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Book Review:  Into the Black

Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Title: Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of Shuttle Columbia and the Men Who Flew Her
Author: Rowland White
Format: Hardcover/Kindle
Publisher: Touchstone
Date: April 2016
Retail Price: $29.99/$14.99
ISBN: 978-1501123627

As I began this book, the question posed was—what new information or perspective might be encountered? After all, Heppenheimer’s Space Shuttle Decision had covered the subject in exquisite detail, and Jenkins’ The Space Shuttle had provided a more than adequate high-level discourse.

The Author, Rowland White, has previously published several books about aviation. That astronaut Richard Truly provided the Foreword is a good indication of the authenticity of the content. White lives in the UK, and that means his command of the English language will occasionally present sentence forms that may cause you to reread—but that’s okay.

The book is divided into four parts and 67 chapters (simply titled by number). Each chapter has subheadings identifying locations and dates to place the action in a locale and to provide chronological identity.

Following brief bios of several astronauts (Robert Crippen, Joe Engle, Richard Truly, and John Young), the author offers a succinct history of the early reconnaissance satellite development and the formation of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The tie-in between the “black” (highly secret) activities of the NRO evolves as the shuttle story unfolds.

Although the primary imaging of the first unmanned recon satellites (early 1960s) was spectacular, their film needed to be recovered in a timely manner when terrestrial events (political or military) dictated. However, directing the camera at specific areas of interest required objectivity and judgment—the human element—which led to the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. Ultimately, 17 military test pilots were chosen to fly the MOL into orbit, and to operate its complex systems.

White relates that a conflict between the MOL and another high-priced (but unmanned) NRO project, Hexagon, came to a head over MOL cost and schedule overruns. An enabling technological breakthrough was the Charged Coupled Device (CCD) by Bell Laboratories that converted the visible light spectrum directly into an electronic signal. This allowed real-time transmission of high-resolution images to ground stations, eliminating the need for the costly human element. In 1969, the MOL program was cancelled and its astronauts were given the opportunity to transfer to NASA. The key tie-in between the MOL program and NASA’s future (after the Moon landing in 1969) was the space shuttle. Melding these early chapters into the subsequent shuttle project was nicely done.

White includes many short vignettes. One is President Nixon’s angst over the shuttle’s price tag. Casper Weinberger (Nixon’s Deputy Director of the OMB) had the considered opinion that the shuttle should not be justified solely based on cost. Technology leaves an impression that can be translated into political advantage. This was emphasized when Nixon was somewhat intimidated by the arrival of the French president aboard the Concord SST for a meeting.

The imaging of the somewhat disabled Skylab space station in 1973, by an NRO satellite, was another tie-in between the black recon program and NASA. It is at this point that the focus of the book draws in seven former MOL astronauts and their involvement with the shuttle.

The author effectively describes the development of the thermal protection system and the use of the Boeing 747 as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. The segment on the Gulfstream G-II Shuttle Training Aircraft was also informative. A brief overview of Soviet lifting body research that preceded the development of their Buran shuttle is provided. White does a creditable job of weaving the personalities and contributions of several not-so-well-known individuals into the often-dry technical descriptions.

Readers who are pilots will appreciate the riveting description of astronaut Fred Haise’s first landing in the unpowered Shuttle Enterprise. Moreover, they will get more than the average person from numerous segments of cockpit dialogue. The dramatic effort to save Skylab for future use with the shuttle is a story that has been all but lost to history. The description is succinct and well presented.

White conveys the three critical shuttle systems that were pacing items during its development (and ultimately the schedule delay culprits): the throttleable LH2 engine, the thermal protection system, and the computer system and its software. A simulator session of a shuttle engine failure requiring the Return-To-Launch-Site (RTLS) maneuver was nicely described.

The last third of the book is dedicated to the STS-1 mission—its launch, on-orbit operational tests, reentry, and recovery. This first shuttle flight into space with John Young and Robert Crippen is well written except for some hyperbole with respect to G-forces and orbiter orientation. That this first flight was manned was an unbelievable expression of confidence in an untried launch vehicle whose dynamic flight characteristics were not fully known.

The author conveys the biggest unknown on achieving orbit resulted from the discovery of the loss of some of the thermal protection tiles from the spacecraft that could be viewed by the crew. This caused concern for the possible loss of underside tiles that were more critical—and not visible. Again, the use of black satellite recon resources and Earth-based telescope photos were used to allay NASA’s fears.

While the tenor of much of the book is certainly serious, some occasional humor is well placed. Among the sources used by the author, none is more compelling than the various conversations of Flight Director Gene Kranz.

Though the design of the shuttle as a launch vehicle often takes center stage, Rowland White effectively focuses on the amazing return-from-orbit profile at the end of the mission—the magic of the precise attitude positioning, the intricate hypersonic S-turns, and the dissipation of the heat from the different surfaces of the shuttle. The key aspect of the reentry of STS-1 was that it would validate the theory, computer simulations, and wind tunnel tests of its reentry technology. I hung on every word until “wheels stop.”

I was disappointed that the author chose to include quotes that contained lurid sexist profanity and blasphemy—an appropriate use of the ellipsis (or appropriate blank spaces) for offensive words would have done wonders to avoid embarrassing the source and upsetting the reader.

With respect to the question posed at the beginning of this review, the answer is yes—there was both noticeable new information and an interesting perspective that will keep the reader engaged and feeling that your time was well spent.

© 2016 Ted Spitzmiller

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Updated Mon, Jan 11, 2016 at 00:34:34
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