Category: Nonfiction
Title: Beyond Blue Skies: The Rocket Plane Programs That Led to the Space Age
Reviewed by: Peter Spasov
Author: Chris Petty
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Hardcover, Kindle
Pages: 408
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Date: November 2020
Retail Price: $36.95/$34.46
ISBN: 978-1496218766

Chris Petty’s Beyond Blue Skies is an account of America’s adventure to send people aloft to near orbit using runway-based aircraft during the period from 1946 to 1975. This is a story of mostly unsung heroes involved in flying people faster and higher than ever before, beginning with a tribute to aircraft mechanics. Primarily the rocket-plane program was about collecting flight data needed to better design future space-access vehicles. As well, Petty lauds all those involved with advancing the understanding of high-speed-and-high-altitude flight, a necessity for progressing into the space age.

Initial chapters abound with descriptions of aeronautical challenges, such as forward pitching interrupting the flow of fuel after a transition from transonic to supersonic flight, plus eventually breaking the sound barrier. Again, Petty adds the human elements. Pilots and other vital personnel operated mostly out of the limelight without the public glory experienced by later NASA astronauts.

Shortly after the Second World War, when America strived to achieve high-speed, high-altitude flight, there were setbacks such as one rocket plane being continually confined to the ground for retrofits, which pilots disparagingly referred to as a hangar queen. There were also “allegations of salacious activities” concerning a local dude ranch, the Happy Bottom Riding Club, resulting in a lawsuit and a suspicious fire burning the club to the ground. Other stories add to Petty’s narrative, such as Ulmer leather gaskets causing an explosion of liquid oxygen tanks, a hard lesson involving loss of life. While investigating flight characteristics, pilots noted how cockpit instrumentation lagged actual flight performance. This was the era when engineers pioneered the use of thrusters for attitude control, replacing the ailerons, elevators and rudder traditionally used in winged flight. Eventually this era ended when the government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to replace the former National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

With the rocket-powered X-15, the world was on the verge of the space age. Engineers introduced metal alloys and developed the flight suit. Readers can learn about the “human computers” who would later utilize analogue, then digital computers to analyze the extensive collection of flight data, and how some women gained engineering roles in the program. There are numerous troubleshooting anecdotes such as a retrofit detail, when a cable, being too short, ultimately causing a nose gear to deploy during high speed.

America fully expected the X-15 to become the world’s first spaceship, until NASA operations, such as Project Mercury, would eclipse the X-15 program. An X-15 pilot became the fifth American to earn his astronaut wings, as well as being the first to ‘pilot’ a winged vehicle into space and back, the air force having defined the altitude of fifty statute miles as the border of space. Later, another pilot would cross the Kármán line at a hundred kilometers (about 62.14 miles).

Later chapters cover wingless lift-generating vehicle approaches because of their low-g and cross range abilities. For a while, some thought one variant could serve as an orbital taxi for future space stations. Although these flights eventually discontinued, it did provide many lessons which proved useful for the future space shuttle. Among the anecdotes regarding the lifting-body flights was a training simulator mix-up. One of its controllers was connected backwards, thus forcing the pilot to do the opposite of what he had trained to do—or crash.

Another problem was pilot-induced oscillation, often causing loss of control. Despite the seriousness of danger, personnel sometimes resorted to pranks. After being chewed out by a pilot, some technicians took revenge by placing flower decals on the pilot’s automobile, who ultimately took the prank in good humor. There were other errors and gaffs. For instance, a plane continually crashed during simulation due to the simulator being loaded with the wrong data tape.

A chapter covers the accomplishments of many of the administrators and technical staff, such as Roxanah Yancey, who developed computer techniques. There are also several mentions of ‘skunk works’ techniques, although without explanation as to what these techniques were.

Chris Petty is author of The High Frontier blog and has written articles for Adam Savage’s Tested site as well as The Space Review. In his acknowledgements, the author states how much easier it would have been had he began writing twenty years ago, when many of the personnel were still alive. Instead he interviewed others who knew these personnel.

The book contains sources, index, numerous illustrations, and a section with abbreviations and definitions. Many factual details might appeal only to aeronautical afficionados. However, it is evident that Petty tells this history with reverence. I would recommend this book to those interested in the history of space technology. Although multi-stage rockets ended up ferrying astronauts to space, there remains the possibility of future single-launch-to-orbit space planes, meaning that Petty’s account may yet prove prescient.

© 2021 Peter Spasov

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