A. Bowdoin Van Riper. Rockets and Missiles: The Life Story of a Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xiv + 176 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8018-8792-5.
Reviewed by Richard H. Beyler (History Department, Portland State University)
Published on H-German (July, 2008)
This volume provides a concise, clear history of rockets and missiles from ancient times to the present, though (understandably) concentrating on recent periods. Van Riper does an exemplary job in lifting out the critical points from a mass of potentially intimidating detail, and explaining these in terms that laypersons can grasp. He tends to emphasize technical developments, relatively speaking, rather than personalities or institutions, though these are not entirely neglected. The chapters of the book proceed chronologically, but each chapter is generally organized around comparisons or contrasts among the various nations most active in missile development at that time. Specialists in German history will be particularly interested in the way that Van Riper's discussion contrasts the instrumental role of the technically skilled amateurs in the Verein für Raumschiffahrt in the Weimar era with the way in which this German organization worked on generating publicity. Similarly, he contrasts the hands-on experimental tinkering of American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard with the work of Hermann Oberth in Germany, whose main achievement was a series of popular books and collaboration with director Fritz Lang on the movie Frau im Mond (1929).
As is well known, Germany moved well beyond talk and publicity in its rocketry development programs of the National Socialist era. Despite the historical notoriety of the V-1 as the first cruise missile and the V-2 as the first ballistic missile, other less technologically spectacular types of rockets perhaps had a more substantial role during World War II and, arguably, a more significant impact on the war's outcome. These included the barrage rockets (that is, when fired en masse and without specific aiming) used as artillery by several of the combatant nations, such as the German Nebelwerfer launcher and the Russian Katyusha, as well as targeted rockets such as the "bazooka," which played a major role in fending off tank onslaughts.
Amidst the overwhelming destruction of World War II, the (admittedly extensive) damage caused by the V-2 was relatively insignificant; perhaps more significant was the psychological impact of these novel, eerie weapons. In a historical sense, the significance of the V-1 and the V-2, developed in Germany during the war, is as conceptual ancestors of virtually all missile development in subsequent decades on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Of course, in some cases this relationship was not simply a matter of technical emulation and derivation, but was due to a continuity in design personnel: Wernher von Braun was the most famous example, but not the only one.
In sum, this book recommends itself as a lucid history of missile technology for the general reader, a narrative that intersects with German history at several key points.
. As used by Van Riper, "rocket" refers to any projectile which powers itself by the (controlled) combustion of the propellant it carries; "missile" refers to a rocket which, additionally, has a guidance system of some kind.
. Van Riper's approach is thus different from, and complementary to, that taken by Michael J. Neufeld, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
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Richard H. Beyler. Review of Riper, A. Bowdoin Van, Rockets and Missiles: The Life Story of a Technology.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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