When I (David) first became involved in the Outward Odyssey series, working on the Skylab volume, my coauthors and I were shown a list of proposed titles for the first eight books in the series. As authors working on our first book, coming up with a title seemed like one of the more exciting parts of the job. We were thus somewhat pleased to be disappointed with the working title the publisher had provided: “Exemplary Outpost.” It was an accurate title, but it lacked the poetry of the other titles on the list—titles like Into That Silent Sea and In the Shadow ofthe Moon. I’m not sure that we quite lived up to that standard with Homesteading Space, but we made our best effort.
Even though it meant giving up the privilege of titling this volume, Heather and I were quite happy to go along with the name the publisher had suggested for this book: Bold They Rise. It was, quite literally, poetic, taken from the poem by series editor Colin Burgess that appears as the epigraph.
When we first read the poem, very early on in the process of writing this volume, we pictured the title as being about the Space Shuttles themselves, reflecting the poem’s reference to “winged emissaries.” As the book took shape, however, we realized that was no longer true; the title had taken on a new meaning for us. Rather than being about the hardware, it was about the men and women who risked their lives to expand humankind’s frontiers.
And in that vein, this book owes an incredible debt of gratitude to the NASA Johnson Space Center (jsc) Oral History Project, without which it quite literally would not exist.
With Homesteading Space, it was relatively easy to create a book that filled a unique niche—with a few notable exceptions, such as a handful of official NASA publications and David Shayler’s Skylab, very little had been written about America’s first space station. Breaking new ground was not a particular challenge.
With this book, the challenge was a little greater. There are more books about the Space Shuttle program, so it was somewhat harder to create something unique. Most of the previous works, however, fall into one of three categories—technical volumes, which span the entire program but include none of the human experience; astronaut memoirs, which relate the human experience, but only from one person’s perspective; or specific histories, which are more exhaustive but focus on only a limited slice of the program.
Based on the overall goal of the Outward Odyssey series, a new niche we could address became clear—a book relating the human experience of the Space Shuttle program, not limited to one person’s story but including a variety of viewpoints and spanning the early years of the program. Originally the goal was to create a “Homesteading Space of the shuttle program,” but it quickly became apparent that was a misdirected goal. Homesteading had only three manned missions to cover, and thus we could delve much deeper and more broadly in covering them. To attempt to write about the subject of this book in that manner would be to do either the subject or the reader a grave disservice; we needed to narrow our approach to create something that was both relevant and readable.
When we began reading from the jsc oral history interviews early in our research, the ideal approach for the book became apparent. Here was a wealth of first-person experience, describing in detail what it was like to be there—what it was like to involved in the design of a new spacecraft, what it was like to risk one’s life testing that vehicle, what it was like to do things that no one had done before in space, what it was like to float freely in the vacuum of space as a one-man satellite, what it was like to hold thousands of pounds of hardware in one’s hands, what it was like to watch friends die.
This book almost exclusively offers the astronauts’ perspective on the early years of the Space Shuttle program, and, while research for the volume drew on several resources, the extensive quoted material draws heavily from the jsc Oral History Project. It’s the astronauts’ story, told in their own words, about their own experiences.
Bold They Rise is not a technical volume. We would love for this volume to inspire you seek out another book that delves more deeply into the technical aspects of the shuttle. There are parts of the story that we had to deal with in what seemed like a relatively superficial manner; even dedicating an entire chapter to the Challenger accident and the effects it had seems woefully insufficient. Entire books could, and have, been written about the Challenger accident. If this book leaves you wanting to know more about that incident or other aspects of the shuttle’s history, we encourage you to seek out those volumes. And of course, individual astronauts have told their stories in memoirs with more personality than we were able to capture here. The subject of this book is such that it can’t be covered by any one volume exhaustively, but hopefully we have provided a unique, informative, and engaging overview here.
The chronological scope of the book was also set by the publisher to fit within the Outward Odyssey series. (Another volume, written by Rick Houston, picks up the Space Shuttle story where this one leaves off.) Initially, the ending point of the book was a bit discomfiting; the Challenger accident seemed a rather low note on which to end a book. There were any number of successes both before and after Challenger. Why would one pick the lowest point of the early years as a place to end the story? But, in a very real way, it was the best possible way to turn this history into a story arc.
As astronaut Mike Mullane wrote in his memoir Riding Rockets,
The NASA team responsible for the design of the Space Shuttle was the same team that had put twelve Americans on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth across a quarter million miles of space. The Apollo program represented the greatest engineering achievement in the history of humanity. Nothing else, from the Pyramids to the Manhattan Project, comes remotely close. The men and women who were responsible for the glory of Apollo had to have been affected by their success. While no member of the Shuttle design team would have ever made the blasphemous claim, “We’re gods. We can do anything," the reality was this: The Space Shuttle itself was such a statement. Mere mortals might not be able to design and safely operate a reusable spacecraft boosted by the world’s largest, segmented, uncontrollable solid-fueled rockets, but gods certainly could.
That, then, is the story of this book—a Greek tragedy about hubris and its price. It’s a story of the confidence that bred some of the most amazing achievements in human history but also led to overconfidence.
But make no mistake, this book is also a love letter. Both authors of this volume were born after the end of the last Saturn-Apollo flight; the Space Shuttle is “our” spacecraft. The Challenger accident occurred when we were still children; it was our “where were you” equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. In our “day jobs” as NASA education writers, we wrote extensively about the shuttle, its crews, its missions, its accomplishment and ultimately its retirement. We write this with a fondness for the shuttle, even when that means telling the story with warts-and-all honesty.
It’s been an honor and a pleasure to tell this story. We hope you enjoy reading it.
Heather R. Smith