Summer Reading: Indispensable Books on the History of the Space Shuttle

GPN-2000-001870When 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: Developing an Icon 1972-2013  (3 volumes, slipcase, Dennis R. Jenkins). 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 all of the 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 an earlier edition of 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. Additionally, David Hitt and Heather R. Smith’s Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), and   Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program, 1986-2011 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), by Rick Houston and Jerry Ross, relates the story of the shuttle throughout the program.

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.

Additionally, Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her (New York: Touchstone, 2016), by Rowland White discusses the first mission of the Space Shuttle in 1981.

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, enlarged edition, 2016). 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. Of similar interest is The Space Shuttle: Celebrating Thirty Years of NASA’s First Space Plane (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2011), by Piers Bizony. 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.

The Space Shuttle taken from the International Space Station.

The Space Shuttle taken from the International Space Station.

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. More recently, Mike Massimino’s Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe (New York: Crown Archetype, 2016)  is a very interesting astronaut-scientist memoir.

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 (New York: Copernicus Books, 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. Frederick F. Lighhall’s Disastrous High-Tech Decision Making: From Disaster to Safety (Indianapolis, IN: Kilburn Sackett Press, 2015), offers lessons on the accident and to learn fro the disaster.

Finally, a new book on the cultural history of the Space Shuttle may be found in Spaceflight in the Shuttle Era and Beyond: Redefining Humanity’s Purpose in Space (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

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 sixty-year experience of human space flight.

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14 Responses to Summer Reading: Indispensable Books on the History of the Space Shuttle

  1. Michael says:

    A great bibliography of Space Shuttle resources. Thanks for posting it! Could you also include “The Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual” by Kerry Mark Joels and G.P. Kennedy? It probably does not qualify as a scholarly text, however, it is chock-full of information. I recall buying it as a kid at the Kennedy Space Center gift shop and being amazed all the information in it.


    • launiusr says:

      Yes, Kerry Joels and G.P. Kennedy’s Space Shuttle Operator’s Manual (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982) is one of the better promotional-oriented, illustrated histories. It describes the origins and development of the Space Shuttle, but it is rather long in the tooth. There may be a more recent edition than 1982, but I haven’t seen it. If there is one please let me know. Roger


      • Kerry Joels says:

        Hi Roger.

        We did a 1987 revision of the Operator’s Manual incorporating the major design changes due to the Challenger Accident (redesigned SRB seals, etc.) The book went out of print in 2007 after selling almost 300,000 copies. Certainly more than any of my S.I. publications. I still do a fair amount of live interviews on radio during shuttle missions and commenting on the future of spaceflight.

        Hope all is well with you.



      • launiusr says:

        Thanks for this update, Kerry. I did not know about the 1987 edition. Any chance of another update that would encompass the entire history of the Space Shuttle? Also, congratulations on the sales. I wish I could break through to that level of sales with some of my historical work. Roger


  2. Michael says:

    “…it is rather long in the tooth”…now I feel really old! (joking) You’re right, it is rather dated and was somewhat dated when I originally purchased it. In fact you could say it is almost a “historical document” sort of like Howard Allaway’s “The Space Shuttle At Work” from the late 1970’s or other informational publications from that time.


    • launiusr says:

      Yes, this is true. I like the Joels and Kennedy volume very much. The Allaway work has an interesting discussion of what we thought the shuttle could once it came on line. I wish he had been right.


  3. Ty Epling says:

    Great catalogue. Now is the time for writers to put together the present and future of the Space Shuttle. We often wait to late to get the freshness for our history. Interviews now and up to the move to commercial is essencial.


  4. Warren Leary says:

    You really have performed a great service with this listing. I’ve read a number of these books but missed others that are now on my list. In a way it is frustrating because it shows that history is never fully told or understood. Its just a never-ending process. As a semi-retired newspaperman who covered space for decades, I’m still amazed at what I don’t know about the subject. But learning each new detail remains thrilling.


    • launiusr says:

      Warren, thanks so much. I am a bibliographile so writing blogs like this are a joy for me. I’m glad thta they are useful.


  5. Ray Holanda says:

    Dear Dr. Launius,
    As a retired NASA Engineer from the Glenn Research Center, I have written a book entitled A History of Aviation Safety: Featuring the U.S. Airline System. A comprehensive history on this subject has never before been published. I thought you might find it interesting.
    Sincerely, Ray Holanda


  6. Damara Arrowood says:

    I watched the Challenger disaster as a young child with my Grandparents from Patrick AFB. Already fascinated by Space it was understandably one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. My Grandfather and I read the Roger’s report together to try to understand what had happened. Oddly, building on that understanding was a comfort, and continues to be.

    So thanks again for putting this bibliography together!


  7. Valerie Neal says:

    Nice survey … but please correct the spelling of Massimino’s name.


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