J.L. Pickering and John Bisney, Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2021. Hbk. 240 pp.
Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie
A couple of years ago, in a book review for From Balloons to Drones, I started by saying:
A different type of book necessitates a different type of book review. Herein you will not find an author’s argument or a critique thereof since the book being discussed today is a collection of photographs and an extremely fine one at that.
That book review was for J.L. Pickering and John Bisney’s Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. The same authors have followed up that superb effort with the recently released Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years.
As the title suggests, the authors undertake to produce a pictorial history of – and to look at the development of – the reusable Shuttle Transportation System (STS), the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT), the astronaut class of 1978 (the ‘Thirty-Five New Guys,’ or TFNGs) and the first four STS missions that made up the test program for the new shuttle. Pickering and Bisney have again accomplished just that and produced a unique look at the early days of the space shuttle program, using rare, never-before-published photographs from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book opens with a forward from STS-1 pilot Robert L. Crippen, who stated that he hoped the book ‘will increase your appreciation for what a remarkable accomplishment the Space Shuttle was.’ Crippen need not worry; the book does precisely that.
Although ostensibly a book of photographs, there is also enough background here to keep the layman and the historian happy with the development of the program. However, it is the photos that stand out. From Maxime Faget’s original model of a reusable space shuttle to the numerous designs, concepts, and artists’ renderings as they developed into the recognizable shuttle design that went into production, there are enough photographs in the first chapter alone to make the book worth the purchase.
Some of the great gems are the photos that show the transition from the Apollo era to the shuttle era. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than the chapter detailing the Shuttle Enterprise’s Approach and Landing Tests. Here, Apollo mission veteran Fred Haise (Apollo 13) is joined by Gordon Fullerton, Joe Engle, and Richard Truly to test the flying characteristics of the new shuttle. Dave Scott and Deke Slayton in very late-1970s garb also make appearances in these pages (pp. 38-9). This transition is completed in the next chapter with the introduction of NASA’s next astronaut class, the ‘TFNGs,’ which introduced America and the world to the names of Guion Bluford, Anna Fisher, Robert Gibson, Steven Hawley, Sally Ride, and many others. The book includes a complete montage of the 35 Group 8 astronauts, the TFNGs (p. 71). Many of them are also pictured testing out Apollo-era spacesuits, marking the transition from old to new. If you had a favourite shuttle-era astronaut, there is a good chance they were represented in this class, and I was pleased to see photos of some of my heroes herein: Rhea Seddon, Frederick Gregory, and Shannon Lucid (65-71).
Obviously, the book really takes off (pun completely intended) with a section devoted to the first four shuttle missions, all of them aboard the Columbia. After that, the book moves from construction at Palmdale to delivery to Kennedy. The woes of Columbia’s heat-ablative tiles are adequately covered and, although the shuttle is a brand-new ship, it looks the worse for wear in several photographs (pp. 104-5). However, these problems overcome, there are some truly terrific ‘behind the scenes’ shots as Columbia is mated to the stack and rolled out to the pad. Here, there are some iconic photographs of the shuttle sitting on the pad with the setting sun turning the clouds a stunning orange and lifting into bright clear-blue Florida skies, but also some great shots ‘on orbit’ and the crews returning safely to Earth along the tanned lakebed of Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Picturing the Space Shuttle is another masterwork. It is truly a tour de force and a compelling collection of photographs that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who considers themselves a shuttle aficionado. One hopes that Pickering and Bisney continue to comb through the photographic archives of later shuttle missions. It has been 40 years since Columbia lifted into the sky for the first time and, perhaps even more amazing, a decade since the last shuttle returned safely to earth. As time marches on and the shuttle program recedes into memory, Pickering and Bisney have given us a reason to remember what Astronaut John Young called the ‘world’s greatest flying machine,’ the Space Shuttle.
Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and is the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy. Formerly he was the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is the Book Reviews Editor for From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021), Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header image: The Space Shuttle Columbia glides down over Rogers Dry Lake as it heads for a landing at Edwards Air Force Base at the conclusion of its first orbital mission on 14 April 1981. (Source: NASA)