REVIEW: Into the Black
Rowland White
Transworld Publishers
RRP £18.99 

TIM ROBINSON reviews Rowland White’s latest book on the developed and first flight of the Space Shuttle.

On 12 April 1981, two pilots launched into the unknown on the ultimate test flight of a winged aerospace vehicle – the Space Shuttle. The first manned American spacecraft since the Apollo days, the hopes and fears of NASA and the US, were carried on its stubby wings as it roared ‘into the black’. But for this test flight, bar an extremely hazardous abort manoeuvre, the proof of the Orbiter’s flying qualities would only come at the end of the mission, when it returned from space at Mach 25 and turned into the world’s heaviest and least-efficient glider. There was no going back.

Astronauts on the first flight of Columbia in 1981 - John Young (l) and Robert Crippen (r). (NASA)

Today, after two disasters (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003), the Shuttle is sometimes seen as a flawed dead-end in spaceflight, an unsexy and dangerous space ‘truck’ that kept the US stuck in LEO. In ‘Into the Black’,  Vulcan 607 author Rowland White seeks to set the record straight about what he believes was the world’s most sophisticated flying machine.

Launch of STS-1 on 12 April 1981. (NASA)

Speaking to scientists, engineers and test pilots, he reconstructs the story of how the Shuttle came about and, in particular, a thread that connects the defunct MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) military spy space station, with the Shuttle’s pilots. There is also an interesting aside about how, when European leaders were whizzing around in the glamorous Concorde, then US President Nixon felt jealous that the US had nothing like that – a status symbol to reclaim American pride that helps explain the complex birth of the Space Shuttle.

Space Shuttle caught in orbit. (NASA)

Insights and rare information means ‘Into the Black’ is a goldmine for dedicated avgeeks, space enthusiasts and general readers alike. For instance, just the spilt second timing needed to position the NASA T-38 chase plane at the correct time and place to meet the Shuttle after re-entry is a testament to the astronaut’s Right Stuff and flying skill. Another is the planning of the perilous return to launch site (RTLS) emergency manoeuvre – or ‘six miracles and an act of God’as one astronaut referred to it this launch U-turn. Another fascinating anecdote concerns both Joe Engle and Dick Truly landing the Shuttle simulator while the simultaneously working the controls (Engle responsible for rolling left and pitching up/Truly rolling right and pitching down) without the sim supervisors noticing– surely the ultimate in crew resource management.


Landing of Columbia at Edwards AFB (NASA)

In particular, in ‘Into the Black’ White goes into the behind the scenes drama of the first flight, where US highly classified NRO spy satellites were used to determine the state of the problematic thermal tiles, while NASA raced against time to assess the damage from these missing tiles.

Final wheels stop. Atlantis touches down at Kenndey on 9 March 2011. (NASA) 

So was the Shuttle a failure as it never achieved the launch frequency and rapid turnaround that was planned for it? Perhaps - but it helped construct the ISS, the most complex international scientific programme ever. Others would argue that just its role in fixing the scientific wonder Hubble Space Telescope validated its costs. White adds another reason– indirectly contributing to the demise of the Soviet Union, as the USSR, vastly overestimating the Shuttle’s military role, set about wasting resources to develop its own spaceplane.

However, much more than that, ‘Into the Black’ is about the humans involved in creating this incredible spacecraft, and for White, it holds a special place as a flying WINGED vehicle that must be flown back to Earth by skilled pilots. The description of John Young, commander on STS-1 ‘carving’ huge turns through the upper atmosphere and being impressed with its handling - “a joy to fly” emphasises the Shuttle as true ‘spaceplane’ – in the words of Young. “The is the world’s greatest all-electric flying machine”. The Shuttle, like the SR-71 and Concorde is now past history – but it still somehow feels like it belongs in the future.

18 March 2016