Book Review: ‘Space Shuttle: Developing an Icon – 1972-2013’

A Space Shuttle project manager provides one of the most thorough accounts of this landmark in manned space travel

For three decades, between 1981 and 2011, NASA’s Space Shuttle embodied the popular image of manned spaceflight, and the winged body of the Orbiter itself became a graphic icon of the age.

Before the Shuttle era (and to a large extent since), manned spacecraft were conical capsules with heat-resistant shields; by contrast, the Shuttle was an aircraft-like vehicle with wings, tail and a large cargo bay.

Although the Orbiters now reside in museums, the dream is still alive in the form of Sierra Nevada Corp’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle (see ‘Building the dream’ in the October 2014 issue of E&T), which is under contract to deliver supplies to the International Space Station from 2020. Currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, Dream Chaser is one of a few spacecraft influenced by the design of the Shuttle and its lifting-body precursors.

In its operational lifetime, the Space Shuttle fleet flew 135 missions and attracted much media attention. It also prompted the publication of an almost uncountable number of books, both technical and popular, so it’s fair to ask why ‘Space Shuttle: Developing an Icon: 1972-2013’ by Dennis R Jenkins (Specialty Press $169.95, ISBN 9781580072496) deserves consideration.

The answer lies in its comprehensive dedication to the subject and its quality of presentation in three substantial volumes, bound together in a slipcase. In brief, the first volume covers the engineering development of the various shuttle concepts, including lifting-body precursors; the second provides a detailed technical description of the actual Shuttle hardware that resulted; and the third covers the missions themselves with major sections on the Challenger and Columbia accidents, investigations and recovery programmes.

Although the production of such a work is never the result of a single person’s efforts, the brilliance and attention to detail in the concept is due to the author. Jenkins was an engineer and project manager on the Shuttle programme for 33 years, arriving just prior to STS-1, and experienced the Shuttle era from a front row seat. Among other things, he served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and, latterly, managed the delivery of the retired Orbiters to their eventual display sites. As a result, his comment on the swing of the pendulum back towards capsules is particularly worth noting: “The immediate response to the Columbia accident was an unthinking reaction to return to capsules”, he says, “despite no real evidence that capsules are any safer or less expensive”.

Though not a professional historian, the author has been careful to use engineering references rather than secondary sources such as public affairs documentation, while the ‘embedded’ nature of his perspective makes for an authoritative text. In fact, this is no lightweight book in any sense of the word: it’s encyclopaedic in coverage (over a million words in 1584 pages, according to the publisher) and weighs nearly 7kg. Each volume has a full contents table and index along with volume-specific endnotes and is printed on high quality, glossy paper which suits the “2923 colour photos and 999 line drawings”. Although the three-volume set is not cheap, it’s hard to know what other book on the Space Shuttle one could desire.

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