Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age


Willy Ley was an early mover and shaker in the 1920s German Rocket Society. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1935, he became the most enthusiastic and most-heard public voice promoting rocketry and the exploration it would enable. Against the inclinations of nationalists both German and American, Ley pushed an open, international brotherhood of rocket scientists to speed up what he saw as a transcendent accomplishment for the human race: to promote rockets for space travel and not war. Willey Ley: Prophet of the Space Age (University Press of Florida), by the historian Jared S. Buss, is his first academic bio.

Ley's rocket education and advocacy operated on every level of American culture, from department store displays to cereal boxes, from leftist newspapers to MIT journals, from Disneyland to the Chicago Sun-Times, from Tom Corbett, Space Cadet to erudite historical texts. His willingness to be populist was key to why no less an expert than Wernher Von Braun declared that Ley "deserves much credit for the space consciousness…which is the indispensable foundation of the American space program."

Ley also helped inject rocket science into the science fiction community via endless science articles in pulp magazines, and sci-fi fans widely embraced him as one of them. How much credit science fiction deserves for the real-life space age is still unsettled in historiography.

In the beginning, Ley—who died less than a month before the moon landing—assumed space travel would be a private venture. As Buss demonstrates, Ley's work across cultural and national barriers "situated popular science within traditions of American anti-authoritarianism."