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Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program Paperback – March 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Many Americans' only memories of their country's excursions into space are of the space shuttle program, inaugurated with the launch of Columbia in 1981. Twenty-two years later, Columbia's disintegration over the Southwest played a major role in the decision to end the program. NPR journalist Duggins reviews the 25-year saga of the shuttle missions, some of which have been shrouded in mystery, as astronauts took secret military payloads into space; others received worldwide attention and acclaim, as when the Hubble Space Telescope was restored to 20–20 vision. The author repeats the oft-made charge that the shuttle is a space vehicle in search of a true mission. Too often shuttle administrators have settled for running a billion-dollar short-distance trucking service to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. The book's first chapter is a look forward at what NASA plans for the next quarter century, but this misplaced preview delays launch of the main story. Readers also might wish Duggins had shared more of his reporter's experiences in covering the shuttle program. Nevertheless, this history is a worthy addition to the recent torrent of books about the American space program. Illus. (Oct. 21)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Surveying the history of the space shuttle, Duggins delivers descriptions of the system amid explanations of the aims of human spaceflight. Knowledgeable on the subject as NPR's space-shuttle reporter, Duggins relates the technological and financial compromises that resulted in the final design of the shuttle launch configuration, which is far different from NASA's original blueprint. Nevertheless, it was the ticket to space, and Duggins' original narrative elements portray the experiences of several shuttle crew members in applying to become astronauts and recounts their subsequent missions. For backdrop to these human-interest stories, Duggins constructs the arc of shuttle history, including the Challenger and Columbia catastrophes, of course, but emphasizing the shuttle's chronic problems of costliness and of the search for an inspiring purpose. After assembling the International Space Station, the shuttle was retired, leaving NASA shooting for the moon again with proposed successor spacecraft depicted in image and word. With its history and status-report aspects, his informed report will engage readers concerned with the space program. Taylor, Gilbert --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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While Duggins's concerns are very present tense, concentrating on the demise of the Space Shuttle program and its replacement, he also travels back in time to relate the history of the shuttle from its approval in the aftermath of NASA's hugely successful Apollo Moon landing program. He takes a highly anecdotal approach to relating this story, relating in journalistic fashion episodes in the history of the shuttle--some uncovered in his reporting on the program over the years--that illuminate its evolution. Mostly this is a straightforward narrative, told in an engaging style, with lavish personal tales to punctuate it. While entertaining, there is little in this book the members of the aerospace community will not already be at least somewhat cognizant.
As Duggins reports, the Space Shuttle was intended to make spaceflight routine, safe, and relatively inexpensive. Although NASA considered a variety of configurations, some of them quite exotic, it settled on a stage-and-one-half partially reusable vehicle with an approved development price tag of $5.15 billion. On January 5, 1972, President Nixon announced the decision to build a Space Shuttle. He did so for both political reasons and for national prestige purposes. Politically, it would help a lagging aerospace industry in key states he wanted to carry in the 1972 election, especially California, Texas, and Florida. But building the shuttle would also reaffirm the U.S.'s superpower status and help restore confidence in the nation's technological genius. After a decade of development, on April 12, 1981, Columbia took off for the first orbital test mission. It was successful and after only the fourth flight in 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared the system "operational." It would henceforth carry all U.S. government payloads; military, scientific, and even commercial satellites could all be deployed from its payload bay. In the end, Duggins notes, the shuttle program was an engagingly ambitious effort that developed an exceptionally sophisticated vehicle, one that no other nation on Earth could have built at the time. As such it had been enormously successful. At the same time, the shuttle was essentially a continuation of space spectaculars, à la Apollo, and its much-touted capabilities were not fully realized. Despite its efforts in constructing the International Space Station, it made far fewer flights and conducted far fewer scientific experiments than NASA had publicly predicted. This is a story well told in many venues, but Duggins relates it with a journalistic eye toward entertaining the reader while also informing.
Sometimes, Duggins offers interesting insights unknown to all but the most diligent of students. For example, he highlights the supreme place of the U.S. human spaceflight program that resulted from the presence of the Space Shuttle. As Duggins observed, much to the chagrin of rivals in space exploration "The years of the space shuttle were relatively comfortable ones for NASA and the American public, where its place in the world of space exploration was concerned....With the exception of the Russians, anyone who wanted to go into orbit had to come to NASA 'hat in hand' and ask for a seat on the shuttle" (p. 27). NASA used that superiority, as did other U.S. officials, as a foreign policy tool during both the cold war and since. Likewise, Duggins's discussion of the Challenger accident in 1986 was quite excellent, offering a short, inclusive, and incisive account of the accident, its causes, and its ramifications (pp. 74-95).
For all if its strengths as a well-written, engaging work of history about a topic that can become endlessly technical and difficult to follow, "Final Countdown" is really "once over lightly" as a sophisticated historical account of the shuttle program. As an introductory work it is outstanding. For more detailed discussions there are also several other works on the history of the program that readers will want to pursue. The most important of these is Dennis R. Jenkins's masterful "Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System, the First 100 Missions" (North Branch, MN: Speciality Press, 2001, 3rd Edition), a new edition of which is in preparation and intended to appear at the end of the shuttle program. As it is, Pat Duggins is to be commended for writing a useful, breezy history of the program, one useful as an introduction for students.
Before the Apollo manned missions to moon ended, work began on designing a reusable space craft. This book does not attempt to cover every single mission, but does hit the special ones and of course, the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia. Author Pat Duggins is not a scientist, but a news analyst for a public broadcast station in FL, so he can relay these stories in an easy, accessible way that is very enjoyable. He presents an honest appraisal of NASA, the problems and successes they've had over the years.
Final Countdown is more than just the history of the Shuttle. It is also about what happens next in the space program- perhaps more importantly, what is not happening now. Budget cuts are bad enough, but lack of a mission to generate public support is the real problem. I've always been interested in the Apollo Program; I was nine when we landed on the moon. This book catches the reader up on what happened in the 1980's and 90's, since many, like myself, did not pay attention. I'd recommend this to anyone who has interest in the Shuttle, NASA, and space exploration.
The book is a well researched history of how America's shining achievement in Space technology was a mistake, a design of political compromise, constrained federal spending and promised secret military payloads. Frank Lloyd Wright would have told NASA that form must follow function, but in the case of the Shuttle, Wright would have learned that function had not been fully defined.
Final Countdown also gives the reader a look at Space exploration beyond the Shuttle program and how NASA has returned to mission-based designs for selecting the vehicle that will likely carry man back to the Moon and possibly on to Mars.
Beyond the well documented history of the Shuttle itself, author Pat Duggins introduces readers to the personalities and individual career turns that ultimately gave life to the Space Shuttle program. He tells the unlikely story of how the demise of plans for a spy agency's secret space program helped shape the Shuttle. Along with the Shuttle's achievements, the book takes readers through the pain and lessons learned from the disasters of Challenger and Columbia.
In the end, the book serves as a wonderful "Program Guide" to the Final Countdown of the Space Shuttle Program and gives readers a reason to anticipate with excitement the next chapter in the story of manned space flight.