Book Review: 40 Years After Its Launch, NASA’s Space Shuttle Continues To Fascinate

Book Review: 40 Years After Its Launch, NASA’s Space Shuttle Continues To Fascinate

I vividly remember a Space Shuttle model I had as a kid in the ’80s. Though I left it unpainted — guessing, probably correctly, that any efforts I might make in that direction would not improve its sleekly rounded lines — it fit in perfectly among my Star Wars and Transformers toys. It was the science fiction dream of a reusable rocket ship, even if it needed gargantuan booster tanks (not included) to actually get it into orbit. It made spaceflight so routine that a launch was essentially a non-event on the national news.

Any NASA rocket launch hardly felt like a non-event if you were there, as a new coffee-table book celebrating the Shuttle’s 40th anniversary notes. “How would taxpayers feel if they found out they were buying orgasms for a few thousand freaks within a mile of the launch pad?” asked the sardonic Kurt Vonnegut after watching the last Apollo launch, adding, “and it’s a very satisfactory orgasm.”

Even a celebratory volume like this, creatively titled NASA Space Shuttle 40th Anniversary, with essays by a former NASA chief historian, can’t escape the poignant strangeness of the shuttle. Essentially a lingering wonder of the golden age of space exploration given a preternaturally long life (this 40th anniversary year of the shuttle’s launch is also only the 10th anniversary year of its retirement), the Space Shuttle was both an anticlimax after the moon landings and a false promise regarding America’s future in space. Since the Shuttle’s launch, presidents promising returns to the Moon and visits to Mars have sounded increasingly like parents suggesting the family might make a trip to Disney World if you finish your peas.

Shuttle historians also have to reckon with the program’s two tragic failures, both of which resulted in a complete loss of life on the part of a full seven-person crew. As befits a historian familiar with the unavoidable dangers of spaceflight, Roger D. Launius writes frankly, “The fleet conducted 135 missions, of which two ended in failure. For any rocket system, let alone one so vast and complex as this, such a flight record is not so bad.” That’s not something you could have told to Christa McAuliffe’s schoolchildren, but we’re all adults now.

That being said, NASA Space Shuttle is as much a picture book as a narrative history, the bulk of its pages bearing archival photos selected by Piers Bizony. They’re a reminder that the Space Shuttle was…well, pretty neat. A launch system robust and comfortable enough that 78-year-old John Glenn and a pair of legislators who were de facto among the first space tourists could fly, the Shuttle fulfilled its promise of being an orbital truck, though it never made as much economic sense as its budget-minded ’70s creators promised. (Launius drops the quietly astonishing fact that, due to an initial reluctance to lay off members of the development and construction teams once the Shuttle was launched, the program ran ongoing operational expenses that might have been as much as 50% above what would have been actually required.)

NASA Space Shuttle is a fascinating time capsule and a reminder of a strange, wonderful, and ultimately finite period in the history of space exploration. While one might quibble about the layout — it’s hard to imagine photo captions detracted so much from the visual impact of the book’s pages that they absolutely had to be inconveniently removed to the end of each chapter — NASA Space Shuttle will be a gratifying read for any space buff, a presentation that’s more concise than you might imagine but no less effective for that fact.

The book takes on an additional resonance during this distinctly odd summer of space. In the Shuttle’s heyday, it was all but unimaginable that we’d reach a juncture where NASA astronauts would need to turn to private industry and other countries for rides to space, or that they’d be catching a ride to a space station rapidly nearing the end of its useful life — with no firm plans for a successor. What was, perhaps, more imaginable was that people would be trying to leave Earth not merely because they want to but because someday in the not-so-distant future they may have to.

Whatever the future of space exploration holds, it will ride on the hard-learned lessons of the Shuttle program. NASA Space Shuttle is a reminder of those lessons, and of the idealism with which our country once set out to learn them.

Jay Gabler