Wednesday’s Book Review: “Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission”


Don-Thomas-book-cover-204x300Orbit of Discovery: The All-Ohio Space Shuttle Mission. By Don Thomas with Mike Bartell. Akron, Ohio: Ringtaw Books, 2014. Foreword by Senator John Glenn. Introduction by Senator George Voinovich. Illustrations, references, index. 406 pages. ISBN: 978-1-937378-72-1. $24.95 USD. Hardcover with dustjacket.

I received in the mail on the same day two books about astronauts and their mission activities. One was Orbit of Discovery, a first person narrative of astronaut Don Thomas aboard STS-70 in 1995 with a crew made up entirely of Ohioans. The second was Jay Barbree’s biography of Neil Armstrong, a book he claimed was authorized by the family although that is questionable. Orbit of Discovery is much the superior of the two books.

A core question is whether or not there is a use for a book about a single mission, in this case STS-70 in 1995. Don Thomas, a Cleveland native, and Mike Bartell answer that question in the affirmative with this engaging book. Thomas served as a mission specialist; he was selected by NASA in 1990 in the thirteenth group of astronauts. He eventually flew four Space Shuttle missions; this is the story of the second of them. It is a strong memoir, describing both his earlier career and then focusing on this singular mission in 1995.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this mission was its routine nature. It was not a first or last of anything, it was not a Hubble servicing mission, it was not a deployment for a major space probe, it did not do anything out of the ordinary. It did deploy a TDRSS communications satellite and undertook some microgravity research. It represents NASA’s Space Shuttle Program as it was just beginning to hit its stride with the Shuttle/Mir program and the ramp-up for the building of the International Space Station. It was also a mission emblematic of NASA seeking to push down the cost of individual shuttle missions and to ensure more efficient operations.

This mission on Discovery is hailed as being flown by the only “all-Ohio” crew. Not quite true; only four of five crewmembers were Ohioans. But the pilot for the mission, New York-born Kevin Kregel, had been given honorary Ohio native status by Governor George Voinovich. The “all-Ohio” crew, therefore, was something of a stunt but it was a pleasant one that is easy to accept.

What is most interesting about Orbit of Discovery is how Thomas weaves his transition from Cleveland to space into an account of a single mission, telling stories both humorous and poignant that capture well a NASA human spaceflight program that was exceptional but not closely followed by the public. It is a truism that few Americans paid much attention to the shuttle program in the 1990s. The public was favorably disposed toward the shuttle program but they viewed it as routine and unremarkable. This mission epitomized the routine nature of shuttle efforts in that era, but this account shows clearly that it was anything but unremarkable.

Throughout its 30-year history the Space Shuttle has been an important symbol of United States technological capability, universally recognized as such by both the American people and the larger international community. Nothing demonstrates this more than the missions of the shuttle program in the 1990s. Orbit of Discovery demonstrates this American exceptionalism quite well. In this post-shuttle era, this book reminds us what it was like to undertake a human space mission in the heyday of the shuttle program. At some level it is similar to the “I Was There” account by Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. when he published his book, Before Lift-off: The Making of a Space Shuttle Crew, in 1990. That work told in a similarly compelling manner the story of a 1984 shuttle mission.

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