The Science of Space: Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel by Willy Ley

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

This column, up until now, has been devoted to exploring works of fiction. But looking around my den recently, I realized there have been many non-fiction books that influenced my view of the future. Today, I’m going to look at one of my early favorites, written by a pioneer of rocketry, Willy Ley. In the 1960s, it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of the space program, and I was fortunate to have a dad who worked in aerospace and was a collector of all sorts of fascinating books on scientific topics.

Some of my earliest memories involve poking through my father’s books, and one of my favorite discoveries was Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel. Before I could read, I would simply look at the pictures printed on glossy paper at the beginning of the book, filled with both imaginary ships and the real rockets of the 1930s through 1950s. And as I learned to read, I started going through the book in earnest, consuming it in bits and pieces. Ley’s book was not my only source for information on the space program—I spent hours scouring magazines like Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Life, and National Geographic for articles, as well as seeking out the fact-filled articles in my dad’s science fiction magazines (many of which were also written by Willy Ley).

I still have that very same copy of Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel, tattered and yellowed. And you can tell it was last read by a young boy in the 1960s since it’s bookmarked with a now-vintage flyer promoting accessories for the Mattel Fanner-50 bullet-loading smoking cap pistol, a toy that was promoted because of the way it looked just like a real gun from the Wild West.

At a young age, I remember seeing Willy Ley on TV, as part of the Disneyland episode “Man in Space.” I did not see it on its first run (it was made the year of my birth), but instead saw it on the later show, The Wonderful World of Disney, or perhaps at elementary school, where the Disney documentaries were always enjoyed by me and my fellow students. That installment (which also featured Wernher von Braun) was basically a video summary of Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel, with animated sections that helped illustrate concepts from the book in an entertaining way (barring the one scene which depicts the Chinese inventors of skyrockets in a condescending and racist manner). (Additional note: I recently found out that “Man in Space” is currently available for subscribers to the Disney+ streaming service.)


About the Author

Willy Ley (1906-1969) was a German rocket scientist who emigrated to the United States as the Nazis took power before World War II. He grew up near Berlin’s Museum of Natural History, and was interested in the sciences from an early age. Ley was very taken by pioneering scientist Hermann Oberth’s The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, but felt it was too complex for a wide audience. So, at the age of 19, he set out to write a more accessible book, which was published a year later as Travel in Outer Space.

Ley was an early member of Germany’s Spaceflight Society, often known by the acronym VfR. In 1929, there was talk of using an actual rocket launch to popularize Fritz Lang’s film Woman in the Moon, and Ley and Oberth were involved in assisting the filmmakers with their portrayal of space travel. But while the movie caused a flurry of experimentation, the launch never took place. At about the same time, in German, Ley wrote his only science fiction novel. Things grew tough for rocket enthusiasts during the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, as funds for rocketry experimentation dried up and disappeared. One of the few exceptions was work for the expanding German military, a path that some VfR members took, including Wernher von Braun. Ley chose to follow a different path. Horrified by the growing power and repulsive philosophies of the Nazi movement, in 1935, he fled first to England and then to America.

Ley became a popular writer of science articles for American science fiction magazines (first appearing in Astounding and Amazing, and eventually penning a long-running regular column in Galaxy), and wrote a few fictional tales as well, using the pen name Robert Willey. He also participated in American science fiction fandom. He wrote several influential books in addition to Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel, including The Conquest of Space, published in 1949 and beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell; Conquest of the Moon, written with Wernher von Braun and Fred L. Whipple in 1953; and The Exploration of Mars in 1954, also written with von Braun and illustrated by Bonestell. Ley was not so much a working engineer as a popularizer of, and advocate for, the field of space exploration, explaining the science in accessible terms to a wide audience. Unfortunately, Ley died just before the first moon landing in 1969, and was not able to witness the attainment of a goal he had championed for so many years. In 2016, he was referred to as a “Prophet of the Space Age” in Air & Space Magazine, in an interview with Jared Buss, author of a biography of Ley that uses that phrase as its title.


Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel

This book originally appeared as Rockets in 1944, the third printing of which featured additional material. A rewritten version was published as Rockets and Space Travel in 1947, and a second printing with further additional material was published in 1948. Another revision, with the final title of Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel, first appeared in 1951, and the fourth printing in 1951 contained newly added material. My father’s copy was from the sixth printing published in 1954. These multiple printings and changing editions demonstrate the hunger for information on the topic, as well as the rapidly changing state of the technology involved.

Ley was one of the earliest authors to pitch his writing on space travel toward the layman instead of scientists and engineers. He wrote in a conversational style, and his enthusiasm for the subject and opinions are always in the forefront. While the book is full of statistics, tables and appendices, it holds your interest, and Ley had a knack for presenting complex topics in a straightforward manner.

The first two chapters cover the early history of astronomy, and speculation about the heavens and the solar system. Ley takes great joy in chronicling not only those who contributed to the advancement of knowledge, but also eccentric dreamers full of far-fetched ideas, especially those who speculated about travel to other planets. The third chapter covers the earliest days of rocketry, from Chinese skyrockets to British war rockets (of “the rockets’ red glare” fame). These early chapters are the part of the book I remember best, and I recall reading them several times.

The book then moves on to early ideas about aviation, and schemes to use steam and gunpowder rockets to power these craft. As the book moves into the 1920s, the perspective changes, and the narrative becomes very Eurocentric. This is not just because the continent was the center for rocketry development in that era, but because Ley is writing about events where he was personally involved. There was clearly a lot of rivalry and jealousy in those days. He speaks highly of Professor Hermann Oberth, although he felt the man’s book on space travel was impenetrable to lay people, and expresses pride in the efforts of his fellow members of the VfR rocketry society. Ley enjoyed working with Oberth in advising film director Fritz Lang, although their aforementioned attempt to build a real rocket to launch along with his movie’s premiere did not come to fruition.

Ley was less impressed with people like Max Valier who were known for staging stunts, like rocket-powered cars for the Opel automobile company, which he felt had no scientific value. He was hurt by American scientist Robert Goddard’s rebuffing of his German counterparts, feeling that if they had all shared information, more progress could have been made on liquid-fueled rockets. And he was deeply disappointed when Johannes Winkler became the first European to successfully launch a liquid-fueled rocket, beating a team Ley was working with.

In discussing these early efforts, Ley also does a great job portraying the engineering challenges these pioneers faced. Everyone knew the basic scientific principles involved. Newton’s Third Law explains how the exhaust of a rocket would push the rocket forward. Combustion requires both a fuel and an oxidizer, which can either be contained in a solid form that burns when ignited, or kept in liquid state in separate containers. Properly shaped nozzles can maximize the effectiveness of thrust. But not all solid fuels are as stable as old tried-and-true, but not terribly effective, gunpowder. Oxygen is (of course) the best oxidizer, but needs to be stored in liquid form at extremely cold temperatures. Many oxygen-rich liquids that do not require refrigeration are highly corrosive. And the more powerful a fuel, the more prone it is to not only combust, but explode. Nozzles melt at the heats required to produce the necessary thrust. This was the part of the book I found most fascinating as an adult reader—how the pioneers faced and overcame each of these unique challenges.

The book then discusses rocketry efforts as World War II approached, and the viewpoint shifts again. Because Ley had emigrated to America, he learned about these events second-hand, after the war. The book describes the German rocketry program, culminating with the powerful V-2 rocket. Because of the V-2’s lack of guidance systems, the rocket had little direct impact on the course of the war, although the idea of unstoppable rockets bringing destruction certainly impacted the morale of the British people. At the German rocket base of Peenemünde, headed by Ley’s former VfR compatriot Wernher von Braun, the science and engineering of rocketry made huge advances, unmatched by the efforts of any other nation. It will not come as a surprise to most modern readers to learn that, after the war, the United States executed “Operation Paperclip” to extract many of those German rocket personnel, forgiving their Nazi ties, and putting them to work on American rocketry programs.

The book then follows American rocketry efforts at the White Sands proving ground, where the first multi-stage rocket was launched, and a new facility on the Florida coast called Cape Canaveral. These sections, like many others in the book, are full of technical information of greater interest to me as an adult than as a child. In my youth, my attention was instead captured by the descriptions of efforts to break the sound barrier with rocket-propelled aircraft and the bravery of aviation pioneer Chuck Yeager.

And then the book shifts to subjects that again caught the interest of my younger self: How satellites could stay in orbit around the Earth. What tasks those satellites might perform. What impact space travel might have on humans. How space stations would work, how they could create quasi-gravity by spinning, how they could maintain stability, control temperatures, and dispose of waste. Plus a whole host of other technologies, like intra-orbital transports, space suits, and fully reusable launch vehicles. Ley also explores how getting facilities into orbit would provide a staging ground for travel to other planets, and the orbital paths explorers would use to get there. I first read these sections in the mid-1960s, and they provided fascinating details that explained what I was seeing on television and in the pictorial articles in Life magazine. I was enthralled by the potential wonders the future might bring.

The book concludes with a host of appendices with details on rockets, orbital mechanics, and other topics that might have bogged down the larger narrative. One in particular caught my younger eye: the Sanger antipodal bomber, a Nazi project from WWII that never got off the drawing board. It was a rocket-powered plane that would not orbit the earth, but would leave the atmosphere and then skip across its upper fringes like a smooth stone skips across a still lake. Being quite familiar with skipping stones, this concept always fascinated me, and I was disappointed to learn that the method had not proven feasible.

Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel was an important element of the space program. At a time when actual space travel was still a dream, it helped capture the imagination of readers around the world. Without passionate and articulate advocates like Willy Ley, astronauts like John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin might have never have had a chance to make their pioneering journeys into the unknown.


Final Thoughts

I’d be delighted to hear feedback from anyone else who was exposed to Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel at an early age, or to the Disney “Man in Space” documentary that was based on the book. And I’d also like to hear about your other favorite non-fiction resources as well: What books, documentaries, or magazines shaped your view of the future, and helped you learn about science, technology, and the universe we live in?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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