Skip to content

Walter Sierra


Walter Sierra
Xlibris (667 pp.)
$3.99 e-book
December 19, 2016

A debut book traces the development of rocket technology.

Most people assume that rocket technology is esoterically impenetrable to the layperson, so much so that “rocket scientist” has become, in ordinary discourse, synonymous with genius. Sierra, a rocket scientist, attempts to provide an accessible and comprehensive introduction to the subject that largely proceeds chronologically. The author begins with an account of the rocket’s embryonic development in ancient China, originally fueled by gunpowder and driven by military uses. By the 14th century, European powers had taken an interest in the development of rockets, and by the 19th, the reality of war inspired a continued preoccupation with their military implications. They were used in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War. Significant leaps in aeronautical research set the stage for the technological revolution that arrived in the 1930s, and Sierra supplies a concise history of the achievements of the Wright brothers as well as lesser-known luminaries like the astronomer and aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpont Langley. Finally, the author tracks the extraordinary impact World War II and the Cold War had on the pace and success of scientific research, and the push provided by the breakneck competition of the latter conflict. While Sierra explains the science behind each shuffle forward for rocket technology—the reader is treated to brief explanations of things like drag coefficients—he also deftly analyzes the political and cultural context within which experimentation necessarily occurs. For example, there is an extended discussion of the impact Stalin’s limitlessly repressive rule had on the Soviet Union’s technological progress. The first installment of a series, this is a dizzyingly thorough work. Sierra consistently writes in lucid prose—even when discussing maddeningly technical subject matter—and the text is mercifully strewn with plenty of helpfully illustrative photographs and diagrams. But the uninitiated will still likely be overwhelmed by the deluge of minutiae, which partially undermines the book’s accessibility. Still, it’s hard to imagine a single volume that delves so deeply into rocket science with such clarity.

An engrossing—if sometimes exhausting—work that examines the scientific and political history of rockets.

Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science: The Dawn of the Space Age
by Walter Sierra
Reviewed by Peter M. Fitzpatrick

“In any case, military missiles have always come first, civilian versions follow and are derived from them.”

The first in a series of four books covering the birth, development, and future of man’s journey
into space, this volume covers the earliest history of rocketry as developed by the ancient Chinese with their “fire arrows” used in combat, eventually incorporating gunpowder as an accelerant. The Wright brothers’ momentous engine-driven first flight by humans is covered as is the further development by Robert Goddard. Theodore von Karman’s experimentation with solid fuel rocketry first applied to airplanes and later to missiles, is also explored. A discussion of Soviet and American advances sandwich a pivotal discussion of the German-led V-1 and V-2 rocket missile projects. Hitler’s eventual exclusive devotion to these destructive missiles contributed to Germany’s defeat, but the American and Russian capture of German rocket technology jumpstarted both countries’ space programs. Werner von Braun’s dedication to the American space program emerges as one the biggest factors in the winning of the race to the moon.

This is a beautifully constructed volume with innumerable photographs and illustrations on almost every page, many in color. The meticulous and detailed attention to the gradual progress of humanity towards space flight is expertly described by the author, a man with four decades in the aerospace and defense arenas. He provides biographical sketches of the pivotal figures in this field, from the Wright Brother’s lifelong bachelorhood to Robert Goddard’s disinterest in helping other rocket scientists’ research. The moral question of ex-Nazi scientists being brought over to work on American NASA projects is also discussed. An attempt to describe, in non-technical terms, the dynamics of aerodynamics is also present. Drag, lift, dynamic and static pressure, the Magnus effect, as well as the mystery of turbulence, are discussed. In short, this is an excellent overview of modern technology told in accessible and exciting language.

Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science: The Dawn of the Space Age
Walter Sierra
XlibrisUS (Dec 19, 2016)
Hardcover $89.95 (344pp)

Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science: The Dawn of the Space Age is a compelling account of rocketry and space flight that brings scientific exploration to life.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to appreciate Walter Sierra’s Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science: The Dawn of the Space Age. The first book in the Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science series, it is a fascinating history of how humanity sent rockets, missiles, and spaceships soaring into the heavens.
The book charts the trajectory of the development of rockets in a way that’s easily accessible, but that would likely still hold the interest of those with more technical expertise. It’s a detailed, thorough history that’s impressive in its global sweep and the diligence of its research.
Sierra documents the birth of rocketry from the first rudimentary projectiles and fireworks that flew over China around 228 CE. He also covers the work of seminal figures, including the Wright Brothers, Octave Chanute, William Boeing, and Jack Northrop.
The volume goes into great detail regarding Robert Goddard, the inventor of the modern rocket, and the advances made with the V1 and V2 rockets during World War II. The book also chronicles early spaceflights, such as NASA’s Project Mercury.
This sweeping account does not stint in scientific detail, either. Sierra explains the mechanical side of how flight works, breaking down concepts like lift, airfoils, centrifugal force, and escape velocity.
Laid out like a textbook, the material relies on many visual aids, including historic photos, maps, family trees, sketches, and charts, to elucidate its esoteric subject matter. Such illustrations make the book more inviting, while an extensive glossary of key terms and acronyms helps to break down technical nomenclature for a general audience.
The writing conjures realistic portraits through exacting detail. Sierra breathes life into characters like Orville and Wilbur Wright, shown arguing with each other across the dinner table, and Goddard, who is sketched out as a sickly child whose imagination was stoked by H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. The text dramatizes how Goddard first imagined a rocket taking flight:

While suspended there, a fantasy shape took hold in the mirrors of his mind, an image sharp enough to shut out the surrounding scene. A mechanical device materialized from nowhere, functioning perfectly. Faster and faster it whirled until it began to lift, twirling and spinning above Worcester and sickness and fruit trees, upwards into space!

The book shifts well between intimate peeks into the psyches of pioneering innovators and broader social context, such as explanations of why particular technological discoveries proved significant.
The Dawn of the Space Age is a compelling account of rocketry and space flight that brings history and scientific exploration to life.
JOSEPH S. PETE (October 12, 2017)

Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science: The Dawn of the Space Age
Author: Walter Sierra
Publisher: XlibrisUS
ISBN: 9781493171224
Pages: 344
Genre: Science Fiction Reviewed
by: Liz Konkel

“The Dawn of the Space Age” is the first in the “Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science” series of books by Walter Sierra, which dives into rocketry and the people who contributed to what the rocket science we know today. It’s well-researched, concise, and well-versed. It’s clear that Sierra, a rocket scientist, is passionate about the history and science presented. The language is easy to understand and the topic doesn’t require a great deal of knowledge regarding history or science. It’s entertaining and educational, really engaging you into the world of rockets, as it pulls you through the past, teaching each concept as it was developed. With a basic understanding about rocketry, I learned not only facts about the evolution, but also why people are so drawn to inventing and advancing rockets. I even found myself sharing different facts with my family.

In-depth history of important figures in rocket science are included, along with biographical information complete with vivid details about their accomplishments, personal lives, and relationships. The history goes back to the very beginning of the concept, to the first advancements, and trails each invention in history through the lives, which include the Wright Brothers, Robert Goddard, Sergei P. Korolyov, and astronaut John Glenn. Everyone has heard of most of these names, but Sierra dives so deep into their lives that it feels like he’s teaching about new people.

The biographical information is written in a storytelling prose, which does more than state facts. Sierra frames the background information through stories, turning these famous figures into characters. This allows for a chance to get to know the Wright Brothers, engineer Albert Zadler, and others on a deeper level, developing them into more than famous names in history; indeed showing them beyond their achievements. Sierra brings them to life as ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

Illustrations, photographs, and diagrams are included throughout, providing faces to names as well as easy breakdowns of models and how the rockets were created. These pair well with the progression of rockets graphs and photos showing early rockets launched into space. The photographs show the real people behind every achievement, from the first Wright gliders to the astronauts. This book will mainly appeal to those interested in rocket science and its history, but also those wanting to further their understanding of the topic or simply wanting to learn something new. It’s the perfect beginning tool that easily entertains.

Beyond the Saga of Rocket Science: The Dawn of the Space Age
Walter Sierra
Xlibris, 327 pages, (paperback) $89.95, 9781493171231 (Reviewed: September 2017)

While one might think the space age began with astronauts circling earth, actual rocket scientists such as Walter Sierra know that the genesis of rocketry dates back several millennia. In this glossy, coffee-table style volume—the first of a series—Sierra presents that often- fascinating history.

Sierra opens with a discussion of the series, then introduces readers to this volume in which he follows rocketry development from ancient China to the mid-20th century. What follows is satisfyingly full of facts and figures and all the expected big names (Wright Brothers, Robert Goddard, Theodore von Karman). Sierra has done his research, and while he tends to take quantum leaps in his chronology— e.g., the rocketry novice might appreciate a clearer path from the introduction of Chinese “fire-arrows” in 1045 A.D. to the art of flying at the turn of the 20th century—his information throughout is solid.

Readers will discover many interesting tidbits, including that the Soviet space program moved quicker than the U.S.’s because it wasn’t bound by the need to make things perfect, only complete. And the trip for famous space-dog Laika was always intended as one-way; had she managed to survive the stress of the journey, she would have been euthanized with poisoned food upon landing.

The book is nicely produced, with scores of photos and informational graphics. But while Sierra obviously has a command of the topic, he employs an unusual delivery method, occasionally using fictional devices. This begins in his description of 3rd century China, where he places modern language into the mouths of warriors, and continues into the 20th century, where historical figures are attributed with quotes that include dialect (using “Vell” for “Well” and “Ve” for “We,” etc.). This method can be offputting.

Because Sierra’s narrative doesn’t follow a clear building-block path, this may not be the optimum introductory volume about rocketry. But those with prior knowledge of the topic will certainly find much here to appreciate.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.