Sunday, 15 January 2017

Books review: 'The Space Shuttle Decision' and 'Development of the Space Shuttle' by T.A. Heppenheimer

The Space Shuttle Decision 1965-1972, by T.A. Heppenheimer.
Development of the Space Shuttle 1972-1981, by T.A. Heppenheimer.

These books are a two-volume history of the Space Shuttle program, written before the Columbia disaster in 2003. The first volume covers the decision to make the Shuttle; how it turned from being a small part of a comprehensive space program into the only part of a much reduced system. The second volume covers the design and development of the Shuttle, ending at its first launch.

As can be seen from the dates, the first book spans a period from shortly after the start of manned space flight, up to nine years before the shuttle's first flight. Mr Heppenheimer does an excellent job of examining all the precursors to the Shuttle to show how the decision to build the shuttle occurred.

And this is vital information, as the Shuttle program was a glorious failure. It was meant to fly 60 times a year, yet only managed 135 flights in 30 years, with two of those resulting in total losses of vehicle and crew. The Shuttle did not reach its schedule, performance or cost-per-flight projections. Yet despite this, it kept the US in the space race.

So what went wrong? Back in the 1960s, at the height of the Apollo program, NASA wanted a small, cheap shuttle that would service orbiting space stations and a manned mission to Mars that was planned for the 1980s. As politicians refused funding for the Mars landings and the space station, NASA was left with plans for a shuttle that had no mission.

To give it a reason to exist (and to keep NASA in the manned spaceflight business), they allied with the air force, who required a much larger spaceplane with superior glide characteristics. This was more expensive, so they had to take all the payloads launched by the US government to make it cost-effective, along with a large proportion of the civilian satellites. This meant that all the US eggs would be in one launch basket, which proved to be a problem when that basket was grounded for three years after the Challenger disaster.

Because the new system was heavier, the costs were much larger. Under the watchful eyes of a budget organisation, the OMB, NASA changed the Shuttle from a fully-reusable system to a partly-reusable one. A move that was meant to save money during development actually made the system more expensive to operate per flight. It also led to critical design decisions that helped doom both Challenger and Columbia.

Although the first book ends years before the Shuttle first flew, it covers the period where the decisions that shaped and doomed the project were made. As such, it is vital reading for anyone interested in that program.

In the second volume, Mr Heppenheimer does a good job of detailing the tasks and problems facing NASA in developing the Shuttle, from obvious big-ticket items such as the main engines to smaller yet critical ones, such as life support and orbital manoeuvring systems.

The development was beset by problems, and the first flight was two or three years later than scheduled (although some of the delays were caused by budgetary rather than developmental problems). American industry worked hard to deliver a working Shuttle, albeit one that was doomed not to meet its targets due to the decisions outlined in the first volume.

Whilst the first volume might best be targeted at economists, political theorists and project managers, the second goes into much greater depth into the Shuttle's hardware. As such, it is of much more interest to the general space buff. It is far less helpful in discovering what went wrong with the program and why the Shuttle was an expensive failure, even if a glorious one.

These books are crying out for a third volume covering the operations of the Shuttle, and the missions it undertook. But despite this missing third volume, these books are a fascinating insight into the entire program. Mr Heppenheimer turns complex, dry topics into a readable history.

Although I ordered hard copies, the first volume is also available in HTML from the NASA website:

The Space Shuttle Decision 1965-1972

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Books read in 2016

Below is a list of books that I read in 2016. A fairly short list due to illness and lack of time but I am fairly happy with the mix between fiction and non-fiction.

01/01/2016: (started in 2015)
Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil, by James Runcie

Thomas Telford's Temptation, by Charles Hadfield.

A twist of the knife by Peter James

Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Tank Rider, into the Reich with the red army, by Evgeni Bessonov

Big Blue, by ??? (Annoyingly, I did not write down the authors of this rather ancient (1980s) book.

Rebus: Black Book, by Ian Rankin

The White Umbrella, by Brian Sewell

The Making of the English Landscape, by W.G. Hoskins.

Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy

That Close, by Suggs

Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance

The Space Shuttle Decision 1965-1972, by T.A. Heppenheimer.

Development of the Space Shuttle 1972-1981, by T.A. Heppenheimer.

Wild: a journey from Lost to Found, by Cheryl Strayed

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

Runaway, by Peter May

The awards of the George Cross, 1940-1009 by John Frayn Turner.