Saturday, April 23, 2011

Review: the ultimate Space Shuttle book

Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System The First 100 Missions
Dennis R. Jenkins - published by the author, 2001

What Jenkins has done here is phenomenal. Certainly no other book on the Shuttle compares to it, and I don't think any other space vehicle, not even Apollo, is the subject of a one-volume reference so complete and authoritative.

In addition to exhaustive descriptions and diagrams of the Shuttle's technology, Jenkins puts the subject in context. Reusable spaceplane ideas go back to before World War II. The most brilliant minds in aerospace engineering have tried to make them practical, but either technology or cost defeated all the pre-Shuttle efforts. The author goes through the history of suborbital X-planes, the never-built efforts like Dyna-Soar, and the 1960s beginnings of the modern Shuttle program. The dozens of designs explored before the somewhat compromised final configuration was picked are all here. Everything from tile design to orbiter names is explained as we approach Flight 1, on page 268 of the 513-page text. The actual mission coverage is fairly compressed to allow for comprehensive coverage of the Shuttle's technology. Possible Shuttle upgrades and follow-ons - still relevant, as NASA's current concept for a Space Launch System is a Shuttle-based design - are covered, along with the Challenger accident and the most nnotable achievements of Shuttle astronauts. (The book's publication predates the Columbia tragedy: I bought my copy the day after the accident to help me follow the investigation.)
As someone with experience researching space technology and operations, I am, as I told Dennis once, simply in awe of the work that went into this. If you want gossipy astronaut bios or minute-by-minute descriptions of missions, this is not your book: but if you want to know how one of the great achievements in space technology was developed, this is THE book.

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