Review: This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age
It took quite a while, but I finally finished This New Ocean. While not perfect, it was an enjoyable read. The book covers the period from the beginning of rocketry through its date of publication (1999). It’s major and significant strengths are that it includes a very good treatment of international efforts in space, not just U.S., and especially in the early years; and that it covers not just civil but defense and security space. These domains are not often found under one cover.
Structurally, This New Ocean spends about 1/3 “pre-Apollo”, 1/3 covering the sixties, and 1/3 for everything thereafter. This is perhaps its greatest weakness: readers motivated enough to tackle a 600+ tome on the history of spaceflight have likely already read the Apollo-era story many times elsewhere; I found “the middle bit” the hardest to sustain interest through. Burrows redeems himself by giving an exceptionally enjoyable and thorough treatment of robotic scientific missions in the 70s and beyond, especially planetary.
As with many survey histories, TNO suffers a little by accelerating its pace and struggling to find coherent narratives around the decades leading up to its date of publication. Much of the 80s are spent discussing and criticizing SDI (no question where Burrows lands here); Challenger is covered but the subsequent evolution of EELVs is skimmed, and SEI, single stage to orbit / reusable launch vehicle initiatives barely mentioned … the narrative switches almost exclusively to space station and robotic science for the nineties, capped by an excursion into the first wave of breathless / heady “commercial” space mania of the late nineties. All interesting, but gapped and a little disorganized, but then, so where the 90s as far as spaceflight was concerned.
Overall, I’d recommend this read, but ended up wishing Burrows had had the last 15 years under his belt to include as well. A good survey of spaceflight from the timeframe of about 1990-now has, I think, yet to be written.