Celebrating 30 years of the Space Shuttle Program
Designed by Adam Chen, Edited by William Wallack and George Gonzalez.
Available as a PDF or iPad application (free)
Reviewed by John Timmer
It's hard not to have mixed feelings about the Space Shuttle. For over 30 years, it's been the only way the United States has put people into space. During that time, it's built the International Space Station, carried the Hubble to space, and made sure the telescope has stayed operational for decades. At the same time, the Shuttle's never really lived up to its promise to make access to space cheap and common. And, through its longevity, it has left us reliant on 1970s technology long past its sell-by date, and bred a complacency that's cost the lives of two Shuttle crews.
Oddly, I ended up with a similar set of mixed feelings about a new eBook NASA has released to celebrate the retirement of the Shuttle. It's not a good book, either in terms of content or production values. In many ways, the experience was, in the details, a bit like reading a spreadsheet. But somehow I found myself going through to the end, and finding nuggets of enjoyment in the experience.
Not that some of the still shots aren't absolutely stunning. Night launches, the glow of reentry, hardware being prepared for release, shots framed against the Earth below… Some of these, like the pink glow of reentry viewed from inside the shuttle's cockpit, were things that I had never seen before. What the shot reveals of the cockpit itself also makes clear just how out-of-date the Shuttle was towards the end of its lifetime.
The unfortunate thing is that many of the images simply aren't very good quality. This undoubtedly kept the file size down, but I think most people would happily sacrifice a few minutes during the download to get the full visual impact of NASA's materials. This is especially bad for some of the earliest missions, where the crew photos are positively blurry.
And these are the very first thing you see, since the book is a chronological catalog of every single mission the shuttle's flown, each accompanied by a photo from the mission and a second of its crew. A lot of this is dry stuff. Many of the early missions carried things called Get Away Specials, small canisters that (as I learned elsewhere) could hold experiments meant to be exposed to space and returned to Earth. The mission descriptions assiduously mention these things dozens of times, but never expend any text on saying what they are, forcing readers to turn to Wikipedia.
This sort of unexplained text is rampant. To give one example, the description of the STS-8 mission includes this nugget: "Other payloads included the continuous flow electrophoresis System (cfeS), the Shuttle Student Involvement program (SSlp) experiment, the Incubator-cell attachment test (l cat), the Investigation of StS atmospheric luminosities (ISal), the radiation monitoring equipment (rme), and five get-away Special (gaS) experiment packages." If you don't know what these things are (and I do not), a lot of the text is meaningless.
So, dry confusing text surrounded by images that are somewhat disappointing. Nothing to recommend here, right?
Not entirely. Individually, the parts are pretty weak. But collectively, they add up to a compelling picture of the Shuttle program. The first few missions were short and had small crews, meant to just test out NASA's new toy. Many of the first satellites meant to be sent off to higher orbit ended up failing as their boosters misfired.
But, over time, the crews got larger, and more diverse. Black and female crew members become common, as do citizens from other countries. Charles Bolden, now the head of NASA, makes a few appearances on Shuttle crews. With growing experience, more missions went off without a hitch. leading to some of the biggest of our lifetime: the launch and servicing of the Hubble, the launch of the Chandra X-ray telescope, the Galileo probe being sent to Jupiter. And, eventually, the Shuttle had destinations beyond simply "space"—the Mir space station, which became the test case for the International Space Station, which the Shuttle helped put together.
The disasters are handled with the same matter-of-fact approach that everything else is. "An explosion 73 seconds after lift-off claimed the crew and the vehicle. The presidential commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident determined that an O-ring failure in the right solid rocket booster caused the explosion," the text reads. "Cold weather was also determined to be a factor." I don't think I've read much else that was so clinical and sad at the same time.
After Columbia was lost on reentry, there was a marked shift in the program. Although the ebook doesn't say so explicitly, it's clear from the text that later missions focused on the building of the Internetional Space Station. Once it was in a good state, the Shuttle was retired, and a second long hiatus in U.S. manned space flight began.
Did I read every detail of every entry in order to get that picture? Absolutely not. But I did find myself skimming through the whole thing, an experience that was a bit like glancing through a frequently read novel. You know the ending, you don't need all the details, but you want to catch familiar scenes, refresh your memory of some details, and reexamine some of the plot twists. If you grew up with the Shuttle, as I did, you might find it worth a download, despite its flaws.
John Timmer spent 15 years doing scientific research before deciding he'd rather write about it. He's now the science editor of the technology news site Ars Technica. He received a Kindle on the day Amazon first introduced them, and has been following eBook and eReader technology ever since.