Mike Gruntman's
Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry

The winner of the Luigi Napolitano Book Award (2006) from the International Academy of Astronautics

Book Reviews

Mike Gruntman
Blazing the Trail:
The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry

AIAA, 2004
ISBN 1-56347-705-X
ISBN 978-1-56347-705-8
(List price $39.95)

475 pages with 340 figures
Index: 2750+ entries, including 650 individuals

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Lecture (1 hr 10 min)    The Road to Space. The First Thousand Years.

Fifty years ago in October of 1957, the first artificial satellite of the Earth was launched into space. The lecture focuses on the history of the events that led us to the space age. You can freely download the video (390 MB) and slides (pdf) of the presentation on your computer.

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Some book pages:

pages 51-53
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Reviewer: Roger D. Launius

About Dr. Roger Launius. Between 1990 and 2002, Roger D. Launius served as Chief Historian of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Presently, he is Chair of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Rating: 4 stars on the scale 1 to 5, 5 stars being the highest.

November 25, 2004

An Encyclopedic Effort in 503 Pages

Mike Gruntman, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California, has written what can only be characterized as an encyclopedic history of rocketry. It covers the period between rocketry's origins more than 1,000 years ago in Asia and the middle part of the twentieth century when the technology proliferated in the West for both peaceful and military purposes. As such, this work will probably become a favored textbook in courses relating to the evolution of the technology.

The book, in eighteen chronological chapters, takes the reader through a succession of ideas, experiments, and applications. Gruntman expends more than 100 pages before reaching the twentieth century, something unusual for most surveys with its emphasis on the earliest years of rocketry, and then proceeds to lay the groundwork for later developments by discussing "great pioneers" who paved way the toward spaceflight. These include the usual suspects--the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy, the German Hermann Oberth, and the American Robert Goddard--but Gruntman also adds the Frenchman Robert Esnault-Pelterie, members of various rocket societies, and others to his list.

The "first modern rocket," in Gruntman's narrative, was the German V-2 built by Wernher von Braun's rocket team during World War II. It is at this point that events compound, advances in technology proliferate, and moral dilemmas arise. Simply put, many of those working in rocket programs wanted to develop the technology necessary to move beyond Earth, but their technology was used for destructive rather than peaceful purposes. As a classic example, Gruntman points out that Wernher von Braun served Hitler's Germany by developing the first ballistic missile, was a major in the SS, and used the horrific concentration camp labor system of [...] Germany to build V-2s. But he foresaw the potential of human spaceflight while working as little more than an arms merchant who developed brutal weapons of mass destruction. Von Braun never expressed any hesitancy about the morality of using scientific and technical knowledge to kill as many people and destroy as much as possible. In the 1960s, as the United States was involved in a race with the Soviet Union to see who could land a human on the Moon first, humorist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about von Braun's pragmatic approach to serving whoever would let him build rockets regardless of their purpose. "Don't say that he's hypocritical, say rather that he's apolitical," Lehrer wrote. "`Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun." Lehrer's biting satire captured well the ambivalence of von Braun's attitude on moral questions associated with the use of rocket technology.

Indeed, it was because they could be used as weapons carriers that rocket development received the government largesse necessary to reach space in the 1950s. Spurnik, the first space satellite, was launched on a Soviet ballistic missile, as was the first American satellite, Explorer 1. Moreover, it was because of the cold war that such programs as Apollo, which landed Americans on the Moon in 1969, received any funding whatsoever.

Book preview 

At the conclusion of the volume Mike Gruntman takes us on a whirlwind tour of developments worldwide and closes with an assessment of the 1,000+ years of rocketry.

There is much to praise in this volume. It provides for the first time a modern, comprehensive overview of the subject. It also offers the best discussions available about some of the key breakthroughs in early twentieth century rocketry. There are also numerous sidebars explaining the technology and discussing the individuals who made it fly.

But for all of the book's positive attributes, it is very much a history written for engineers. This is especially true because of the author's concern with the linear process of rocket technology to the very great exclusion of any social or cultural factors that might have influenced the engineers.

As only one example, Gruntman expends virtually no effort asking the question--why rocketry for spaceflight?--when other possibilities existed. We know that Robert Goddard explored many possibilities for access to space--shooting a capsule from a large cannon, atomic power, high altitude balloons to the edge of space, etc.--before deciding that rockets were the only practical means. There have been others who question the method of rocketry for reaching space since then, and such concepts as the space elevator are modern reconceptualizations of the problem. Unfortunately, Gruntman expends little effort in exploring alternative possibilities and conveying the richness of the subject by emphasizing the relentless march of progress he views in rocket technology.

Even so, this is a massively impressive work that will be of real use to a large community of scholars. It will find use for years to come. I applaud Mike Gruntman for undertaking this effort and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics for publishing it. "Blazing the Trail" offers an important consideration of the state of knowledge about this subject and will serve as a good starting point for further investigations.


Reviewer: HF (Los Alamos, NM)

Rating: 5 stars on the scale 1 to 5, 5 stars being the highest.

November 18, 2004

Excellent technical and historical reference on space history

This book provides the most comprehensive and detailed account available of the trials, tribulations, failures, and successes in our efforts to access and use space. Often, the historical record has been biased by the competitive filter of the Cold War space race, but Dr. Gruntman provides an unbiased, accurate, and enlightening historical record. This is both a compelling read and useful reference for the space enthusiast, space engineer, and space scientist.

Reviewer: VL "VL" (Sydney, NSW, Australia)

Rating: 5 stars on the scale 1 to 5, 5 stars being the highest.

September 23, 2004

The most complete history and encyclopedia of rocketry!

Being an engineer by education and with strong interest in the subject I was immediately attracted by the sub-title.  It is very well written (e.g. reads well) and impresses by both - the breadth and the depth of coverage.. It is a must for any professional specializing in the area, an excellent reference book to keep on your bookshelf and a wonderful introduction in the history of the subject for teens. Strongly recommended for anyone with interests in rocketry, spacecraft, astronautics.

Dr. Vladas Leonas, Fellow of the IEAust Sydney, NSW, Australia


Reviewer: VS (Moscow, Russia)

Rating: 5 stars on the scale 1 to 5, 5 stars being the highest.

November 28, 2004

Amazing book

I am a Russian physicist with experience of some years working in Soviet/Russian aerospace R&D. The book "Blazing the Trail" is amazing at least due to two advantages. The first one is that I have never seen such an excellent description of the early Soviet space and rocket history, including in the Russian literature, and the second is that the style of writing is so lush that creates an attractive movie of rocketry development. Complementarily, the text is highly factual and technically detailed. It is like a review article in a scientific journal without any BS, as Americans would say. Having the history of rockets and space in all-around-a-world space capable countries in one book makes it very, very useful and convenient.

Choice, January 2005 (American Library Association)

Gruntman, Mike. Blazing the trail: the early history of spacecraft and rocketry. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1801 Alexander Bell Drive, Suite 500, Reston, VA 20191-4344, 2004. 505p bibl index afp ISBN 156347705X.

Gruntman (Univ. of Southern California) offers a good, detailed description of the transition from the very early days of rocketry in the 120Os to its modern use in jets and spacecraft launchers; explains the background of the military rockets that first carried warheads over large distances; and discusses the use of rockets to explore the upper atmosphere up to the introduction of small, modest spacecraft used for research. Written by the son of a major military participant in the Soviet space program, the book is a well-balanced account of the people and organizations in the US, the former USSR, and other countries that contributed to the early days of rocketry and space. Gruntman offers numerous new insights into the early days of space, with the narrative ending in the late 1950s. Numerous sidebars contain delightful anecdotes and insight that serve to complement the text. There are four pages of acronyms and abbreviations, a good ten-page bibliography, 340 figures, and an excellent 26-page index. For all interested in the formative days of rocketry and space. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels.

W. E. Howard III, formerly, Universities Space Research Association

Air Power History, Summer 2005, v.52 2, p61(1)  (Air Force Historical Foundation)

Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry. By Mike Gruntman. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004. everything pp. xiv, 503.

ISBN: 1-56347-705-X  

Although not a historian, Mike Gruntman--a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California--manages to get the history right. Gruntman got it right because he conducted his research more thoroughly than did Van Riper, especially with respect to consulting official histories. The latter are based largely on primary documentary sources and oral history interviews with participants.

Writing in a "compressed lecture-notes style," Professor Gruntman's intended audience are college and high school instructors and students. Gruntman's book is a comprehensive account from the beginning of rocketry to the entry into space in the 1960s. It is accurate and detailed, without being overly technical, and honest (showing failures as well as successes). The book makes excellent use of sidebars to provide technical details in digestible, bite-sized bits. It is easy to read and makes an excellent reference work. Blazing the Trail is highly recommended.

Jacob Neufeld, Potomac, Maryland.  

International Space Review, July 2005, issue 6, p.11 (DS Air Publications)

Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry. By Mike Gruntman. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004.

ISBN: 1-56347-705-X

A large number of books on space history have been published, but there always seems room for another one, always another angle. This book certainly looks like no other space history, since although it is divided into conventional chapters, the main text is punctuated by numerous boxes containing additional information, biographies and quotations. And instead of the usual headings and sub-headings, the outer margin of each page contains as many as six emboldened phrases reflecting nearby content. These elements, coupled with an impressive stock of black-and-white photographs give the impression of an encyclopedia, which would be used for reference and 'dipping into' rather than reading. However, to gain the most from the text itself, one would be better off reading it from beginning to end, rather than dipping, since it tells a more-or-less chronological story.

In this sense, the design is a distraction. Another difference compared with standard history texts is the lack of chapter references, although it does include a 10-page bibliography and a 27-page double-column index. The book's aim is to present the early history of rockets (and later spacecraft) from their early beginnings in China and India, through the development of space-related programmes (post-World War II), to the early days of the Space Age itself. The fact that Sputnik does not appear until chapter 15 of 18 indicates this concentration on the early years and there is very little detail on the development of satellites and other spacecraft. It is also more of a 'straight facts' book, rather than a deep analysis of why things happened, but this is not a criticism.

Whether or not you actually like this book will probably come down to those intrusive boxes ...

However, in the final analysis, you don’t have to like the design of a book to find it useful. So much information has been drawn together in this one – from samples of Nikita Khrushchev’s speeches to specifications for the V-2’s engine – that it deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in space history. While I predict that most readers will use it as a 'dipper', rather than a 'reader', they will return to it again and again. Apart from anything else, barring mistakes, it will never become outdated.

Mark Williamson, Editor

Extreme Rocketry,May/June 2005, p.40

Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry. By Mike Gruntman. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004.

ISBN: 1-56347-705-X

Pros: A very thorough and well written history of rocketry from its very oldest forms in ancient China to modern day space travel.

Cons: None.

For the high power rocketeer, there are not many books out there worth including on your book shelf, but Blazing the Trail may be one of them. This book is an excellent source of information about the history of rocketry from its ancient beginnings in China progressing step by step up to current modern space flight. the book is heavy in empathizing pinnacle moments in space history rather than listing every rocket created in the last 40 years. In fact, much of the book focuses on the development of rocketry prior to the 1950s. The reader is introduced to the history of early rocketry and developments that lead to the space age. Unlike most historical rocket books, the book does not focus specifically on the United States vs. the Soviet Union space race, but instead draws on many nations and scientists from all backgrounds scattered over five continents.

The book begins with the roots of rocketry in ancient China where cases to hold black powder propellant were made from bamboo traced back as far as 1067 AD and thought to have origins even older coming to both China and India from ancient Egypt.

Interesting historical background includes a chapter devoted to "war rockets" used in India which were common place in warfare as early as 1399 AD. It is thought the military of India were among the first to use metal case rockets, some of which weighed up to 12 pounds and had a range of 1.5 mile.

In 1804 the British implemented rockets into their military system after British inventor William Congreve concluded they might be launched from both boat and airplane.

Once the book begins covering ground of British rockets the reader starts seeing more familiar names and faces in rocketry as found in other historical rocketry books.

The book is one of the best single sources of information on the history of rocketry and is highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of rocketry.

Formatted much like the typical high school or college text book, the book has very helpful facts and figures in the side margins on each page. The book also includes over 340 figures, photos and illustrations many of which appear in this publication for the first time. Having over 500 pages of valuable, unique historical content, Mike Gruntman's Blazing the Trail is highly recommended for any rocketeers bookshelf.

Brent McNeely, Editor in Chief and Publisher, Extreme Rocketry

Air and Space Power Journal, Fall, pp.116-117, 2007

Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry. By Mike Gruntman. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004.

ISBN: 1-56347-705-X

As a certified space professional with over 20 years' experience in space operations and engineering, I've never seen such a detailed record of the world history of rocketry and spacecraft. In the 18 chapters of Blazing the Trail, Mike Gruntman covers the "humble beginnings" to the "first thousand years" and provides a thorough description of the "long road that led us from simple fireworks to intercontinental ballistic missiles and powerful space launchers that open the ways to the cosmos" (p. 455). He also discusses the infrastructure required to support the development and testing of rockets and spacecraft, including the building of test and launch sites. Gruntman combines a heavy dose of engineering details with some political insights and sprinkles of humor to produce a well-written space-reference book.

Although it provides encyclopedia-type detail, overall, Blazing the Trail is easy to read and well formatted. However, since the term spacecraft comes first in the title, I expected more history on spacecraft than on rocketry. Just the opposite is true — about 70 percent on rockets and 30 percent on spacecraft. The first detailed discussion on spacecraft occurs in chapter 15, "The Breakthrough," after over 300 pages on rocketry. Nevertheless, Gruntman interweaves technical and engineering facts, such as the size and performance of early rockets, with some key political factors behind both their successes and failures. For example, in chapter 16, "Opening the Skies," the author outlines in detail the geopolitical environment and factors leading to development of the United States’ first reconnaissance satellite and formation of the National Reconnaissance Office. Additionally, the book contains over 300 figures, helping to bring the words to life and providing a unique perspective of the faces and places instrumental in "building the foundation" of future systems. The pictures of early systems make it easier to visualize how early rockets and spacecraft evolved from the fairly simple to the extremely complex. Given the extensive number of illustrations, I was surprised that the book does not include a "Table of Figures" to support quick reference and research. However, the frequent sidebars do help in this regard.

Although not outlined as clearly and consistently as the history of spacecraft and rockets, the book offers a unique discussion of the heritage of many US space corporations. For example, Gruntman cites how disagreements with Howard Hughes led to the resignation of two leading specialists (Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge [Ramo-Wooldridge]) and, with financial help from Thompson Products, eventually to the formation of Thompson Ramo Wooldridge (TRW) (p. 233). The author also covers the "why" behind the formation of Aerospace Corporation as a nonprofit institution to help the US Air Force make advances in ballistic-missile and military-space systems (p. 233).

Gruntman spices up the book with "engineering humor." For example, in discussing the development of one satellite, he notes how a specially produced, expensive white paint was "required"” for thermal control. However, it turns out that a common household paint was used by mistake. Nevertheless, the thermal control worked as required, offering an early lesson in cost control (p. 427).

Fundamental courses in space operations and extended research projects on rocketry and/or spacecraft should acquire this well-written, single-source "encyclopedia" as a must-use reference. Also, Blazing the Trail is definitely a must-read for all military and/or space-history enthusiasts.

Lt Col Kenneth Allison, USAF, RAND, Santa Monica, California

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