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Astronautics: A Historical Perspective of Mankind's Efforts to Conquer the Cosmos.

Astronautics: A Historical Perspective of Mankind's Efforts to Conquer the Cosmos, Book 1, Dawn of the Space Age; Book 2, To the Moon and Towards the Future by Ted Spitzmiller. Apogee Books/ Collectors Guide Publishing (, 1440 Graham's Lane, Unit no. 2, Burlington, Ontario L7S 1W3, Canada, 2006, 232 pages, $24.95 (softcover), ISBN 9781-894959-63-6; 2007, 336 pages, $25.95 (softcover), ISBN 9781-894959-66-7.

The tally for publications in Apogee Books' Space Series now amounts to several dozen, including Ted Spitzmiller's two-volume set titled Astronautics. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, Spitzmiller has attempted to synthesize a concise, encyclopedic history of rocketry and spaceflight. In 39 chapters, each one designed to give readers "a relatively complete understanding of a special interest area without the need to ferret information from multiple chapters" (p. 9), he chronicles humankind's exploration of space from Copernicus in the early sixteenth century to exotic new forms of spacecraft propulsion for interplanetary voyages in the twenty-first century. The chapters in book 1 cover individual pioneers, early rocket societies, Peenemunde and the V-2, rocket planes, planning for an Earth satellite, military spy satellites, harnessing liquid hydrogen, piloted spaceflight, planetary exploration, and more. Chapters in book 2 include the race to the moon, the space shuttle, space stations, expendable booster development, the search for extraterrestrial life, deep-space missions, and competitive partnering in space.

Spitzmiller eschews primary documentation, except for a few memoirs, and relies almost exclusively on biographies, histories, and Web sites as source material. He characterizes his sources as typically sacrificing scope and presenting an overwhelming level of technical detail. Consequently, he seeks in Astronautics "to simplify and clarify technology, politics, and events to make them easier to comprehend" (p. 9). His goal is commendable and, grammatically and stylistically, he achieves it. The word picture he paints of Russia's Sputnik launch will grip most readers, and his telling of the Apollo 13 saga will captivate them.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to significantly broaden the scope of his narrative, Spitzmiller too often sacrifices scientific, technical, and historical accuracy or completeness. The most surprising example of scientific inaccuracy in Astronautics is his apparent misunderstanding of Newton's third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. He explains that "the action-reaction of the exhaust gases was pushing against the inside of the rocket motor to provide the propulsive force" (p. 19). Toward the end of book 2, Spitzmiller perpetuates this inaccuracy when he says that "expanding combustion" in a ramjet engine " 'pushes' (Newton's third law) against the 'wall' of incoming air to provide thrust" (p. 472) and, again, that a spacecraft powered by a mass driver would have "to have a significant quantity of some material to react against" (p. 473).

Historical accuracy also suffers in these volumes. Spitzmiller describes the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory's successful solid-propellant jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) experimentation under Air Corps contract in 1941, explaining that "it would be two more years before a liquid-propellant rocket engine, constructed by the Aerojet General Corporation, was tested in a Consolidated Aircraft Co. flying boat on San Diego Bay" (p. 33). He never mentions that the liquid-propellant JATO units resulted from US Navy experimentation led by Robert C. Truax and Robert H. Goddard. Similarly, he acknowledges the contribution of the Army Air Forces and Project RAND in early 1946, which studied the feasibility of an Earth-circling spaceship, without once mentioning the manned spacecraft proposal by US Navy lieutenant Robert Haviland and Cdr Harvey Hall in August 1945 or the Navy's subsequent establishment in October 1945 of a Committee for Evaluating the Feasibility of Space Rocketry. As for the history of military communication satellites, Spitzmiller credits the US Army Signal Corps, explaining that "Courier was a prototype for a more advanced military satellite communications project known as Advent which placed much larger satellites in geosynchronous orbits several years later" (p. 155). Apparently, he does not understand that the Army's Advent program failed and, consequently, that the Air Force launched the world's first dedicated military communication satellite--operationally known as the Initial Defense Satellite Communications System--in 1968. Other misstatements, incomplete explanations, or oversights occur throughout Astronautics.

These volumes might disappoint readers, even those with only a basic knowledge of space history, because blatant errors in spelling mar the narrative from beginning to end. From "mils" instead of "miles" (p. 37) to "essentailly" instead of "essentially" (p. 408), the errors detract from the quality of Spitzmiller's presentation. Furthermore, seeing "Maxime Faggot" instead of "Maxime Faget" (p. 335), "Neal Armstrong" instead of "Neil Armstrong" (p. 348), "Robinson Caruso" instead of "Robinson Crusoe" (p. 476), and "Caiden, Martin" instead of "Caidin, Martin" (p. 481, bibliography) might prompt readers to question how much attention the author, or his copy editor, paid to factual details.

As much as one might try to focus on positive attributes and overlook shortfalls in Astronautics, obstacles ranging from typographical errors to substantive inaccuracies tend to obscure the brilliance of Spitzmiller's narrative style. Perhaps a reprinted version--with errors corrected, inaccuracies clarified, and oversights covered--might render these volumes worthy of consideration for classroom use or a prominent place on collectors' bookshelves.

Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant

Peterson AFB, Colorado
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Author:Sturdevant, Rick W.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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