Jay Chladek, Anderson. Outposts on the Frontier: A Fifty-Year History of Space Stations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 530 pp. $37.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-2292-2.
Reviewed by Nicholas Sambaluk (Air University)
Published on H-War (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Jay Chladek offers a coherent perspective on space stations, running through the historical efforts of the Cold War and with a special interest in the present day. This a subject that is frequently shrouded in complexity and whose earlier history has often been trapped in secrecy because of its relation to military reconnaissance.
For readers interested in the history and particularly the connections with strategic reconnaissance, one of the book’s strongest aspects is its organization. Chladek arranges the chapters in a way that allows a reader to focus in on a discrete phase of particular program or on a program at large, such as a chapter dealing with the US Apollo Applications Project that became known as Skylab, or another chapter recounting the challenges involved in the development and operation of the Soviet Salyut program. Since various space station efforts overlap in time, this is an important and helpful feature of the book.
Chladek succeeds also in developing a narrative that can be followed by readers interested in space history, or in space stories, who are not already versed in space science. This is important, because describing space exploration means dealing with rocket science, and writing in a manner that engages readers informatively but not overwhelmingly is a formidable challenge.
Readers interested in space stories will find the latter third of the book especially engaging. The book’s latter chapters include extensive and colorful accounts of life and activities aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and it is obvious from the accounts in these chapters and from the list of sources that Chladek’s preparation included detailed and careful oral histories with astronauts, particularly those serving aboard the ISS. One of these astronauts, Clayton Anderson, provides the book’s foreword, following the eye-catching and useful pattern adopted by the University of Nebraska Press in its Outward Odyssey series, of which Chladek’s book is the fifteenth volume.
Although the author devotes significant attention to older subjects such as the Salyut program and addresses other historic projects such as the Apollo-Soyuz mission, Skylab, and before these the US Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) concept, it is clear that his keenest interests lie closer to the present. The ISS portion of the book in particular is replete with human-interest anecdotes that propel that part of the narrative and illustrate a number of points highlighted by the author. The projects of the 1970s are described in an able and factual way, but the detailed, often blow-by-blow, accounts of extravehicular activities or other vignettes mostly concern the ISS, unless they depict dangerous instances such as the collision of a resupply vehicle with Mir in 1997.
The older projects, such as the American MOL and the Soviet Almaz, are shadowed by secrecy. Both were military reconnaissance programs, and material on these has been released only begrudgingly. The inclusion of schematic drawings of the different iterations of stations, particularly of Almaz and its related Salyut, are important and helpful. Regarding the middle Cold War period, however, the book displays a heavy reliance on a few sources such as the PBS Nova program “Astrospies” and one of the volumes of Soviet designer Boris Chertok’s remarkable memoir published by NASA. The absence of other recent and valuable additions to the literature regarding the projects of the middle Cold War period is unfortunate, and as a result, the three-and-a-half page list of sources is a regrettable substitute for endnotes. This is an avoidable foible in what is overall a fairly strong work, particularly with respect to the three decades concerning Mir and ISS.
The various lethal tragedies in space programs have all impinged on space exploration in general and sometimes directly upon the space stations that form the author’s subject. The breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, for example, crucially impacted the ISS by catalyzing the phaseout of the shuttle program and thereby a looming end to heavy-lift capacity that is important for space station construction efforts. The Columbia disaster receives an entire chapter in Chladek’s work, while other, older, fatal space missions that impacted space station projects garner considerably less attention.
The issue of military affairs receives a very light treatment in the second half of the book, as Chladek acknowledges “accusations … that … Russian crewmembers on the ISS had surveyed the disputed region supposedly for military purposes instead of peaceful ones” (p. 438) during the clash between Russia and Georgia in 2008. At the end of the book, the author notes that “many ISS participants have looked at China’s program with caution since it seems to be controlled by the military” (p. 462). Stubborn classification issues combined with the Cold War rise of automatic reconnaissance satellites can help explain why military objectives have receded from the forefront of space station concepts; nonetheless, given the central role of military objectives in the earliest space station initiatives, the book would have benefited from a more extensive exploration of what seems to be a historic and nearly comprehensive shift in attitudes about the purposes of long-term crewed activity in space.
In sum, Chladek’s work is a notable achievement and an important book providing an orientation to space station developments and to the current condition of the International Space Station. Chladek notes that “financial support and public interest will help dictate where mankind goes from here” regarding space exploration (p. 467). Although the author’s preference for a robust program is certainly evident, Chladek provides a welcome example of writing to inform rather than preach. Ultimately, this approach makes the more profound impression.
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Nicholas Sambaluk. Review of Chladek, Jay; Anderson, Outposts on the Frontier: A Fifty-Year History of Space Stations.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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