“On the cusp of a new space age, with a seemingly limitless opportunity for both robotic and human engagement in space,” an expert surveys many of the manned space programs that failed spectacularly, fizzled, or never left the drawing board.
The Apollo program and the international space station succeeded, but flops far outnumbered them, writes science journalist Pyle (Curiosity: An Inside Look at the Mars Rover Mission and the People Who Made It Happen, 2014, etc.) in this delightful collection. The Nazis built the first space rocket, the V2, but not a 100-ton rocket plane designed to cross the Atlantic and bomb America—although a talented engineer submitted plans. After World War II, more elaborate plans did not convince the U.S. to fund Project Horizon, a massive military moon base. The Air Force spent millions on an early space shuttle, the Dyna-Soar (cancelled in 1963), and space station (cancelled in 1969). Dwarfing these was the Soviet effort to beat America to the moon, which ended in a catastrophic series of explosions, malfunctions, and deaths. Pyle has done his homework, delivering informed accounts of the reasons, political and technical, behind each failure. He includes mishaps that marred successful programs, including several during Apollo, but readers will agree with him that the greatest disaster followed its triumph. No one predicted that America would junk Apollos’ superb infrastructure and spacecraft, including what is still the world’s most powerful rocket, the Saturn V. Yet, in a catastrophic “failure of imagination,” that is what happened. No human has left orbit since 1972. The author ends with an optimistic review of today’s programs, many led by entrepreneurs spending their own money. This has produced ingenious technical advances, but manned interplanetary travel will require generous government support which no one—except perhaps the Chinese—is providing.
An enjoyable exploration of spacecraft from a reliably knowledgeable guide.