The period from September 29 to October 3, 1988, proved to be a critical one for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as international attention focused on the Discovery space shuttle mission. Despite this successful revival of the space effort in the wake of the January, 1986, Challenger explosion, the spectre of that inferno remained a grim and unforgettable symbol of the danger of space exploration, and of NASA’s potential to fail on a horrifying and spectacular scale.
Released on July 4, 1988, Michael Collins’ Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space traces the progress of the United States space program through the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. A former astronaut and the author of Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey (1974), Collins offers a straightforward history of spaceflight, evaluating NASA missions in terms of their objectives, the industrial contracting and scientific troubleshooting that made them possible, the experiences of the astronauts in flight, and the outcome of each project. In doing so, he demonstrates how the success of space missions hinges on a delicate interplay among scientists, engineers, administrators, astronauts, and politicians—as well as the proper functioning of the technology involved.
Indeed, Collins’ mission studies often depict the synergistic relationship between humans and machines necessitated by the space environment. One astronaut in space, immediately dependent on his pressure suit and ship, is in turn reliant on an immense earthbound network of humanity and technology. An appreciation of the fragility of this structure helps put the Challenger incident in perspective; Collins sensibly argues that, while greater administrative efficiency could have prevented both that disaster and the January, 1967, Apollo 1 launchpad fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, the overall record of NASA has been overwhelmingly impressive.
The United States space program arose in the years following World War II, when military air-power advocates explored ways to exploit the achievements of the German V-2 ballistic missile program. On May 2, 1946, one group, composed of engineers working under the aegis of Project RAND of the Douglas Aircraft Company, issued a prophetic report titled Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship. This report proposed methods of combining rockets in stages in order to achieve an orbital velocity of approximately seventeen thousand miles per hour, and even postulated using an orbiting vehicle for human transport—provided that passengers could be protected from dangers such as the immense frictional heat experienced by vessels in descent.
The same year that Project RAND issued its report, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) committed itself to using the Bell XS-1 rocket airplane to approach and eventually exceed the sound barrier (a speed of Mach 1, or approximately 660 miles per hour at an altitude of forty thousand feet above sea level.) On October 14, 1947, test pilot Chuck Yeager flew this vehicle at a speed of Mach 1.06, an achievement that led NACA to develop a generation of supersonic jet fighters. In 1959, this series culminated with North American Aviation’s X-15. Constructed of a black nickel-chrome alloy called Inconel X, this vehicle could fly at Mach 6 at an altitude of sixty miles, sustain frictional heat of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and maintain aerodynamic control at high altitude through the use of small jets of hot gas on its nose and wing tips.
By the time this plane was ready to fly, however, the launching of the Soviet orbital satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, had prompted a realignment of aeronautical objectives. The United States had scraped the boundary of space with a fleet of multiton supersonic aircraft, but the Soviet Union had beaten it into orbit with a 184-pound metal spheroid. President Dwight D. Eisenhower determined that the nation’s space effort should be unified under a single administrative body, and NACA, which already supported a United States Air Force proposal called MISS (Man in Space Soonest), became NASA, the organization responsible for managing the manned space program that began with Project Mercury. The president also mandated that test pilots would be the first to explore space.
NACA’s adoption of MISS reflected a fundamental shift in its approach toward space technology. During Project Mercury, orbit would be achieved not in a high-thrust, high-lift, low-drag vehicle with heavy wings and wheels but in a no-thrust, no-lift, high-drag ballistic...
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