Bossart: America's Forgotten Rocket Scientist.
Few scholars would contest that Wernher von Braun, a skillful rocket engineer in his own right, managed to promote and establish himself as the preeminent rocket scientist in American history. From historian Michael Neufeld's prizewinning biography to archivist-editor Irene Powell-Willhite's collection of several dozen speeches, von Braun continues to reign as the foremost U.S. rocket expert and top contender for the title "father of U.S. space-flight," eclipsing even Robert Goddard. Despite von Braun's well-deserved reputation, it would be a distortion of history to neglect or deny the significant contributions of other brilliant rocket engineers.
Computer scientist Don Mitchell makes precisely that point in this book. The long-overdue biography of Karel "Charlie" Bossart, a Belgian aeronautical engineer who immigrated to the United States in April 1930, clearly broadens the pantheon of leading U.S. rocket designers. It places him squarely at the apex of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development by the U.S. Air Force from the immediate post-World War II period through the 1950s, and with Centaur upper-stage development into the 1960s. It cements Bossart's reputation as a cutting-edge innovator--an extraordinary visionary who designed a weapon for war but favored its use as a launch vehicle for peaceful exploration of outer space.
Upon his arrival in America, Bossart joined Sikorsky Aircraft and worked initially as a stress analyst on the team building the largest seaplane to date: the S-40 amphibious passenger liner. Mitchell provides a thoroughly comprehensible, highly technical description of how Bossart went about designing a strong, lightweight wing structure for that aircraft. With work on the S-40 complete, Bossart joined several different aircraft companies before taking a position as a stress analyst, in March 1937, with Fleetwings, a small company that produced some of the first stainless-steel airplanes and had mastered fabrication of a stainless skin no more than twice the thickness of a piece of paper. Within three months, however, he accepted a better position--as chief research engineer in the aircraft division--at E.G. Budd, the company that had perfected techniques for welding stainless steel. At Budd, under contract with the Army Air Corps, he designed an experimental stainless-steel version of the P--36 wing.
During World War II, Bossart moved to Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (Convair), where he contributed to the XP--92 delta-wing, point-defense interceptor design before shifting to management of the Army Air Forces MX--774 experimental long-range rocket program in 1946. Applying the stainless-steel welding and fabrication techniques he had learned at Fleetwings and Budd, he designed what ultimately became the Atlas ICBM. In December 1958, that missile, carrying SCORE, the world's first communications satellite, would go into Earth orbit. In the 1960s, the Atlas would send John Glenn and other Mercury astronauts into orbit.
Mitchell has delivered a thoroughly researched, thoughtfully written account of an amazingly insightful rocket pioneer. Melding personal recollections from Bossart's family members with technical explanations from corporate reports, scholarly histories, and assorted other source material, Mitchell presents the richness of one man's life and times in nearly seamless combination with his path-breaking aerospace engineering accomplishments. He manages to control techno-babble in ways that contribute to understanding Bossart's historical importance, both in his own right and compared to von Braun. Mitchell's Bossart: America's Forgotten Rocket Scientist is a well-crafted book that deserves more than a single cover-to-cover read.
Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant, Deputy Director of History, HQ Air Force Space Command