Book Review ‘Into the Black’: Glorious Liftoff

 

Rowland White

Author Rowland White of the new space history book ‘Into the Black.’

As a longtime resident of Houston, I’m subject to a chicken-or-the-egg question: Is my love of space why I live in Houston, or has living in Houston sparked my love of space?

Actually, it’s a bit of both, because I’ve been space-fascinated since, as a boy of 6, Sputnik 1 became the first satellite to reach Earth orbit (though I was watching Leave It to Beaver‘s premiere in Waco at the time.)

But I also moved to Houston — just two years after the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981 –and I’ve been here ever since, sharing my adopted community’s grief over the wrenching tragedies of losing two Shuttle crews, but also the triumphs of our continued space endeavors.

As a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I also had the honor of interviewing such space pioneers as Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, Alan Bean, Buzz Aldrin and Gene Kranz, and I cheered from the sidewalk as John Glenn rode down Texas Avenue in a parade after his return from a 1998 Discovery mission.

Now I’m faced with the most detailed history I’ve ever read spanning both eras — from the first space missions of my childhood to the soon-routine flights of the Shuttle while I lived in Space City. That history is Rowland White’s Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her.

Due April 19 from Touchstone, the hardcover, 464-page book is a compelling read. Based on White’s extensive research, interviews and newly declassified documents, it details how a parallel military space program evolved during NASA’s early years, then spun off into alignment with the space agency for development of the incredible space plane known simply (thanks to President Nixon) as the Space Shuttle.

The story ends with a revealing look at Columbia, the first shuttle in space, on its harrowing maiden voyage in 1981, flown by Bob Crippen and the most veteran of astronauts, John Young (whom White earlier depicts on the moon in ’72 when informed by Mission Control that the shuttle was a “go”).

That’s followed by a brief survey of flights which followed and, as an indication of how detailed the book is, a lengthy glossary, bibliography, appendix and index. Into the Black also has three eight-page photo inserts, with most shots in color.

But this is more than an impressive textbook. It’s also a human story of the people who made the rockets fly. It’s a “you are there” story of ambition, Cold War secrecy, inter-agency squabbles, hard budget decisions and bold flying maneuvers. That’s not to say it’s got anywhere near the lump-in-your-throat awesomeness of last summer’s moving The Astronaut Wives Club ABC limited series, but we do get into the heads of the spacemen.

I also applaud that Into the Black gives the military’s early X-15 program its proper due, after being eclipsed at the time by civilian NASA’s Project Mercury.

White is more of a dedicated documentarian (he says he spent three years on research) than a vivid writer. Some sentence structures are challenging, some passages are weighed down too heavily in minutiae, and he makes the mistake of once referring to the moon’s far side as its “dark side,” a misnomer which Pink Floyd perpetuated long ago and still rankles me today. I know he knows better.

(There is no fixed “dark” side of the moon, any more than there is of Earth. But with the moon’s one-month rotation on its axis virtually equal to its one-month orbit of the Earth, there is a fixed far side of the moon, hidden from sight on Earth and never seen directly by human eyes until Apollo 8’s historic first lunar orbit in December of 1968.)

But I quibble, because damn if White didn’t perform amazing feats of daring detail in his remarkable story of early space ventures. Into the Black has given me new respect not just for manned spaceflight’s heroism and bold, can-do spirit (a perfect fit for Houston, the most bold, can-do city I know), but also new respect for the incredible engineering and, yes, rocket science that have made it all happen.

Space is tough. Space is an unforgiving environment. This book’s title refers to that — the cold blackness of space — but it also hints at the “black” secrecy shrouding military space efforts, of which White reveals much here (though he says still more remains deeply classified).

Given the enormity of what he does reveal, and how amazingly comprehensive and authoritative it feels, you almost could call this book Into the Light, not Into the Black. If it’s one thing, White’s book is illuminating.

So thanks, Rowland White. With this book, you’ve carved your own place in space history.

— Bruce Westbrook

 

 

 

 

 

 

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