Challenge To Apollo (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2000), by Asif A. Siddiqi, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and a NASA historian, was named one of the “Five Best” books on outer space by the Wall Street Journal in its Dec. 30 issue.
The Journal column calls Siddiqi’s book a “clearly written, exhaustively detailed historical narrative” about the difficulties the Soviets faced in their “race to space” with capitalist competitors. William Burrows, Ph.D., professor of journalism at New York University and the founder and director of its graduate Science and Environmental Reporting Program, wrote the column.
Siddiqi teaches at Fordham College at Rose Hill and specializes in the social and cultural history of technology and the history of twentieth century Russia.
“It’s definitely nice to be recognized,” Siddiqi said. “The article really generated a lot of response and I’ve gotten a lot of interest about my current work at Fordham.”
With the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik to be held later this year, Siddiqi said he has received calls to do articles from magazines. Challenge To Apollo contains a section on Sputnik, making Siddiqi one of the first to write about the space launch from a scholarly perspective (“I got lucky,” he said). The Sputnik section of the book has been reprinted in paperback as Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge (University Press of Florida, 2003).
Siddiqi describes the first launch into space in 1957 as a “metaphysical and geopolitical” milestone for mankind. “The human race has been around for millennia, but 50 years ago, this little ball came out from Earth and popped out of our atmosphere. Can you imagine how important that was from the perspective of life on this planet?” he said. “And Sputnik started a whole redirection in America toward more science education. President Kennedy said ‘we must beat the Russians’ and we ended up with a man on the moon. That was another human milestone—and it was a direct reaction to Sputnik.”
Siddiqi traces his interest in the space programs back to his childhood in Bangladesh, where he grew up as a “space geek” in an academic family: Both his mother and his father are professors. He came to the United States to attend university, studying engineering as an undergraduate, earning both an M.S. and MBA, and receiving his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in the history of technology. In between earning degrees, Siddiqi wrote articles for popular magazines, and sent NASA a few possible book chapters; NASA commissioned him to do the book in 1995.
Technology historians make up a “relatively small community” at present, Siddiqi said, but it is a scholarly area that is growing as technology grows. Such historians are concerned with studying the relationship between technology, such as air travel and computers and culture. Siddiqi’s two current projects include a look at the Stalinist Gulag scientists, and an analysis of the Indian space program.
“I am interested in the many different ways in which a rapidly developing country can attain modernity,” he said.