- STS1 1981 12 April 1200.03 UTC
Into The Black
The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her
Roland White, West Slope 629.441 WHITE, 2016
This is an extraordinarily detailed and well written book. The author clearly did his research, and explains the details well without dumbing them down. Much of the book explains the deep connections to Dynasoar and the Manned Orbital Laboratory, and the shuttle astronauts who first trained for MOL, such as STS-1 pilot Robert Crippen.
I watched (from the press site, on the platform in front of the press stand) Columbia launch on April 12 1981 (after an abort on April 10), and watched the landing at Edwards two days later. This book fills in many details.
The biggest surprise for me was the imaging of the STS-1 underwing tiles (possibly damaged during launch) by NRO/Airforce polar spy satellites, and the split-second timing required to make that happen. The press was told that the images came from the 36 inch Anderson Peak telescope in California.
Failure was designed into the Shuttle program; NRO needs and capabilities cut both ways.
- The shuttle was designed with such large wings for 3000 km cross range landings, for polar satellite deployments launching from and landing at Vandenberg AFB in California.
- The shuttle was designed with a huge cargo bay to contain a bus-sized KH-11 spysat (the Hubble Space Telescope is a modified KH-11)
Many bad design decisions, such as the huge areas of fragile heat-shield tile, were driven by these two design requirements. The huge size was costly, and did not leave funds for a fly-back booster. That necessitated flying the heavy Space Shuttle Main Engines back on the orbiter itself.
After STS-51L Challenger was destroyed by an SRB O-ring failure, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) director Pete Aldridge cancelled the completed $2.8B Shuttle launch complex at Vandenberg. The only geopolitical compensation for the shuttle misdesign and massive wasted effort was the Soviet's response, 15 to 20 billion rubles spent on Buran, a paranoid response to the hypothetical first-strike nuclear weapon delivery capability (page 142) of a Vandenberg-launched shuttle.
Imagine a different world - a small winged, small-engined "second stage" shuttle with 50% of the cargo space and 30% of the dry weight. The cost savings could have been devoted to a flyback booster on the bottom of a vertical launch stack; no foam-covered external tank, no segmented solid rockets, vastly lower cost per flight.
I was very skeptical about the SpaceX vertical landing boosters, and worry that they do not have the deep financial resources to develop a crew-safe vertical landing Dragon capsule. That said, if they can pull off the rocket-landing Dragon safely, they can land the capsule in any friendly country. A good reason for SpaceX to make lots of international friends, while maintaining political distance from the Air Force and US politics.