On the morning after Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon re-entry, I was sat in the Ops Room of GB Airways, all of our aircraft in the air, my team busy doing whatever it was that I’d fobbed off on them to do and, as a good Duty Manager/Ops Man Worth His Salt, I was reading the Sunday newspapers. There is an old airline adage that if you walk into an Ops Room and the papers are out, feet are up and the kettle on, the airline is making money. Or your staff are on strike. In our case it was the former when the phone rung. We’d been discussing Columbia all morning, it had shocked me to discover I was the only one of my team old enough to remember watching Challenger‘s launch nearly fifteen years earlier (shocking to think its been thirty years now). On the line was one of our pilots who was due to start his command course soon (as I’ve not spoken to him to share this tale, I’ll not mention his name). He was audibly upset and he told me there was a family emergency and he needed to get to the States. I told him it was fine, get himself sorted and we’d clear his roster. A hour or so later, he entered the office and asked to chat with me. He told me how as a RAF Tornado pilot in the early 1990’s, he’d been on an exchange with the USAF and his exchange buddy had been Rick Husband, Columbia‘s Commander. My pilot told me how they had become friends and there was mention of a Best Man at one of their weddings but memory doesn’t serve me well enough to know who’s. I told him to tell me how long he needed and I would get it cleared, without spreading the news about. I got his flight details for him and his wife, called in a couple favours at BA and briefed our Ops Director who was flying later that day. When my pilot got home, he bought me a coffee and told me the tale of how NASA treats her fallen. Needless to say, they were faultless.
So when I belated discovered that Rowland White had written a book about the development of the Space Shuttle and Columbia’s first flight, I ordered it right away. Into The Black is White’s fourth book and a bit of departure from form. His first three, the incredible Vulcan 607, about the amazing, yet almost Heath Robinson, ends that the RAF went too to bomb Port Stanley in the Falklands War, is one of those books you pick up and finish in one sitting. Phoenix Squadron, about Buccaneers operating off HMS Ark Royal, and Strom Front, about the Battle of Mirbat, are great and all three look at aspects of Britain in her post-Imperial decline. Into The Black takes place with a much grander scope, a heftier budget of those involved and a very different country. White starts the tale at the middle, with the discover of missing heat shield tiles soon after Columbia makes orbit on her maiden flight. He then delves back to the dying days of the Apollo program, and briefly of the immense X-15, to tell the story of how America returned to space with mankind’s first reusable Spacecraft. Off the bat, you worry if he will descend into Tom Wolfe territory, where the extra curriculars of the astronauts took more importance than the endeavour itself. As great a work as the The Right Stuff is, it suffers after it leaves the high desert, Edwards and Yeager. White doesn’t fall into the same trap. The pitfalls along the way to the Space Shuttle Orbiter are many and fascinating. The competing interests of NASA, keen to stay in the lime light post-Apollo, the Air Force, determined to have a manned military presence in space and the CIA and mysterious National Reconnaissance Office, both firmly facing East. The journey itself is amazing. From the Manned Orbiting Observatory team in the Air Force developing what was essentially a Spy-Space Station based around bits of Gemini spacecraft, through various false starts, until the Shuttle as we knew her started to take shape. White’s style, now very refined, combines the best elements of journalist, historian and pub story teller to convey the technicalities and physics of space flight in such a way that you feel that you understand just enough of the thermal dynamics of re-entry to understand why the middle of the book is devoted to sand and tiles. As the tale evolves, heat, and the dissipation of it, become the overriding factor of the Shuttle. Getting Enterprise to glide is one thing, NASA could test that, Columbia‘s first flight was a series of events that in the world of test flying, would never be considered. And it almost went horribly wrong.
White follows the Columbia pilots John Young and Bob Crippen through their carriers; Young spending most of the 60’s in space, the 70’s on the Moon to become NASA’s Chief Astronaut. Crippen from the Navy through the Air Force’s doomed MOL program, to working on the Shuttle’s fly-by-wire system to space herself. The designers, engineers and politicians all show that it is not just the guys at the pointy end of the space craft that require The Right Stuff. White’s success in all his books is that while the pilots usually take the glory and our attention, he gives wonderful colour to the thousands of people behind the scenes, working the problems and developing the solutions. As is our way of things, we tend to remember Columbia as a fiery streak in the February sky. She was so much more and all her crews equally amazing people in an equally incredible team at NASA. White’s book ends with Bob Crippen’s eulogy to his fallen comrades and the Shuttle he’d share both his and her’s first trip in space. Into The Black is exciting, heart felt and a fitting tribute to Columbia, her lost crew and all who helpped to build, maintain and fly her and her sisters into the black.
Into The Black by Rowland White is available now, published by Bantam Press.