Remembering The World’s Greatest All-Electric Flying Machine: An Interview with “Into The Black” Author Rowland White

From NASA, March 1981 photo: “The space shuttle orbiter Columbia is showered with lights in this nocturnal scene at Launch Pad 39A, as preparations are underway for the first flight (STS-1) of NASA’s new reusable spacecraft system. Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen are in training for the flight.” 

Today, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the launch of the first U.S. space shuttle mission, STS-1. While many associate this historic event with John W. Young and Bob Crippen, often major players in space shuttle development (both human and machine) are lost in the program’s dense, decades-long history. 

Rowland White’s book Into The Black launches on Tuesday, April 19th, days after the 35th anniversary of Columbia’s iconic first flight. Photo Credit: Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster

Enter author Rowland White, whose book, Into The Black, will be published in hardcover by Touchstone Books on Tuesday, April 19th. The book’s foreword was written by astronaut Richard Truly, himself an STS-1 backup crew member. His book gives due credit to the figures who were, in many ways, just as responsible for the success of the first, very risky “test” flight. In addition, the book examines the complicated relationship between the “black” National Reconnaissance Office and how it contributed to one of NASA’s finest missions (which, very possibly, could have turned into a tragedy). 

This Space Available was fortunate to interview White about Into The Black. Note: minor book spoilers included. 

This Space Available: When space buffs think of STS-1 – coming up on its 35th anniversary – they hearken back to the launch, those iconic “Hail Columbia!” moments from the IMAX film, etc., those things that are easily memorable. Your book delves into early shuttle program development, the very real limitations of the system, and how the space intelligence community intersected with the launch/key mission events. Why did you take this approach to the STS-1 story? You could have easily just rehashed the mission. 

Rowland White: I’m not sure anyone have been interested if I’d just rehashed the mission. People need to care about the outcome of a story and so it was important to remind readers of what was special about the Shuttle. I wanted to position Columbia as the last great achievement of NASA’s Apollo generation, and as the high watermark of the post-war US aerospace industry. But as I researched the book, what had started out as a celebration of the Shuttle turned into a real-life thriller as I discovered the little-known military and intelligence side of the story.

NASA photo, April 1981: “Astronauts John W. Young, second from left, and Robert L. Crippen, left, discuss photography from their recent STS-1 mission with astronauts Joe H. Engle, right, and Richard H. Truly during a post-mission debriefing session. Engle and Truly were backup crewmen for STS-1 and they have been named as prime crew members for STS-2, scheduled for a Sept. 30, 1981 liftoff.” Engle and Truly are also profiled in depth in Into The Black. 

TSA: People tend to associate STS-1 with Young and Crippen, but Into The Black discusses major players that perhaps haven’t gotten as much attention in the shuttle story in depth – figures such as Fred Haise, Richard Truly, Gordon Fullerton, and Joe Engle, for example. These astronauts were intimately involved with space shuttle development. Why was it important, to you, to profile these individuals in such depth (not just giving them a mention)? 

White: …One of the things that appealed to me about the Shuttle story was the way that stories of the people involved was so deeply rooted in both the Apollo program and Manned Orbiting Laboratory [MOL], a classified USAF space station program that ran in parallel to Apollo until it was canceled in 1969. All the of the early Shuttle astronauts had such rich stories to tell, from Gemini to the X-15, and from MOL to Apollo 13. I’d have been crazy not to try to bring them to life. 

NASA photo, April 13, 1981. Columbia in Earth orbit, payload bay doors opened. Note the missing pieces of thermal tile on the rounded OMS pods. These missing pieces would cause much anxiety on the ground. This development is examined in White’s book.

TSA: I won’t provide any major book spoilers to readers, but there are also “major players” that aren’t people in the book. I think it’s interesting how you explain the development of digital fly-by-wire as it relates to the shuttle, military intelligence programs, and other “figures” such as the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) that contributed to the shuttle program. What other innovations do you think were elemental to the shuttle story? How did they “forge” the future, if that makes sense? 

White: The main reason for the that is, I think, because of my point of entry.Before I saw it as a space story I saw the the genesis of the Shuttle as an aviation story with Columbia representing the crowning achievement of the post-war US aviation industry. For around thirty years following Chuck Yeager’s first supersonic flight over Mojave, every new design that emerged from US airplane makers seemed to fly higher and faster than what had come before. The Shuttle was a sort of distillation of that incredible period of engineering creativity and innovation – the high watermark.  Because of that starting point, though – because I wanted it to be what Richard Truly’s since described as “a bang-up flying story” – I took an interest in some aspects of the Shuttle program – like the involvement of the KAO or the role of the T-38 chase team – that I don’t think had previously attracted too much attention. Mainly, it has to be said, because I thought they were really cool.

TSA: Of course, one of the central “characters” in the book is John W. Young, veteran astronaut and STS-1 commander. This is someone who has always been an enigmatic, laconic, not exactly “public” figure, but his personality is very well-integrated into the narrative. How were you able to capture his “voice”? That couldn’t have been an easy task!

White: John Young is extraordinary and something of an unsung hero, I think;  Somewhat underappreciated beyond aficionados of space history. From the beginning I wanted him to sit right at the heart of the book. In many ways he’s the glue that binds the book together. His story is essentially that of the U.S. Space Program. As I researched the story I felt I got to know and understand him a little better. And as I did so I really warmed to him. As you say, he’s been a reluctant public figure and yet, ironically, when he has appeared at press conferences and the like his bone dry wit and laconic delivery have made him incredibly engaging. He’s a real one off, and I hope very much indeed that anyone who reads Into the Black will come away with not just a proper appreciation of his achievements, but also a real liking for him.

TSA: STS-1 may have been one of the riskiest flights in spaceflight history (a human-helmed mission testing a never-before-flown vehicle with some known potential issues). Yet many factors, discussed in Into The Black, ensured the crew returned safely (and served as a balm to those on the ground). Do you think NASA would fly a mission such as STS-1 ever again? Why, or why not?

White:  Absolutely not. They never did before and they never will again. STS-1 was described at the time as “the boldest test flight in history” with good reason: [it was] the only time a manned spacecraft has ever been launched without there first being an unmanned test. Legendary JSC Director Chris Kraft said that of all NASA’s manned missions it was that first Shuttle launch alongside Apollo 8 that were the two that caused him most anxiety. Times have changed and with that so has the public’s tolerance of risk, I think – even if that of the test pilots and astronauts has not. But that, of course, meant that STS-1 provided me with the raw material I needed to try to write a nail-biting story that, like Apollo 13 or Gravity, had people gripped.

Many thanks to Rowland White for his participation. Into The Black, again, is available from Touchstone Books on April 19th, and is $29.99. 

From NASA, April 13, 1981: “Brig. Gen. William T. Twinting studies the monitor at the Department of Defense (DOD) console in the mission operations control room (MOCR) at the Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center (MCC). He is deputy DOD manager for Space Shuttle Support Operations. Gen. Twinting and the other flight controllers seen in the background listen as astronaut John W. Young, STS-1 commander, describes the scenery of a downlink TV transmission.” The Department of Defense plays a huge role in Into The Black.

“Home and Dry,” April 14, 1981 NASA photo. Columbia touches down after a successful first mission at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, to much jubilation (especially from John Young, who famously punched the air in his post-flight “walkaround” following the mission).

Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.

Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.


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