Andrew Butrica's new book is part of a growing literature on the politics of space. The best known work in this genre is Walter McDougall's Pulitizer Prize-winning volume, "...the Heavens and the Earth." While McDougall's work was written in the early 1980s (published in 1985), still inside the framework of the Cold War, "Single Stage to Orbit" is able to take a more wholistic approach allowed by the passage of more time. That is also partly because Butrica's subject focuses on a single type of space hardware after its demise. His analysis clearly extends and to some extent revises McDougall's conclusions about the nature of technocracy in modern American society.
Butrica does a brilliant job explicating how the American political right gained hold of the ideology of progress in the last two decades of the twentieth century. His goal is to place the history of the Strategic Defense Initiative Office/"single stage to orbit" spaceplane effort in the context of the United States' well-documented political "right turn" of the past two-plus decades. He is very successful in examining the foundation and growth of the "conservative space agenda" and its linkage to various space advocacy groups. He also shows how conservative space advocates were able to manipulate the political system to achieve funding for their technological goal, a "Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO)" reusable launch vehicle.
Butrica's book is the only book-length history of SSTO technologies other than memoirs of participants, and hence it addresses an important original topic. What makes the book worthy of serious and sustained attention, however, is its explicit examination of the "politics of space" and its linkage of space politics to a specific set of technologies and management practices. The conservative space agenda he reveals in this book has not yet been the subject of historical analysis, and this is the book's primary contribution to the space history literature.
In itself, there is nothing overwhelmingly compelling about the story of SSTO. It was an effort begun in the 1980s, emphasized by Reaganite technological afficianadoes, to create a new space access capability through the development of a new space launcher. SSTO had long been the "holy grail" of spaceflight, the creation of a vehicle that could take off like an airplane, accelerate to hypersonic speeds, reach orbital velocity and enter orbit, and then return from space and land like an airplane on a runway. This is a very complex flight regime and one that has been impossible to achieve up to this time. Most engineers have thought it unachievable, and appropriately so, but it remained an enticing goal.
During the Reagan administration, some enthusiasts argued that technological stretch could make possible the "single stage to orbit" goal, and they achieved approval for a succession of SSTO programs. The tensions of the story are those of domestic politics and of engineers associated with industry versus those with government. The story plays out over several design projects from the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) through the DC-X to the X-33 of the 1990s. The story of these efforts is told in detail in this important new book.