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Astronautics: Book 1: Dawn of the Space Age (Apogee Books Space Series) by Ted Spitzmiller
Review by Ernest Lilley
Collector's Guide Publishing, Inc. Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1894959639
Date: 10 September 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

There couldn't be a more timely book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik than this insightful and very readable overview of the early days of the space age, largely spanning the time between Robert Goddard's first liquid fuel rocket flight (1926) and the early manned space flights in the 1960s. The voyage to the moon will have to wait for the next volume in this series.

Writing this on the anniversary of the Sputnik launch, I was delighted to relive moments that transformed the world, and to pick up details I'd never focused on before, like the difference in thrust between the first Russian satellite launch vehicle and ours; 900,000 lbs of thrust v. 27,000 for our first vehicle. Whew.

Author Ted Spitzmiller takes us on a guided tour of the early space age, filled with facts about the men and rockets involved, but all presented in a very readable dialog. Like many children of the space age I was already familiar with many of the nearly forgotten projects, some of which had been childhood favorites, and it was a treat to read more about how they'd been conceived and explored, even if most to them, like my favorite "Dyna-Soar" were canceled long before they made orbit. I also found the coverage of the Orion and NERVA nuclear powered rockets fascinating, and couldn't help but wonder if they might rise again. Orion, you may or may not know, was a bold plan to use nuclear explosives to propel a ship forward by literally tossing them out the back and blowing them up. It turns out to have been quite feasible, but died for the expected environmental reasons. What I hadn't known was that the cost of payload to orbit for Orion was estimated at 5 cents per compared to the $1000 per pound estimates for conventional propellants. I'm not about to champion exploding nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, but it seems like it might still make a heck of a drive for an interplanetary ship.

The book is full of facts about the history and development of man's early spaceflight, and though it's billed as a sourcebook, I think there's a considerable audience of readers that would enjoy kicking back and reliving the days of yesteryear alongside our heroes, both the men who designed and championed these machines and the ones who flew them into the heavens.

I learned a lot I hadn't known reading about the first supersonic rocket plane, the Bell X-1. The details of how the rocket engine was selected (made by a small company in NJ), and the fate of Bell's first test pilot, Jack Woolams (killed preparing for an air race) were fascinating and helped put this piece of history in perspective. I couldn't help but think of the flight of SpaceShip One, which I was able to see in 2004 and its parallels. We've come a long way, but we're still standing on the shoulders of giants.

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