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Expanding the Envelope: Flight Research at NACA and NASA. By Michael H. Gorn. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Pp. xii+472. $35.
Michael Gorn's Expanding the Envelope examines the technical and bureaucratic narratives that helped shape the legendary research programs carried out by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (1915-58) and its successor agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, after 1958. This is a selective overview of activities from a range of government centers and over the whole span of the agency's flight research. Gorn divides the book into five "generations": the 1920s and 1930s, when Langley researchers established the methodologies and objectives for the field; the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, when speed and altitude records fell regularly; the mid-1960s to 1980, when a range of projects, including lifting bodies and the space shuttle, occupied flight engineers and pilots; 1981 to the 1990s, when the Dryden Research Flight Center and the Ames Research Center were merged in a rethinking of the flight research program; and the [End Page 183] recent period when Dryden became autonomous once again and the need to redefine missions and purposes became of primary interest to the staff.
Gorn defines "flight research" in a number of ways, but the working definition is "to separate the real from the imagined" and to get at the essential data that explains underlying physical events taking place during flight. Expanding the Envelope is not a sequel to Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff; it does not focus on test pilots alone. Pilots were vital to the untangling of the real from the imaginary, but they were by no means alone in that task. Scientists, engineers, bureaucrats, ex-astronauts, and businesspeople take their place in this dense, thorough narrative.
Gorn explains his approach by noting factors that affected his selection of case studies. His most interesting criteria from the perspective of the cultures of technology concerned the choice of efforts revealing "the processes [his italics] of flight research—the evolution of tools, techniques, and organization, for example—rather than the progress of each individual project" (p. 6). This point of view causes the chronology to slip occasionally, and the narrative sometimes appears to jump around from center to center. The few problems are fully offset, however, by the effectiveness of the approach in presenting a multifaceted and many-layered analysis of complicated undertakings.
The book is a techie's dream as well, because Gorn describes these processes and projects with a wealth of detail. Though he is a historian at Dryden, his research has gone beyond Dryden's archival materials. The footnotes reveal an extraordinary amount of primary research, and Gorn has been careful to ground his interpretations in that research. He presents balanced accounts of conflicts and is surprisingly blunt (and often amusing) in characterizing individuals involved in various projects.
Certain material, such as information about the X-15, about research into icing and deicing, and about the orbiter and lifting bodies, is quite dramatic and might have been presented in a less matter-of-fact tone, perhaps privileging narrative at the expense of process. These are really ripping good yarns and it is a shame not to let the reader more fully share the excitement and stress felt by flight research. There is a useful glossary for those who get lost in acronyms. Overall, Expanding the Envelope is a terrific addition to the collection of NACA and NASA histories as well as to the literature of twentieth-century science and technology.
Dr. Warren-Findley has written about various aspects of the culture of the Space Age. She teaches in the Department of History and is codirector of the Graduate Program in Public History at Arizona State University.
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