The space industry is unusual in that its future rarely makes it off the drawing-board. Progress is erratic, and those designs which are realised often find themselves as small islands of the past in a fluctuating history. The only truly reusable spacecraft, for example, ever to make orbit is NASA’s Space Shuttle, which is a forty-year-old design. Its replacement, Project Constellation, was cancelled earlier this year. Rival spacecraft include the SpaceX Dragon and the Excalibur Almaz TKS-derived capsule – both of which are, like Constellation’s Orion Crew Module, blunt-body capsules not dissimilar to Apollo or Soyuz.
Yet for every rocket-launched blunt-body capsule which makes it to flight-testing, a host of more adventurous and sophisticated spacecraft designs stall in development. A Vision of Future Space Transportation is by no means a comprehensive guide to these proposed spacecraft. For that, Robert Goehlich’s Spaceships would be more useful (see my review here). McElyea’s book is more of an introduction to what the future might hold for space transportation – and that’s a very big “might”.
First, A Vision of Future Space Transportation was published in 2003, so in some respects it is out-of-date. For example, Scaled Composites is mentioned, but not its SpaceShipOne. There is no mention of SpaceX or Excalibur Almaz. Nor Project Constellation, Skylon, Kliper, or Lynx. Rather, those spacecraft which are described are done so in a discussion of the many proposed strategies for Earth to Orbit transport – airbreathers air-launched, gun-launched, etc.
Another chapter discusses propulsion technologies to be used in space, such as light sails, VaSIMR, electro-dynamic tethers, nuclear pulse engines, and ion engines. Happily, it is this chapter, and the preceding Earth to Orbit chapter, which provides the bulk of the book. While not especially detailed, McElyea’s coverage is readable and informative. The remaining chapters provide an introduction to the subject, and a coda detailing “Private Initiatives” and “Current NASA Initiatives” (as of the time of publication).
As an introduction to the possible technologies for Earth to Orbit and In-Space transportation, A Vision of Future Space Transportation serves its purpose well. It is copiously-illustrated with computer-generated imagery of the spacecraft under discussion. There is an included CD-ROM which features slideshows and 3D models of them too. Nothing is described in especially great detail – this is not a technical book – nor, as previously mentioned, is it comprehensive or up-to-date. Sadly, it is, like many books on spaceflight, turning into alternate history with each passing year.
A Vision of Future Space Transportation, Tim McElyea (2003. Apogee Books, ISBN 1-896522-93-9, 179pp + appendix, includes CD-ROM)