Wednesday’s Book Review: “Single Stage to Orbit”

9780801873386__75624.1437445900.1280.1280Single Stage to Orbit: Politics, Space Technology, and the Quest for Reusable Rocketry. By Andrew J. Butrica. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Andrew Butrica’s book, while more than a decade old, is still germane to the current space policy environment. It takes a wholistic approach explicating how the American political right gained hold of the ideology of progress in the last two decades of the twentieth century. His goal is to place the history of the Strategic Defense Initiative Office/”single stage to orbit” spaceplane effort in the context of the United States’ well-documented political “right turn” of the past two-plus decades. He is very successful in examining the foundation and growth of the “conservative space agenda” and its linkage to various space advocacy groups. He also shows how conservative space advocates were able to manipulate the political system to achieve funding for their technological goal, a “Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO)” reusable launch vehicle.

Butrica’s book is the only book-length history of SSTO technologies other than memoirs of participants, and hence it addresses an important original topic. What makes the book worthy of serious and sustained attention, however, is its explicit examination of the “politics of space” and its linkage of space politics to a specific set of technologies and management practices. The conservative space agenda he reveals in this book has not yet been the subject of historical analysis, and this is the book’s primary contribution to the space history literature.

In itself, there is nothing overwhelmingly compelling about the story of SSTO. It was an effort begun in the 1980s, emphasized by Reaganite technological afficianadoes, to create a new space access capability through the development of a new space launcher. SSTO had long been the “holy grail” of spaceflight, the creation of a vehicle that could take off like an airplane, accelerate to hypersonic speeds, reach orbital velocity and enter orbit, and then return from space and land like an airplane on a runway. This is a very complex flight regime and one that has been impossible to achieve up to this time. Most engineers have thought it unachievable, and appropriately so, but it remained an enticing goal.

During the Reagan administration, some enthusiasts argued that technological stretch could make possible the “single stage to orbit” goal, and they achieved approval for a succession of SSTO programs. The tensions of the story are those of domestic politics and of engineers associated with industry versus those with government. The story plays out over several design projects from the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) through the DC-X to the X-33 of the 1990s. The story of these efforts is told in detail in this important new book.

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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Single Stage to Orbit”

  1. mjmackowski says:

    This is indeed a very good read and a valuable book. Has anyone ever done a history of SSTO from a technological perspective? Butrica’s book largely deals with the politics, but a treatment of the engineering and tech needed to make this happen would be interesting.


  2. I should read the book but from your review it appears that the author focused on politics and ignored what the entrepreneurial space community found “overwhelmingly compelling” about the DC-X/XA project in particular: All of its goals were completed with funding roughly a factor of ten less than what the NASA/USAF cost models said achieving those goals should have cost. (You can confirm this with some of the managers involved such as Pete Worden.)

    That community, which since 2003 has become labeled as NewSpace, has always seen lowering costs as the single most overwhelmingly important goal for space development. The DC-X disproved the aerospace govt/industry dogma that a space hardware project costs what it costs and, while you can try cutting some red-tape and bureaucracy here and there, nothing can be done beyond a few percent reduction in cost. DC-X was organized and carried out in fundamentally different ways than standard govt aerospace projects and that was how it achieved such cost reductions. Unfortunately, govt and mainstream industry, as well as academics like Butrica, chose to ignore the successful cost reduction aspect of the DC-X and instead dismissed it as a failed attempt at an SSTO. (The X-33 was in fact a return to standard operating mode but that’s another subject.)

    Fortunately, there were some projects that followed similar approaches as the DC-X and achieved similar cost reductions. Spacehab, Lunar Prospector, Giove A, Scaled’s SpaceShipOne, and Bigelow’s Genesis I & II all cost a fraction of what standard aerospace procurement would have paid for them. A NASA team analyzed SpaceX’s books to investigate the costs of developing the Falcon 9 and found that if NASA had developed the same rocket, the costs would have been as much as 10 times greater .

    Since the DC-X/XA period, I’ve been following that community online, attending its conferences, and monitoring the companies that emerged from it. I’ve never read or heard anyone in that community say, “The DC-X was great because it was big step towards launching Brilliant Pebbles”. The admiration has always been about its success at demonstrating significant technological capabilities with a tiny fraction of the funding that a conventional govt/mainstream aerospace project would have required to do the same or less.


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