Book Review: Space Shuttle Columbia

The space shuttle came into being with the promise of delivering on many hopes and dreams of today’s space farers. As a steady workhorse or a novel research platform, it was to be a high flyer and smooth glider. Columbia was the first of these shuttles to venture into the domains of outer space. In spectacular fashion, it proved the designers’ estimates and made low earth orbit a ready destination. Ben Evans, in his book Space Shuttle Columbia – Her Missions and Crews, recalls the numerous contributions which this single shuttle made during its many years of satisfying service.

Space shuttle Columbia first flew in 1981. It failed on re-entry in February 2003 after nearly completing its 28th mission. Each of its flights made novel use of the environment of space, whether for verifying the shuttle’s capabilities, assessing effects on the crew members, or pushing the bounds of our collective knowledge. From 2 to 7 astronauts guided the craft and/or ran the multitude of experiments on each. Unheralded were the thousands of others who maintained the shuttle, devised and ran the experiments and managed the people, places and things that ensured the fleet’s continued operations. And though Columbia flew over a span of twenty years, it was still an experimental vehicle with unique characteristics, operating in the harshest environments yet travelled by humans. As an experiment, many consider Columbia a resounding success.

Though Evans’ book is obviously in response to Columbia’s demise, within it he focuses on the shuttle’s successes. He takes the reader through a chronological review of the expectations for each flight and the accomplishments achieved. Certainly he identifies the astronauts on the flights as well as their contributions, but Evans centres upon noteworthy flight aspects and experiments undertaken therein. Young and Crippen were the first to ride the shuttle first in order to trial the vehicle over its complete flight envelope. Afterwards, regular operations quickly ensued, with experiments looking at crystal growth, the effects of gravity on plants and animals and the physiological changes in the astronauts. The reader sees that, as the shuttle gave ready access to a new environment, people wasted no time in considering how to make the best of it. Because of the chronological layout, the reader also gets a keen sense of progress, both in knowing how to enable people’s survival in space and how to make use of its unique environment for the betterment of the global population.

Because of the emphasis on the shuttle’s missions, Evans presents the experiments in a fair amount of detail. For example, SOFBALL is the name of an experiment that enabled controlled ignition of small quantities of flammable gases. Though the flames had low temperatures based on weak, diluted mixtures, they burned in spherical shapes, some for over an hour in duration. As this experiment’s set-up flew on a number of flights, the reader can see progress being made. Evans also describes the well known activities by Columbia and its crew, such as the repair mission to the Hubble space telescope and the launch of the ANIK-C3 and SBS-3 satellites. Notwithstanding its experimental origination, Columbia’s future included satisfying the ever pressing needs of the International Space Station. By combining all the achievements in one book, Evans presents the broad range of tasks and functions for which Columbia and any other shuttle could attain.

Yet by concentrating on this one shuttle, Evans’ book gets disjointed. This is understandable given that Columbia was just one of a number of space shuttles. Though occasionally Columbia flew immediately after its own landing, usually other shuttles flew in between. Thus more than 3 years could separate Columbia’s launches. Therefore, Evans must consider onboard experiments in isolation. Further, given that he emphasizes the astronauts’ activities while undertaking the experiments, the reader is left with little knowledge other than whether the experiment was successful. There is no presentation or interpretation of the data. Further, at times the details read as if they were taken directly from NASA documentation. Thus, though passages are well selected and thoroughly speak of Columbia’s role, there appears little original material or overall synopsis. As such, the book is an ode to Columbia’s capability rather than a critique of its accomplishments.

The space shuttle picked up where Skylab left off by giving people a platform in space from which to undertake experiments. Evans in his book Space Shuttle Columbia – Her Missions and Crews describes Columbia’s accomplishments, including the days before its destruction on re-entry. This solid recount pays due claim to this experimental vehicle that went far beyond simply demonstrating the capability of re-usable vehicles and space flight.

Review by Mark Mortimer

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