/ Published March 08, 2021
Beyond Blue Skies: The Rocket Plane Programs That Led to the Space Age by Chris Petty. University of Nebraska Press, 2020, 408 pp.
Chris Petty is a space and aviation enthusiast and author of The High Frontier blog. Beyond Blue Skies is his first major book, focused on the high-speed research aircraft programs conducted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later the NASA), the Air Force, and the Navy from the end of World War II and extending through the mid-1970s.
Encounters with transonic compressibility in fighter aircraft and the advent of jet propulsion focused post-World War II aeronautical research on issues associated with flight near to and faster than the speed of sound: the legendary “sound barrier.” As contemporary jet engines lacked the performance to sustain such speeds, NACA researchers proposed using rocket-propelled aircraft to explore supersonic flight until jet power caught up. The Air Force, influenced by Theodore von Karman’s Toward New Horizons report—and to a lesser extent, the Navy—became enthusiastic partners, and an era of high-speed flight research bloomed above the California desert.
Petty adroitly captures the tension between the services seeking to demonstrate US aeronautical primacy through speed and altitude records, the NACA’s less dramatic goals of painstakingly expanding the understanding of transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, and later support to the evolving NASA and Air Force manned spaceflight programs. He also strikes a balance between the technical aspects of different experimental programs and the human aspects, particularly the small group of individuals involved across the 30-year period.
The book leans heavily on previously published material, something that Petty highlights in his introduction, noting tongue-in-cheek that he should have written this book 20 years ago when more of the individuals involved were still available to interview. Nevertheless, Petty’s research is comprehensive, extending across official NASA and service reports, archived interviews and memoirs published by test pilots and engineers, and news media coverage of key events.
While Petty’s book doesn’t break much new ground, it combines material from a wide variety of sources into a highly readable, one-volume history of an important and inspiring period in US aviation history. It is highly a recommended read.
Col Jamie Sculerati, USAF, Retire
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