When NASA began work on what became the Space Shuttle at the end of the Apollo program, few recognized how important a part of American life it would become over the next thirty-plus years. While not vast, the literature on the history of the Space Shuttle is now large enough to permit assessment.
In terms of technical history nothing is better than Dennis R. Jenkins, Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System, the First 100 Missions (North Branch, MN: Voyageur Press, 2001, 3rd Edition). It presents an overview of the vehicle’s development and use. It begins with a discussion of the origins of the goal of winged spaceflight in the 1920s, extends through the Dyna-Soar, lifting body, and X-plane research until the decision to proceed with the Space Shuttle in 1972. It then goes into great detail about the shuttle’s design and development effort in the 1970s and then discusses in some detail the first 100 missions of the program since 1981. In every case Jenkins offers an excellent technical analysis of all aspects of the vehicle. This book is the place to start in any effort to understand the history of the Space Shuttle. When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) started investigating the shuttle accident of February 1, 2003, its members read this book as background to their important work. Not surprisingly, Jenkins soon became a staff member supporting the CAIB and his expertise showed in the final report.
David M. Harland, The Story of the Space Shuttle (Chicester, UK: Springer-Praxis, 2004), is another solid account of the origins and development of the Space Shuttle. In spite of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the author claims that the Space Shuttle remains the most successful spacecraft ever developed. He argues that the scientific contribution it has made to the international space program is exceptional, and that its missions to Mir, Hubble, and the International Space Station make it an indispensable vehicle whose place in the history of the Space Age is secure. This is a revision and updating of a 1999 book on the history of the shuttle.
Well-known writer and eccentric T.A. Heppenheimer has published two volumes on the history of the Space Shuttle that present important perspectives on its origins and development. The first, The Space Shuttle Decision, 1965-1972 (History of the Space Shuttle, Volume 1) (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, a reprint of NASA SP-4221, 1999), reviews the shuttle’s technical antecedents in the X-15 and various rocket booster technologies, and illuminates the principal personalities involved in the Space Shuttle decision and their motivations. He traces NASA’s evolving program goals, technical calculations, political maneuvering, and fiscal constraints, and explains the myriad designs that preceded the 1972 approved shuttle concept. His second volume, Development of the Space Shuttle, 1972-1981 (History of the Space Shuttle, Volume 2) (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), traces the development of the shuttle through a decade of engineering setbacks and breakthroughs, program management challenges, and political strategizing, culminating in the first launch in April 1981. The focus here is on the engineering challenges: propulsion, thermal protection, electronics, and onboard systems.
Written by one of the most respected journalists currently covering NASA’s human spaceflight program, Pat Duggins’ Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007) is a combined valentine/criticism of the Space Shuttle program that has operated from the Kennedy Space Center since 1981. It takes as its entrée the decision made in the aftermath of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, to retire the fleet by 2010 and to develop a new human spaceflight vehicle, the Orion capsule powered to orbit by the Ares I booster, to replace it. For all if its many strengths as a well-written, engaging work of history about a topic that can become endlessly technical and difficult to follow, Final Countdown is really “once over lightly” as a sophisticated historical account of the shuttle program. As an introductory work, however, it is outstanding.
Perhaps appropriately, disasters in the shuttle program have attracted considerable attention from writers. The Challenger accident during launch of STS-51L on January 28, 1986, received early and persistent treatment. The most useful study is Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). The first thorough scholarly study of the events leading to the fateful decision to launch Challenger, this book uses sociological and communication theory to piece together the story of this disaster in spaceflight and to analyze the nature of risk in high technology enterprises. Three other books take a journalistic approach to the subject. These include two early publications, Malcolm McConnell, Challenger: A Major Malfunction (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1987), and Joseph J. Trento, with reporting and editing by Susan B. Trento, Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987). Both of these books use the Challenger accident as a window to review the NASA management and R&D system emphasizing the agency’s “fall from grace” in the early Space Shuttle era of the 1980s. Claus Jensen, No Downlink: A Dramatic Narrative about the Challenger Accident and Our Time (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996), recounts the story of the Challenger disaster as a symbol of American technological decline. The recent Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009), by Allan J. McDonald with James R. Hansen, presents a first-person account of the accident by a senior official at ATK Thiokol, the builder of the solid rocket boosters that failed during the Challenger’s launch.
There are five major books offering first person accounts of Space Shuttle operations. The earliest of these is Henry S.F. Cooper’s Before Lift-off: The Making of a Space Shuttle Crew (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987). Written in a journalistic style without scholarly apparatus, it is an excellent first person account of the 1984 mission of STS-41G. More recently, Tony Reichhardt has edited, Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years—The Astronauts’ Experiences in their Own Words (New York: DK Publishing, 2002). As said in the title, this work captures stories from 77 astronauts who have flown on the Space Shuttle since 1981 in a heavily illustrated, oversized format. Similar in format, but focused on the shuttle/Mir episode in the mid-1990s, Clay Morgan, Shuttle-Mir: The U.S. and Russia Share History’s Highest Stage (Washington, DC: NASA SP-2001-4225, 2001), offers a large-format picture book/CD-ROM with a multimedia history of the Shuttle-Mir story. It emphasizes the team members on the ground, the missions of the Space Shuttle to and from Mir, and the tales of the seven American astronauts who, with their Russian crewmates, worked under often challenging conditions. A searchable CD/ROM further explores the Shuttle-Mir program with historical documents, photos, biographies, correspondence, and oral histories.
Additionally, in early 2006 two memoirs of shuttle astronauts appeared. Thomas D. Jones, Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir (New York: Collins, 2006), offers more reflectiveness and less swagger than many earlier works by astronauts and focuses attention on the working men and women who operated in Earth orbit to deploy satellites, repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and build the International Space Station. A veteran of four shuttle missions, Jones’s memoir is one of only a small number of such first person accounts, and his style, penetrating insight, and wit makes it an essential book for anyone interested in the history of recent spaceflight. Another astronaut memoir that appeared at almost the same time is Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut (New York: Scribner’s, 2006). It is an entertaining, if sophomoric, work that speaks to the pilot mentality still present in the NASA astronaut corps. Mullane was chosen as a candidate in 1978, and his memoir oozes the machismo and conceit made famous in “The Right Stuff” without the heroism and sense of mission.
Finally, the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003 has prompted the publication several books on the accident, none of them as thoughtful and useful as Diane Vaughan’s work on Challenger but all suggestive of future investigation. Philip Chien, Columbia—Final Voyage: The Last Flight of NASA’s First Space Shuttle (Chicester, UK: Springer-Praxis, 2006), and Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, Comm Check…: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia (New York: Free Press, 2004), are journalistic accounts of the mission, the accident, and its aftermath. They review the crew’s training, scientific work, and the details of this mission. Mark Cantrell and Donald Vaughan, Sixteen Minutes from Home: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy (New York: AMI Books, 2003), offers a tribute to the crew and a sympathetic look at how the tragedy affected the families of the crew and the American public.
Collectively these books, as well as a few others that cannot be mentioned in a brief assessment such as this, sketch the broad contours of the Space Shuttle program, a program that has dominated more than half of the nearly fifty-year experience of human space flight.