Dwayne A. Day is a former investigator for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and a space policy analyst and historian.
On April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin blasted into space, John Young and Robert Crippen lay on their backs inside the flight deck of the space shuttle Columbia, by far the most sophisticated human-carrying spacecraft ever built. As Columbia roared into a blue Florida sky, it marked the first time the United States had launched a partly reusable rocket. It was also risky in another way: Every time NASA had previously launched astronauts into space, such as during the Apollo missions to the moon, it had tested the rockets unmanned first.
But as Rowland White makes clear in his new book, “Into the Black,” the shuttle had been tested and tested and tested again in simulators, test chambers and even with glide flights off the back of a 747 with two pilots at the controls. Engineers had worked for nearly a decade trying to wring out myriad problems and design challenges in the big machine, and astronauts had not only helped with the technical stuff, they had also developed procedures for the orbiter, which didn’t so much as fly as fall in a forward direction with all the grace of a winged brick — its wings and flat belly provided a bit of lift for the heavy spacecraft, but nothing like conventional airplanes.
One of those procedures, which Young and Crippen hoped they would not need, was “RTLS,” the “return to launch site” abort, which involved flipping the orbiter over while its rocket engines were still firing and flying it backward, first bleeding off velocity, essentially stopping it far out over the Atlantic Ocean, then heading back to the Florida coast for a landing. This procedure, Young once said, would require “six miracles followed by an act of God.” Fortunately, over the course of 135 flights in the shuttle program, no astronauts had to attempt it.
The remaining shuttles are all in museums now, the program having ended 30 years after it began. The two tragic accidents, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, as well as the program’s unmet promise to make spaceflight cheap and easy, have created the impression that the shuttle was a failure. Despite the shuttle’s somewhat sullied reputation, White demonstrates just what an amazing engineering accomplishment it was.
The shuttle was NASA’s next big manned-spaceflight project after Apollo. White explains how and why NASA built it, how it was supposed to be a “space truck” to carry satellites and people into orbit, and how many of the early shuttle astronauts were originally selected for a canceled secret Air Force space project.
Any initial design of a complex machine involves a fair amount of guesswork and hope. For example, the shuttle used an untested heat-shield technology involving lightweight ceramic tiles, more than 24,000 of them, glued onto its body. When engineers at Rockwell International in Palmdale, Calif., first started filling in the details on the shuttle design, they were not exactly sure how to secure the tiles to the airframe, which flexed as the orbiter flew into and out of daylight and could crack the tiles. Once technicians started applying them, they started falling off, requiring the development of new adhesives and materials to secure them. To test their strength, technicians used suction cups to pull on them to see whether they came loose. But one NASA official asked: How did they know that pulling on the tiles did not leave them looser than when they started? The answer was to attach microphones to the airframe and listen to the faint sound of the adhesive coming unstuck. Problems with the tiles added a year to the program’s development. Problems with the orbiter’s thoroughbred, high-efficiency rocket engines added another. Originally slated to fly in 1978, the first flight came almost three years later.
White tells an engaging story with a remarkable number of new details about the events leading to the first mission. Young and Crippen’s flight, for instance, did not go without incident. The acoustic energy — that is, thunderous noise — that reflected off the launchpad and back onto the vehicle at liftoff was far greater than predicted and damaged the orbiter. Young, who had walked on the moon in 1972, later said that if he had known about that at the time, he probably would have ejected from the spacecraft rather than try to land it.
But the real drama occurred when Columbia lost some of its heat-resistant tiles on its rear fuselage during that first flight, prompting ground controllers to worry that far-more-critical tiles on the shuttle’s belly had also come off. So they enlisted the help of the then-secret National Reconnaissance Office and its KH-11 satellites to take photographs of the shuttle’s underside, proving that all the tiles were still there. Although this incident was long rumored to have happened, White provides more detail about it than previously available.
White’s inspiration is clearly Tom Wolfe’s classic “The Right Stuff,” and his focus is on the test pilots who started out flying hot jets in the military and saw the shuttle as the ultimate challenge. Many of the early shuttle pilots were originally selected as astronauts for the secretive Manned Orbiting Laboratory program of the 1960s. The MOL spacecraft was a big tube with a large reconnaissance camera inside and a pressurized compartment for two astronauts to operate it, lofted into orbit atop a Titan III rocket. When it was canceled by President Richard Nixon in 1969 because robotic spacecraft could do the job just as well, the Air Force offered the MOL astronauts to NASA, which took half of them, based on their birthdates.
The MOL astronauts then spent more than a decade working on the shuttle development. As many of NASA’s Apollo-era astronauts retired in the 1970s, the MOL astronauts moved up the ladder. Their skills made them highly useful not simply as pilots but as part of the shuttle’s development team. Crippen, for instance, had some computer experience and became an expert on the shuttle’s computer system. Although primitive by today’s standards, it was not all that cutting edge at the time, either, chosen more for proven reliability than power. The pilots wanted the computers to display graphical data like bar charts, but when Crippen took that wish to the engineers, they usually replied that the best they could do was to display numbers on cathode ray tubes, pushing the burden of interpreting the data back on the astronauts.
While devoting most of his pages to the pilot astronauts, White barely mentions the scientists, women and minorities who entered the astronaut corps in the late 1970s, redefining the right stuff and opening space to a broader segment of humanity. White’s occasional Britishisms can also be confusing. At one point he describes a rocket engine turbopump, which forced liquid hydrogen and oxygen into the combustion chamber and had to go from a standing stop to 38,000 rpm in less than a second, as about the size of a “Christmas cake,” whatever that is.
And despite the book’s introduction of a number of new details about the intersection of the worlds of reconnaissance satellites and NASA, there are still quite a few mistakes about the former. The KH-11 Kennen was built by Lockheed, not TRW, as White asserts. The Corona satellite eventually had two film-return capsules and much better resolution than 50 feet. White refers only to the single-capsule version and the poor resolution, ignoring that the designers constantly improved it. And the first attempt to launch a spy satellite, nicknamed Discoverer Zero, did not blow up on the pad in 1959; it nearly did so, suddenly smoking and making a lot of noise and scaring the crap out of the Air Force ground crew working on it, who scrambled to get away in their thick protective suits. That near-disaster proved highly influential in shaping the procedures used by the spy satellite community.
White lists his sources, but there are no footnotes, making it hard to determine where the new information — and the mistakes — came from and how much is real vs. author speculation. But it’s a great read, a rollicking yarn about magnificent men and their rocket machine.
By Rowland White
Touchstone. 445 pp. $29.99