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Review: Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years


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Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years
by John Bisney and J.L. Pickering
Univ. of Florida Press, 2021
hardcover, 288 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-68340-205-3
US$45.00

Fifty years ago last month, President Richard Nixon gave his formal approval for the Space Shuttle program. That decision set in motion a program whose effects continue to be belt to this day, more than a decade after the final shuttle mission ended. Shuttle-era hardware is currently in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, this time in the form of the first Space Launch System rocket set to lift off—hopefully—some time this spring.

The development of the shuttle program and its first flights are the focus of Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years, the latest in a series of pictorials by John Bisney and J.L. Pickering (see, for example, “Reviews: Photography and Apollo”, The Space Review, April 8, 2019.) The book is a compilation of images, most rarely seen before, tracing the shuttle program from its origins through its first four missions.

A couple images from events at KSC in the 1970s feature a young congressman who represented the area and had taken an interest in the nascent shuttle program: Bill Nelson.

As with their previous books, Bisney and Pickering sought to find images that had not been widely published before. “You might think it would be easy to put together a photo book on the Space Shuttle. What’s difficult, however, is to do so using largely unseen images,” Pickering writes in the book’s introduction. Fortunately, he writes, many of the images from that era have yet to be digitized, languishing in various archives, including those of collectors. “I am confident that most of these photos qualify as seldom seen or never-before-published.”

That seems to be an accurate assessment. Those images start with concepts for reusable launch vehicles in the mid-1960s that evolved into what became the shuttle, followed by photos documenting the shuttle’s development and testing. One chapter covers the selection and training of the 1978 astronaut class, which included the first female and Black astronauts. The final chapters cover the first four shuttle missions, concluding with STS-4 in July 1982 that wrapped up—at least in the view of NASA at the time—the test phase of the shuttle program.

A book like this doesn’t necessarily reshape the historical account, but instead helps fill it out with images both from behind the scenes (like those from the astronaut training program) as well as public ones that had been lost or forgotten but now take on a new perspective. For example, a couple images from events at KSC in the 1970s feature a young congressman who represented the area and had taken an interest in the nascent shuttle program: Bill Nelson. The photos are augmented with images of other artifacts from the era, from covers of press kits and other documents to pin and badges, again helping to fll out the historical record rather than reshape it.

The book’s subtitle of “The Early Years” suggests there will be a future book, or books, chronicling the later years of the program. That would certainly be welcome, particularly if they can again find rarely-seen images of those efforts. Perhaps someday there will be a similar book chronicling the development of the SLS, which has taken longer from announcement to first launch than the shuttle despite using heritage hardware. The challenge there, though, will be to find photos that have not been widely seen before in this area of digital imaging and distribution.


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