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Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

rocket launch

As the Cold War simmered on, the world’s two great powers–the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union–continued to find ways to antagonize one another. From setting up puppet regimes and engaging in proxy wars to practicing espionage and disseminating propaganda, both nations desperately sought to gain any sort of an edge in the pursuit of dominance. Beginning in the late 1950’s, the race to outer space would take on a central role in this struggle, with each side seeking to attain superiority in technology, military might and political prowess. And while the two governments sought, as they so often do, to utilize this new frontier to their own ends, the world was afforded one of the most exciting shows in history as humans pushed the boundaries of exploration further than ever before. Along the way, and in spite of tremendous social upheavals, some of the world’s best and brightest minds contributed to, and sacrificed for, the cause. But, while the trajectory of space exploration has taken the world to unthinkable heights, it has not been without its perils and setbacks. The following are a few of the Metropolitan Library’s titles covering the men, women and animals who helped to expand humankind’s frontiers from Earth to the heavens above.


A Ball, A Dog, and A Monkey: 1957, The Space Race Begins book cover

A Ball, A Dog, and A Monkey: 1957, The Space Race Begins by Michael D'Antonio

On October 4, 1957, as the Soviet Union’s orbital satellite, Sputnik I, ascended into Earth’s atmosphere, America plunged into a state of panic. The Cold War was underway, the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed and the USSR was now at the fore in the space race. With dire warnings in the news nearly every day, the armed services insisted that space would be the new military frontier. President Eisenhower, however, maintained that exploration, remain a peaceful endeavor. As the debate raged, the Soviets, meanwhile, placed a dog inside their next satellite and into orbit, sending America deeper into fear. Determined not to be outdone, the U.S. countered by launching the first primate into space, a small monkey nicknamed Old Reliable. America soon went space crazy. UFO sightings became commonplace, from Brooklyn to Burbank model rockets soared and space-themed beauty pageants became a national phenomenon. A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey tells the remarkable story of America's first forays into space during a time when new technologies not only threatened total destruction but promised the potential to touch the stars.

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War book cover

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War by Michael J. Neufeld

From a young age, Wernher von Braun possessed a strong sense of curiosity. As he grew, this urge to explore and discover would inspire his intense passion for developing vehicles meant to propel both man and machine into space. But, his pursuit of this obsession would be delayed. In 1937, von Braun was pressured to join the Nazi Party who had other intentions for his ideas. Eventually, becoming one of Germany’s leading developers of rocket technology, he supervised work on the V-2, a missile ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands. When, at last, the Allies overran Germany, von Braun surrendered and was immediately ferried to America where he would help to launch the first American satellite and, eventually, head NASA’s launch-vehicle development for the Apollo Moon landing. Dedicating himself to selling the American public on interplanetary travel, von Braun soon became a household name. Yet, he could never fully escape his past and would later face increasing scrutiny regarding his wartime actions. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War is the biography of a visionary caught between dreams of the heavens and the realities of Earth.

Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race book cover

Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race by Stephanie Nolen

In the early days of space exploration, as part of a privately-funded research program on women in space, a small group of female pilots were subjected to and successfully passed the same physical evaluations given to the Mercury astronauts. The Mercury 13, as they later came to be known, would become part of a fascinating history of women who contributed to early aviation. Jerrie Cobb, a world-record-setting pilot, was the first to finish the tests, going on to successfully complete the final two phases of astronaut testing with flying colors. She performed so exceptionally, the doctor supervising the selection of NASA's Mercury astronauts recruited another twelve female pilots who also performed remarkably well on the preliminary tests. But, just as these candidates were preparing to complete their training, they were turned away at the last minute. Promised the Moon tells the story of Cobb, her fellow trainees and the clash of politics and personality that surrounded their dream of spaceflight.

We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program book cover

We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program by Richard Paul & Steven Moss

The year 1968 was a tumultuous one for America. With the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and both political and racial riots spreading throughout, the country teetered on the brink. However, as the year drew to a close there would be a glimmer of hope as three astronauts circled the Moon in low orbit. The Space Age had begun just as the struggle for civil rights was forcing the United States to confront its long and bitter legacy of slavery, discrimination, and violence. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson attempted to utilize the space program as an agent for social change, applying federal equal employment opportunity laws to open workplaces at NASA and NASA contractors to African Americans while, at the same time, creating thousands of research and technology jobs to ameliorate poverty. We Could Not Fail profiles ten pioneering African Americans who broke the color barrier by competing successfully at the highest level of American intellectual and technological achievement and whose stories illustrate the role NASA and the space program played in promoting civil rights.

Soviet Space Dogs book cover

Soviet Space Dogs by Olesya Turkina, Inna Cannon, & Lisa Wasserman

On November 3rd 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first-ever Earth-born creature into orbit: a found stray dog named Laika. The flight was meant to test the safety of space travel for humans, but it was a guaranteed suicide mission for the dog since technology had not accommodated for any sort of return trip. Her death, a few hours after launching, would become an infamous symbol of inhumanity and sacrifice in the name of “progress”. Like Laika, several other homeless dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow, selected for the program because they fitted the program's criteria: weighing no more than 15 pounds, measuring no more than 14 inches in length, photogenic and with a calm temperament. Two of these strays, Belka and Strelka, were the first to make it back from space and were swiftly immortalized in children's books and cartoons. Images of the “Space Dogs” could be found everywhere, reproduced on everyday goods across the Soviet Union. With more than 350 images documenting these items, Soviet Space Dogs is dedicated to the innocent creatures who played a crucial, if not senseless, part in the Soviet Space program.

Breaking the Chains of Gravity book cover

Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel

With its culmination of a successful landing on the Moon in 1969, the history of NASA is familiar to millions. But how did the Americans get to that point? The agency's prehistory has remained predominately obscure, largely absent from popular space-related literature. However, America's space agency was not without precedent. From early rocket testing, through WWII, the V-2 and on to early attempts at learning to navigate the upper atmosphere, the development of space exploration experienced many peaks and valleys. Covering subjects such as Wernher von Braun fleeing the ruins of Berlin to the Mercury program, Neil Armstrong bravely testing new technologies, the final creation of an official agency by president Dwight D. Eisenhower and everything in between, Breaking The Chains of Gravity tells the story of NASA's roots, set against a backdrop of Nazism, communism and imminent nuclear destruction.

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