Book Review: Into the Black by Rowland White

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

I am a space enthusiast and have been since I was a kid and saw the Apollo-Soyuz missions on the TV news. I was thrilled when the Shuttle first flew in 1981 and followed the program through to it’s final mission in 2011. I was thrilled when given the opportunity to review Into the Black and the quality of the story is amazing.

The book is the story of the development and first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia from the program’s inception as an idea in 1969 to the successful launch and re-entry of the first orbiter 12 years later in 1981.

First, the book itself. There are 394 pages of text separated into a prologue, four numbered parts, and an epilogue. There is a glossary, fairly extensive bibliography, an appendix with maps and drawings, as well as three photo sections spaced throughout the book.

Into the Black is not just the story of the first flight of Columbia however, it is the story of how NASA and the US Space community found a mission after the triumph of the moon missions from 1969 to 1972 left the agency without a way forward. The development of a manned, reusable orbiter gave the agency that mission.

The book opens with a description of the first proposal for a reusable orbiter in 1969 and describes in detail the way in which the proposal was ushered through the bureaucracy at NASA to become a viable program. In parallel with the description of the program’s inception is the story of the key figures that would fly the orbiter on its first mission and those in charge of its development and nursing the program along in the face of opposition from within and outside of government.

The book covers in detail all the issues surrounding the development of a new orbital system and the people that were key players in making this happen. The book focuses on the astronauts, particularly John Young and Bob Crippen who took Columbia on her maiden flight but also covers all the other members of the astronaut corps who were heavily involved with shuttle development.

One thing I was not aware of was the depth of USAF involvement in seeing that the program did not die and early death and I was unaware at all of the involvement of Dr. Hans Mark who was involved with the space shuttle from the beginning first, as director of he Ames Research Laboratory and later as Secretary of the Air Force. Dr. Mark played a pivotal role in lending Air Force support to the development of the shuttle by pointing out that ways in which the shuttle could assist the USAF in both launching and maintaining the nations network of spy satellites. The critical role those same satellites would play in the success of the first mission is told in this book for the first time to a wider audience although the story has circulated in the space community for a while now.

Of particular interest to me were the myriad things that went wrong both during development and during the maiden flight that NASA met head-on and solved making the flight possible and especially making a safe landing possible. There is a wide cast of characters in this book from Werner von Braun to Dick truly and all had some part to play whether large or small in making the shuttle a reality. Ultimately the story of the shuttle program is not one of a machine but of the people who had an idea and through determination and lots of skull sweat saw that dream through to reality. I often wonder if the same quality of people that made the shuttle a reality is still working inside NASA or if the bureaucracy has fully taken control. NASA needs more people like the ones in this book, people willing to be bold and take risks if America is to continue to lead in the field of space exploration.
This is an outstanding book and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the lightest interest in spaceflight post-Apollo.