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Review: Into the Black

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Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her
by Rowland White
Touchstone, 2016
hardcover, 464 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-5011-2362-7

Last month marked the 35th anniversary of the first flight of the Space Shuttle, and the first “major” anniversary—defined here as a multiple of five years—since the last flight of the shuttle. (The 30th anniversary took place just months before the program’s end, and NASA marked the event by announcing where the shuttle orbiters would go in that looming retirement.) The pain of that retirement—economic for thousands laid off as the program ended, and a more intangible feeling of loss for many others—has faded, as people, companies, and the country in general move on, seeking new opportunities and new destinations.

The book is as much about the development of the shuttle as it is about the first flight.

This latest anniversary is also marked by the release of a new book about that historic mission. Into the Black by Rowland White is a sprawling, fascinating book about that first shuttle mission, and all the events leading up to it, including the close calls during that first mission that brought it closer to disaster than once thought.

The book is as much about the development of the shuttle as it is about the first flight: liftoff of STS-1 takes place on page 265 of a book that ends (excluding acknowledgements and other end matter) on page 394. That includes tracing the careers of astronauts like the STS-1 crew of John Young and Robert Crippen and others involved in the program, as well as the technical history of the shuttle’s development, a series of threads White weaves together into a compelling narrative.

Much of the early part of the book deals with a program that, at first glance, appears to have nothing to do with the shuttle: the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). That program, an effort to develop a military space station for reconnaissance, was unceremoniously cancelled in 1969, and its technology had little, if any, effect on the nascent shuttle program.

Where MOL did play a role, though, was in its cadre of military astronauts, some of whom NASA grudgingly accepted into its astronaut corps after MOL’s cancellation even though it had no immediate use for them. As it turned out, the MOL astronauts became a vital bridge between NASA’s original astronauts, many of whom gradually retired from the agency as Apollo wound down, and the new astronaut classes NASA hired later as shuttle ramped up. Crippen was among those MOL astronauts, as were Richard Truly, Gordon Fullerton, and others. The first several shuttle missions, as it turned out, all had MOL astronauts as members of their crew.

The interaction between military and civilian spaceflight is a central theme to the book, including the military’s gradual, guarded acceptance of the shuttle as a launch vehicle for its satellites, as well as the role reconnaissance satellites played in checking Columbia for lost tiles while in orbit. That latter role had long been known, or at least suspected, but White provides extensive details about the planning involved in the challenging satellite-to-satellite, or “sat-squared,” imaging. (It was not, the book notes, the first time such sat-squared images benefited NASA: it was used after the launch of Skylab to provide engineers with better information about the state of the crippled space station prior to sending astronauts to repair it.)

The MOL astronauts NASA reluctantly became a vital bridge between NASA’s original astronauts and the new astronaut classes NASA hired later as shuttle ramped up.

While White in general does a good job pulling everything together in his story about the first shuttle mission, the book at times can be a little too broad. For example, discussions about the Soviet Union’s development of a shuttle-like vehicle seem like digressions: while NASA’s shuttle program clearly influenced the Soviet decision to develop what became Buran, there’s nothing to suggest that the Soviet decision had any influence on the shuttle’s development in general or the flight of STS-1 in particular. Such discussions could have been trimmed from the book without losing much of the central story about the shuttle’s early history.

Overall, though, Into the Black is a great book about the shuttle’s development and its first flight. Even those familiar with that history will likely learn something new, and be compelled to keep reading by White’s writing style, where many chapters end with foreshadowing of what will happen next. The shuttle program itself is now consigned to history, but books like this help shed new light, and bring new life, to that era of spaceflight.