Countdown to the Cape…4…

As yesterday’s post mentioned, we’re taking a divide and conquer approach to the preparation for our visit to Cape Canaveral. Where Anna is going to benefit from the full fourth-estate treatment, Doug will be taking the man-in-the-street approach. Actually, we’ve begun to refer to his role in this adventure as the man-on-the-beach role.

As any habitué of the Space Coast beaches knows, these sandy meeting places are awash in heated discussions of technical arcana of the NASA space program in general, and of the Shuttle in particular. For the past few weeks, Doug has been brushing up on Shuttle facts and figures so that he can get his geek on. He also wants to avoid being the proverbial 98-pound technical weakling getting the primary constituent of the Shuttle’s TPS—that’s the silicon-based Thermal Protection System—kicked in his face.

First up in Doug’s reading list was Dennis Jenkins’s Space Shuttle: The History of the National Transportation Systems—The First 100 Missions. Jenkins traces the history of an idea: reusable spacecraft. The book’s opening sentence starts with this: “Reusable space vehicles have been discussed for almost eighty years….” He may as well have gone on to finish that sentence by saying, “and I’m going to take you on a tour of that idea with the most comprehensive set of photographs and engineering diagrams of reusable space vehicles that have ever been assembled.” Instead, he demonstrates that idea for more than 500 pages. This book should be on the shelf of every space fan.

NASA WikiCommons Public DomainAt the beginning, you’ll see the provocative designs that issued from the fevered imaginations of Wernher von Braun, Eugen Sänger, and the builders of America’s X-planes. Of particular interest is von Braun’s 1951 design study for a ferry rocket; it would look at home in a 50’s B-movie. Jenkins’ book also provides a substantial treatment of the Space Shuttle’s direct antecedents: Dyna-Soar and the Lifting-Bodies (fans of The Six Million Dollar Man and its opening sequence will be particularly pleased with the footnote on page 38). Other remarkable oddities covered along the way include the Saunders Kramer Astrocommuter, a design from 1960 that will look strikingly similar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the progress of SpaceShipTwo.

Designs that bear a resemblance to the current Space Shuttle begin to appear in Chapter V, Grand Ambitions. Dozens—perhaps hundreds—of design iterations are captured and illustrated by all manner of technical drawings: cutaways, three-views, illustrations, exploded views, and so on. The images could stand alone in picture book, but fortunately, the text is as technically rich and engaging as the images.

NASA WikiCommons PublicDomain

The second half of the book details the equipment and function of every major system of the Space Shuttle, including the two 747’s used to ferry the shuttle fleet between the landing and launching sites.  Photographs outnumber drawings in this part of the book, and that’s to be expected, because most spacecraft represented by drawings in the first half of the book never made it off of the drawing board.

The photographs present the Shuttle in the kind of detail you would have experienced if you’d helped to build it. While the photos do give the reader a greater sense of the engineering masterpiece that is the Shuttle fleet, those drawings that appear are used to great effect. In particular, several drawings depicting the placement of that Thermal Protection System—those confounding tiles, engineered from grains of sand, able to reject the 2000-degree Fahrenheit fires that flicker on the Shuttle’s underside during reentry, the selfsame tiles that fall off and crack—are shown in a series of drawings that convey what a remarkable undertaking it is to check and repair them, one-by-one, after each flight.

Sometimes Doug has enjoyed the Jenkins book by flipping through a few pages, and other times by reading entire chapters. Either way, it’s rewarding each time he opens it.

Over the next few days, we’ll reveal more about our reading and viewing. We’re also busy catching up with laundry so that we can pack our bags for the expected low 80s at the Cape next week.

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