“Willy Ley has been a mystery among spaceflight historians for many years. His role as science writer, advocate, and popularizer is known to many but understood by few. This book unpacks that story.”—Roger D. Launius, associate director of collections and curatorial affairs, National Air and Space Museum
“Ley lit the fire of interplanetary enthusiasm in the hearts of generations of young space cadets. Long overdue, this biography establishes the details and the ups and downs of his career.”—Tom D. Crouch, author of Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of Balloons and Airships
“Beyond recovering the fascinating and many contradictory aspects of Ley’s extraordinary life, Buss has provided a valuable case study of the complex relationship between science popularization, mass media, and scientific advocacy in the twentieth century.”—Asif A. Siddiqi, author of The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857-1957
Willy Ley inspired young rocket scientists and would-be astronauts around the world to imagine a future of interplanetary travel long before space shuttles existed. Willy Ley is the first biography of the science writer and rocketeer who predicted and boosted the rise of the Space Age.
Born in Germany, Ley became involved in amateur rocketry until the field was taken over by the Nazis. He fled to America, where he forged a new life as a weapons expert and journalist during World War II and as a rocket researcher after the war. As America’s foremost authority on rockets, missiles, and space travel, he authored books and scientific articles, while also regularly writing for science fiction pulp magazines and publishing what he termed romantic zoology—a blend of zoology, cryptozoology, history, and mythology. He even consulted for television’s Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and the Disney program Man in Space, thrilling audiences with a romanticized view of what spaceflight would be like.
Yet as astronauts took center stage and scientific intellectuals such as Wernher von Braun became influential during the space race, Ley lost his celebrity status. With an old-fashioned style of popular writing and eccentric perspectives influenced by romanticism and science fiction, he was ignored by younger historians. This book returns Willy Ley to his rightful place as the energizer of an era—a time when scientists and science popularizers mixed ranks and shared the spotlight so that our far-fetched, fantastic dreams could turn into the reality of tomorrow.
Jared S. Buss is adjunct professor of history at Oklahoma City Community College.
Read our exclusive interview with author Jared Buss as he discusses the importance of Willy Ley’s writing:
What launched your fascination with Willy Ley?
I’ve always been fascinated by scientific spokespeople and attempts to “sell science” to a broader audience. When it comes to spaceflight and rocketry, Willy Ley was one of the most influential and famous publicists for the Space Age.
You note that the label of “modern romantic” might be used to describe Willy Ley. What elements of Ley’s life and his writing do you think suggest this?
Ley combined his prophecies of a future of interplanetary travel with a celebration of past adventures, distant frontiers, sublime landscapes, and sheer wonder about the mysteries of the unknown. His books and articles inspired readers to celebrate explorers, glorify nature, and cherish new frontiers. He was a crucial link between the works of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Sagan.
Why should today’s scientists read Willy Ley’s writings today?
Willy Ley positioned himself as an intermediary between a scientific field and the broader public, which became the key patron of a nationalistic endeavor to land a man on the moon and beyond. Understanding Ley’s role contributes to an awareness of the need for scientific communication, media, and publicity. A practicing scientist will appreciate the role of science writers, popularizers, and debunkers, whether in the past or the present.
How do you think Ley’s writings influenced current popular culture?
If we conceptualize the Space Age as a consequence of media and publicity, then Ley was the most influential cultural producer of space-related imagery and prophecy. His books, articles, and speeches influenced millions of Americans to believe in a future of interplanetary travel. His authoritative books on rockets, missiles, and space travel educated the public, while his work as a scientific consultant influenced television shows.
Is there anyone now who writes in the same style?
In some ways, the era of the science writers has ended, although several notable individuals follow in the footsteps of these public educators and forceful debunkers of pseudoscience. A biography of Ley may cause some readers to feel nostalgic about an earlier time, when more scientists engaged in publicity, while blurring the lines between the alleged “two cultures” of science and the humanities.
What do you hope readers will enjoy most about your book?
I hope that readers will appreciate Ley’s sense of wonder about new frontiers and the quest for other worlds. His passion for knowledge, reverence for the complexities of nature, and faith in the human spirit are deeply inspiring for future generations of explorers. I hope that readers will feel encouraged to continue his personal journey to discover the cosmos above and within each of us.