The History of Human Space Flight

  • Published

The History of Human Space Flight by Ted Spitzmiller. University of Florida Press (http://upress.ufl.edu), 15 Northwest 15th Street, Gainesville, Florida 32611-2079, 2017, 633 pages, (hardcover) $39.95, ISBN 1-55750-983-2.


There’s a lot to cover in a book claiming to capture “The History of Human Space Flight.” With that lofty goal in mind, Mr. Spitzmiller does an admirable job. The book stretches from the eighteenth century ballooning into the present day of the human-inhabited International Space Station and tacks on a minor chapter of “Where do we go next?” Most of the anecdotes from the missions are pulled from reliable sources and are listed in a sizeable bibliography in the book’s back matter. The chapters are divided by subject, but any knowledgeable reader will also recognize the chronology inherent to the technological developments in space flight.

One of the unique approaches to this text, aside from the seamless inclusion of eighteenth century ballooning and the “preastronauts” is the author’s use of “sidebar” text boxes to explain concepts as you go. By including them in-line with the text, the additional text saves the reader from having to wade through a glossary or appendix while reading.

The standard fare of the Golden Age of Spaceflight is present—Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo are given good representation, just as the Soviet spacecraft (for example, Vostok and Soyuz) and Salyut space station are likewise presented as a corollary. A required introduction on the design of reusable spacecraft is present, showing contributions from lifting-body technology and a footnoted X-20 DynaSoar. The early years of the shuttle program are covered adequately, as a lead-in to the Hubble, Mir Space Station and International Space Station missions that helped define the program.

The Cold War competition between the United States and Soviet Union dwarfs the entire book and rightly so. But in the decades after the post-Cold War thaw, the newest entrant to human space flight—the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—is given a scant four pages and one photograph. While the number of PRC missions have been few in the last decade, once the “sleeping dragon” awakens their contribution will presumably march parallel to the strides taken by the United States and Russian programs, opening up a tricountry competition toward space exploration and exploitation. More attention on their program is needed.

If there is any thesis-level fault in Mr. Spitzmiller’s text, it is within the concentration on the United States’ “public” space program, and neglecting the push by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in the human space flight program. Inside the book, there is one identified reference to the NRO, in supporting the first shuttle launch (p. 514). Details surrounding the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) and its 71-inch optical camera have been declassified since 2015, though the crews and space hardware had been publicized decades before. Where most of Spitzmiller’s text talks about human endurance and research in the public space program, the MOL program was specifically designed as a “manned spy satellite,” a radical departure from previous flight adventuring objectives (for example, Gemini for rendezvous and Apollo to the Moon). While the plan for a crewed spy station was a tacit agreement with the Soviets after MOL, the idea was buried by the United States but briefly flirted with inside early shuttle planning documents. The Soviets, however, launched their Almaz series of military space stations.

Additionally, the direct influence of the NRO on the shuttle program is also ignored. Spitzmiller states, “The Air Force wanted a [60-foot] long by [22-foot] wide payload bay that allowed up to 50,000 lb. to be delivered to LEO.” (p. 490). These dimensions were comparable to the KH-9 HEXAGON reconnaissance satellite, which came on-line in 1971, just as the shuttle design was being discussed. Dr. Hans Mark, director of the NRO (1977–79), stated quite bluntly in an oral history transcript, “The shuttle was in fact sized to launch HEXAGON. The size of the payload bay was determined by HEXAGON.” The Military Spaceflight Engineer program is similarly excised from the shuttle program overview. Knowledge of the institutional momentum inherent in the NRO’s history is paramount for any military space professional. Ignoring their influence and contribution just does a disservice to future researchers trying to rectify the nation’s “three” space programs—NRO, military, and civilian.

Minor factual errors persist in the text, but some are artifacts of space history reporting, not of Mr. Spitzmiller’s own research. For example, the designation of Dr. Guy Bluford (colonel, USAF), as the first African-American in space (p. 519) versus the first African–American astronaut for example, was only altered in 1997. The “first” mantle was bestowed upon deceased MOL astronaut Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. after intense administrative review and organizational acknowledgement.

One area recommended, if the book receives a second printing, is an appendix (or appendices) with tabular listing of all human space flight missions and deceased space farers. A listing of mission names, dates, personnel aboard, and mission goal would help readers cross-reference information quickly. The shuttle era and its 135 missions would receive greater appreciation from readers with such a listing, comparing them with previous crewed missions. These minor errors and oversights aside, Mr. Spitzmiller’s book is a worthy addition to any space professional’s personal library, and would be an excellent text in any undergraduate space history class.

Joseph T. Page II
Albuquerque, New Mexico

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."