting, the dark shapes of Allied soldiers slowly advancing across occupied lands. The Rhine would soon be in Allied hands. From the east, with an unstoppable fury, the Soviets were approaching. In January 1945, the Red Army launched a massive offensive as 180 divisions overran Poland and East Prussia. Berlin was in their sights.
Right in the path of the advancing Soviets, at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast, lay a hidden village housing some five thousand scientists and their families. Discreetly obscured by dense forests at the northern tip of the island of Usedom, it was here that Hitler"s "wonder weapons" were being developed. The trees ended suddenly to reveal a chain-link fence and a series of checkpoints. At the local railway terminal, a notice reminded passengers: "What you see, what you hear, when you leave, leave it here." Across a stretch of waterknown as the Peene River, a large village could be seen. It looked like an army barracks with regimented rows of well-built hostels. The sound and smell of the sea were never far away but remained invisible. About half a mile farther on, hidden among the trees, was a scene from science fiction at the very cutting edge of technology, known as "Rocket City."
The world"s largest rocket research facility was created by a young aristocrat named Wernher von Braun. At thirty-two, he was head of rocket development for the German army. A natural leader, he possessed the "confidence and looks of a film star—and knew it," according to one contemporary account, although what people remembered most about him was his charm. He had a way of lifting the most ordinary of colleagues to a new appreciation of their worth. His organizational skills had turned Peenemünde into a modern annex of German weaponry. However, very few people were allowed to see beyond the practical engineer, who dreamed not of destructive weaponry but, improbably, of space. He was driven by the ambition of building a rocket that could achieve "the dream of centuries: to break free of the Earth"s gravitational pull and go to the planets and beyond." He envisaged space stations that would support whole colonies in space. "In time," he believed, "it would be possible to go to the Moon, by rocket it is only one hundred hours away." But in Hitler"s Germany, he was forced to keep such visions to himself. These were plans for the future—a future that was increasingly in doubt.
Hitler had pinned his last hopes of saving the Third Reich on von Braun"s greatest achievement: a rocket known as the A-4. Even those working with von Braun were amazed when they saw this strange vehicle for the first time. His technical assistant Dieter Huzel remembered being taken, in 1943, to a vast hangar that loomed above the trees. Inside, the noise was deafening, a combination of overhead cranes, the whir of electric motors, and the hiss of compressed gas. It took a second for Huzel"s eyes to adjust to the strong shafts of sunlight, which cut across the hangar from windows high in the far wall. "Suddenly I saw them—four fantastic shapes but a few feet away, strange and towering above us in the subdued light. They fitted the classic concept of a space ship, smooth and torpedo-shaped . . ." Painted a dull olive-green, standing 46 feet tall and capable of flying more than 200 miles, the A-4 was the most powerful rocket in the world. "I just stood and stared, my mouth hanging open for an exclamation that never occurred. I could only think that they must be out of some science fiction film."
Hitler had little interest in space exploration, but to him, the rocket was an ultimate weapon that could save the Third Reich and prove German superiority to the world. In July 1943, Wernher von Braun had been summoned to Wolfsschanze, the führer"s "Wolf"s Lair" in Rastenberg, East Prussia, to give a secret presentation. Walter Dornberger, the army general who ran rocket development at Peenemünde, had not seen Hitler since the beginning of the war and was "shocked" at the change in him. The führer entered the room looking aged and worn, stooping slightly as though carrying an invisible weight. Living in bunkers for much of the time had given his face the unnatural pallor of someone who spent his days in the dark. It was devoid of expression, seemingly uninterested in the proceedings, except for his eyes, which were worryingly alive, touching everything with quick glances.
Hitler"s original response to the rocket had initially hampered von Braun"s team. He simply refused to believe in the idea. Now, in the half-light, as he watched footage of the first successful launch of the A-4 shooting faster than the speed of sound over the Baltic Sea, his concentration became intense. With apparent satisfaction, he took in an impression of the blond, blue-eyed von Braun, a perfect specimen of his "master race" talking with uncontained enthusiasm as he outlined technical details of assembly, mobile launching facilities, and testing. Here was the perfect terror weapon that could carry a one-ton war-head, could be launched from any location, and was undetectable on approach.
As von Braun finished his presentation, it was clear that Hitler had been greatly affected. His former listlessness vanished as he fired questions with increasing excitement. He had found the weapon that could win him the war. "Why could I not believe in the success of your work?" he said to Dornberger. "Europe and the rest of the world will be . .
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