February 2004
2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Single Stage to Orbit by Andrew J. Butrica
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press HCVR: ISBN 080187338X PubDate: 11/01/03
Review by Ernest Lilley

272 pgs. List price $45.00
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Anyone who reads SF can tell you that real spaceships take off and land on a pillar of fire, with none of this booster stage or aerodynamic reentry vehicle nonsense. And of course, they also know that this approach, technically known as Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) isn't the way it's done. Experts agree that in fact, it can't be. Space historian Butrica tells the story of a group of pioneers working in the last part of the 20th century that didn't agree that SSTO wouldn't work and built the DC-X which demonstrated that they might be right. Politics ensued, and though the end of the story is a space tragedy as great as any shuttle disaster, perhaps the story is not yet over. Certainly this book should be required reading for anyone interested in a new space initiative.

One might wish that this was a story about flight tests and engineering derring do, but it's not. It is a story about the political process and how a bunch of committed people, including Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and other members of the SF community, put forth a terrific effort to make good on a promise their generation had made to themselves, and the generations to come: to give space access to more than just a few test pilots and fortunate lab animals.

In the book Butrica shows that there were two theories being tested that resulted in the SSTO program; That spaceship operations could be managed like aircraft operations with quick turnarounds and small support crews, and that an SSTO vehicle could provide the low cost and maintenance and high degree of automation required for that job. 

It was the best and worst of times to try an build a simple, robust launch vehicle that could do the shuttle's job better, cheaper, and despite the fact that it had nothing to hold it up except three rocket engines, inherently safer than the Space Shuttle. The timing was right to begin the SSTO project when the first Bush administration came into office and the Star Wars SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) was looking for alternatives to the shuttle for a way to get the large amounts of space hardware that SDI called for into orbit. The timing turned wrong when the Soviet Union dissolved and SDI became a defense without an enemy, and the administration changed. The Delta-X found itself to be a program without a home, and even though it cost a fraction of that of the existing Shuttle. Though it ultimately found a place at NASA, its core concepts of off the shelf technology and quick turnaround were alien to that agency. Though its proponents did everything they could to keep it in play, and even though it offered exactly the shuttle alternative that NASA would need, it was a doomed adoption from the start.

Late in the book we do get to experience some of the thrill of test flying the rocket, including a flight where an explosion off some equipment on the ground damaged the rocket's skin and control was transferred to its onboard computer, which landed it perfectly.

What Butrica reveals in the study of how a spaceship that launches and lands on a pillar of fire might have come about is the balance of support between political parties and government entities for the SSTO project in specific and the business of spaceflight in general. First, he explains, Conservatives supported a limited research program. Then along came Sputnik and the Liberal reaction, which was to create a program that was big, expensive and very prestigious. Then in the Regan years and beyond, when space looked like it might be an exploitable (rather than merely explorable) conservatives took it back under their wing and liberals shunned it. Throughout the story, you see examples of how agencies and individuals will block a project that doesn't advance their career or power base, regardless of whether it achieves their objectives. NASA wanted to build the extremely expensive National Space Plane (NASP). The Air Force wanted to build a heavy lifting rocket, the National Launching System....and the SSTO crew just wanted to provide cheap access to space. They should have designed it to cost more.

If you've ever wondered why we're not a spacefaring nation, and thought that the people who cared never stood up to be counted, then you don't know the story told in this book. The technology is here and the dream is alive, but until NASA gives up its monopoly on space access nobody is getting off the planet.

2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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