Outpost in Orbit
The subtitle presents the book as a history of the International Space Station. However, it is also a complete summary of the path to the ISS by those who envisioned an Earth-orbiting outpost in space, long before humans had the ability to travel there. The book is a remarkable work for its depth and breadth and for the historical insights it conveys. It was commissioned by the Johnson Space Center and was done under a NASA Space Act Agreement.

Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Title: Outpost in Orbit: A Pictorial & Verbal History of the International Space Station
Authors: David J. Shayler and Robert Godwin
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Publisher: Apogee Books
Date: October, 2018
Retail Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1989044032

The subtitle presents the book as a history of the International Space Station. However, it is also a complete summary of the path to the ISS by those who envisioned an Earth-orbiting outpost in space, long before humans had the ability to travel there.

As an avid aerospace historian, I was aware of many of the early designs reviewed in the first chapter but was surprised by the number the authors had been able to discover. Brief bios of these visionaries are also presented, some going back more than 100 years, that makes for interesting reading.

The immediate post-Sputnik frenzy from 1958 to 1960 was equally enthralling as the efforts of all the big corporate names and prominent individuals took center stage. A comprehensive summary of the concepts that might be implemented in a space station includes quotes from many of the luminaries of the era. The possible use of an inflatable toroid or a segmented wheel built up from the empty upper stage fuel tanks fired the imagination. The impact of weightlessness was not yet known, so many creators focused on the rotating wheel to generate artificial gravity. Steam-generated electric power quickly gave way to both solar and nuclear.

Because the Apollo lunar project took the available funds during the 1960s, a civilian space station wasn’t in the cards. However, the U.S. Air Force was able to get its Manned Orbiting Lab (MOL) approved by Congress. Unfortunately, the program was canceled when cost over-runs and the capabilities of the unmanned reconnaissance satellites provided the bulk of the defense requirements.

The Soviet threat loomed large in the 1960s, and two of the proposed Soviet projects are described, each being the creation of their principle “chief designers.” The U.S. efforts through the mid-1960s reveal both wet and dry concepts of using upper stage tanks of the large launch vehicles being developed. Here again, the authors do a commendable job of explaining the basic premise in few words and copious illustrations.

Following the success of the Apollo lunar program, the book reveals the short-lived Skylab (1973-74), which took advantage of unused hardware from the Apollo effort. The Soviets, having not achieved their lunar goal, concentrated on their Salyut and Almaz space stations from 1971 through 1986. This was followed by Mir, an incremental set of modules that constructed an impressive space station that served for 15 years with 30 crews. Unfortunately, several life-threatening events on both Salyut and Mir that involved heroic action by the crews are not covered in the book.

President Reagan’s pronouncement for the United States to proceed with a permanent presence in space resulted in the initial layout of Space Station Freedom in the late 1980s.

The author’s note that it was the end of the Cold War that finally moved the Russians to partner with the United States in 1993 on a joint undertaking known as the International Space Station—ISS. One of the many strengths of this book is the revelation of the challenges to be overcome between the two countries, their different cultures, and their ways of handling various political and technical difficulties. The numerous first-person quotes are valuable in establishing the role and point of view of many of the flight and support participants.

The role that the Space Shuttle’s nine visits to Mir played in establishing the methods that the two countries used to define the essential procedures for the subsequent building of the ISS was illuminating.

There are separate chapters that define the assembly, elements, and systems of the ISS. Likewise, there are chapters that describe the international partnership of 16 nations. Other chapters describe the intense preparation that precedes an EVA and what life on-board is like for periods of three to six months for a typical crew member duration.

Because of the countless people and activities involved, the book is structurally segmented. Primary information is in yellow boxes, quotes are in round-cornered brown boxes, and picture captions are in square-cornered white boxes.

The book concludes with a short chapter on The Value of the Space Station. It’s a series of passages from those who designed, built, and flew aboard this amazingly complex creation. There are forty-seven quotations representing the hundreds of thousands of persons who contributed to making the ISS a reality.

This book is a remarkable work for its depth and breadth and for the historical insights it conveys. It was commissioned by the Johnson Space Center and was done under a NASA Space Act Agreement.

© 2020 Ted Spitzmiller

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1 thought on “Book Review: Outpost in Orbit”

  1. Based on this review, I purchased the book. Some comments:

    1- The first chapter on the history of space station ideas is very good; worth the price admission and a really valuable survey.

    2- The final chapter on the value of space station is extremely weak and will not in any way convey the value of the space station. The overall discussion of what the ISS is used for is random and weak as well.

    3 – The book is very ISS focused, with the result that coverage of supply vehicles [ATV, HTV, Soyuz, Dragon, Cygnus] is uneven. I expected to see things like specs for each vehicle, etc. but it was spotty, and especially slighted Dragon and Cygnus.

    4 – The diagrams of the ISS on the inside front and back covers are very helpful.

    5 – The approach of mostly telling the story of the ISS via quotes does help to personalize things, but there is a loss of any narrative thread. The “Classic” book on building the ISS has yet to be written.

    Reply

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