Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Clifford R. McMurray
Title: Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age
Author: Jared S. Buss
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 336
Publisher: University Press of Florida
Date: August 2017
Retail Price: $34.95
ISBN: 978-0813054438

Willy Ley, the popular science writer who did more than anyone else to explain the science and technology of the dawning Space Age to the American public, died of a heart attack less than a month before Neil Armstrong put the first bootprint on the Moon. That he should come so close to seeing the culmination of the vison spelled out in his lifetime of writing, only to be deprived of that sublime moment, is a tragic irony almost beyond words. A generation of enthusiastic readers lost a friend few had the chance to meet. Now it’s well past time to remember his contributions to the space movement, of which he was a founding member.

Ley was born in Germany in 1906, and he grew up in the shadow and privations of World War I and the depression which followed it. He also grew up, as he put it, “in the shadow of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin,” where he was drawn to the wonders of the natural world. Eventually he would be known as much for his writing about natural history as for his technical expositions. The hyperinflation of the Weimar put an end to any thoughts of college, but as a reader he was an omnivorous autodidact. He devoured the primitive science fiction stories of the period, and he fell in with the crowd of young enthusiasts in the Verein für Raumschffahrt (Society for Space Travel) struggling to turn the theoretical writing of Hermann Oberth into reality. Among his associates was a young aristocrat named Wernher von Braun. Ley served as the secretary and publicist of the VfR, and got his start in popular science writing.

Ley had a brief flirtation with the Nazi party—in fact he joined it for a brief time—but he was too sensible to stay there for long. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, von Braun made his peace with them and went to work for the Army. Ley, with the help of British and American friends in the small circle of international rocketry enthusiasts, fled to the United States. He spent World War II writing articles for Mechanix Illustrated and for PM, a leftist newspaper, explaining to the citizens of his new homeland how the weapons of this war worked. He saw it as his mission to dispel any panic at these frightening new weapons by providing people with enough knowledge to understand their limitations.

War’s end brought von Braun to the U.S. as a captured engineer. Ley had a tough time with von Braun’s quick acceptance by the American establishment, seeing him as a sellout to the Nazis (which, let it be said, he was). At the same time, he needed to reconcile with von Braun, because von Braun had been at the forefront of all the rocket developments from which Ley had excluded himself by leaving Germany; those were the developments upon which von Braun and America would build in order to launch satellites into space. Eventually the two men would become collaborators in the effort to build enthusiasm for their mutual project, the human penetration of space. Among their collaborations: a series of seminal magazine articles and books, and a trilogy of space-themed episodes on Walt Disney’s television show.

Ley made an abortive try to get directly into the action, as an engineering consultant, in the 1950s, but writing about the achievements of others was his niche. No doubt that disappointed him, but it is no small thing to be a popularizer of science and technology for the general public. In its earliest days space exploration was so expensive and cutting-edge as to be almost exclusively a government project. The public needed to understand why it was important, what its benefits would be, and why they should pay for it. More: why they should be excited about it, as Ley himself was. He saw the march of human achievement through a romantic lens. Ley pitched to all levels, from children’s books to adult books and magazine pieces. His best-known work, Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel, went through several editions, with multiple printings of each edition (the copy which sits on my bookshelf is the sixth printing of the 1958 edition).

Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age was written by a college professor, and it has a rather ponderous, academic tone to its prose. Here lies another irony, for that tone was so different from Ley’s own style. It’s a pity he wasn’t around to give writing lessons to his biographer. The book is further handicapped by the lack of much personal information about Ley’s life (the bulk of what we have is letters between Ley, Robert Heinlein, and a few others), which forces it to be more of a survey of his written work than a glimpse of the man behind it. We’re unlikely to see another biography any time soon, so anyone who wants to learn more about this important figure will have to tolerate the flaws of this book.

© 2018 Clifford R. McMurray

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