Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia
© 2016 Rowland White
As the Apollo missions neared the completion of their goal, NASA looked ahead and charted a bold new course for the future: a manned research station, a permanent lunar lab, and possibly even a Mars expedition: underpinning it all would be the Space Shuttle, a reusable orbiter capable of landing under its own power. Little of that dream would be realized, in the face of budget competition in the Vietnam War, economic disruption, and waning public interest in bankrolling increasingly grand endeavors* — but NASA wasn’t alone in pushing for greater American versatility in space. From Sputnik on, the Air Force looked to the skies as well….and its own spacetime interests would become a key part of the Shuttle’s story. A comprehensive history of how the shuttle program to be, Into the Black draws on recently declassified material to provide a rare look into early militarization of space.
From the beginning, the United States Air Force had an active interest in developing its own space capabilities, and recruited its own pool of eight astronauts. The “Magnificent Eight” would never get the name recognition of the Mercury 7 (or any recognition at all, for that matter), but many earned astronaut wings flying test planes outside the ‘atmosphere’ envelope, and when Nixon pulled the plug to focus spending on a next-generation surveillance satellite, several of its astronauts were grandfathered into NASA, and became key contributors to the operation of Skylab. (There, they drew on their experience in helping form the Air Force’s decade-long obsession, a Manned Orbiting Laboratory, a project made obsolete in its ultimate purpose by increasingly sophisticated satellites.) More importantly, however, their long experience with near-space planes made men like Dick Truly and Bob Crippen perfect contributors to the development of the Shuttle: when Enterprise and Columbia proved the shuttle’s worthiness as an plane and orbiter, respectively, MOL veterans were side-by-side of Apollo legends like John Young.
Creating a vehicle that could both operate in space effectively and glide safety to Earth in full atmosphere was a daunting, decade-long process, as problems with wing design and insulation were slowly ironed out. (Very slowly: the attrition of insulating tiles would be a constant problem for the Shuttles). Not all of the problems were technical; because of the constraints of fly-by-wire, pilots invariably fell into a vertical fishtail that ‘destroyed’ countless flights in the simulators. Into the Black comprehensively covers the test-flights both Enterprise and Columbia, the latter to an astonishing degree — but, given the stakes, an understandable one. Columbia entered orbit for the first time already bearing pockmarks from where her tiles had fallen off, and NASA had serious reservations as to whether the orbiter could return safety. Ultimately that was a problem that caught up to the shuttle twenty-two years later.
Although Into the Black tackles technical information to a degree that might spook the most casual reader, for the aviation buff and space enthusiast, it’s a title with an enormous payload. I’ve read a dozen or so space books and have never encountered any information about the Air Force’s MOL program, or even its astronaut pool. The coverage given to the technical development of ‘the space plane’ is also unusually thorough, making Into the Black a remarkably useful book for the enthusiastic student.
*Just one Endeavour, as it turns out, and only to replace a Challenger.