Bryan Appleyard

Bang After Bang

Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 350pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Perhaps the only amusing thing about the V-2 rockets with which the Germans bombarded London towards the end of the Second World War was their appearance. Cartoon cigars with fins, they appeared to have been designed by the illustrators of Thirties science-fiction magazines. This is what we imagined rockets would look like and, sure enough, they did.

I have speculated elsewhere that the V-2’s designer, Wernher von Braun, must have taken his ideas from the American magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Now, thanks to this book, I find I was right. Braun, George Pendle tells us, kept his subscription going during the war years ‘through a mail drop in neutral Sweden’. Engineers often delude themselves into thinking that their forms are strictly determined by function. In reality, they are, like everything else, products of the imagination.

The V-2s were also highly significant machines because they worked. Small and very unreliable rockets had worked for hundreds of years, of course, but a reliable, controlled, large-scale rocket burn was thought by many to be impossible. And the sci-fi

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