Space travel belongs to the 20th Century (at least for the time being). Its myth only existed at full potency for thirty years, from the late 1940s to the 1980s. The true source of the myth, more than science fiction films or even the real thing, was the artist’s impressions released by aerospace companies. Unabashedly priapic machines trailed flames and explored space in a cosily dangerous, and utterly appealing, vision of the not too distant future. And space belonged to the two superpowers of the time, the US and the USSR. Despite the latter’s initial lead, NASA had branded space. We hear the ‘ 5-4-3-2-1’ and ‘we have lift-off’ in an American accent. But there were others working in the shadows.
Britain had world class aerospace know-how, but had neither the money, governmental inclination or political need to develop a successful space programme. It tried — and though the Black Arrow satellite carrier rocket was a technical success (launching the Prospero satellite into orbit) — it was cancelled in 1971. The programme was axed on economic grounds as NASA had offered to launch British payloads for free. Rather unsportingly, this offer was withdrawn following the Black Arrow’s cancellation. The United Kingdom is the only nation that had, and then lost, the ability to launch satellites. Far less publicised was Project MUSTARD, an absurdly British acronym for a secret effort to build what would later be known as a space shuttle.
Dan Sharp, judging by just how obsessively researched this book is, is a lunatic (something we should be grateful for). He has unearthed a litany of blueprints, design concepts and models that tell a remarkable story. The concepts are universally exciting to the eternal ten year old boy within all of us (not literally you weirdo). Many of the machines, are winged deltas that fly in conjoined triple clusters, a somewhat bizarre solution. The book also covers many related high speed schemes including the particularly thrilling English Electric P.42. Conceived as a replacement for the abortive TSR.2 recce-bomber, the P.42 was intended to cruise at Mach 4 at 85,000ft. Looking like an arrow-winged — and extremely belligerent — Concorde, the P.42 looks like an absolute winner. Its coverage is expansive, and includes other space shuttle and orbital vehicles from around the world.
As well as original diagrams, what really impresses is the digital work – the quality is outstanding throughout. The P.42 is shown in three-quarter and three-view in the same tactical scheme that adorned No. 31 Squadron Tornadoes in the 1980s. These superb speculative artworks really bring, what is a rather serious book, to life. The BAC EAG 4458 is a cranked delta that would look futuristic today, it again resembles Concorde a little, but this time a stealthy hypersonic manifestation.
This book is extremely dense, packed with extremely interesting material — the sheer amount of information is a little daunting. For anyone with an interest in either space systems or British aviation this tells a seldom told story that will offer revelations to even the most well-informed historian. Thoroughly recommended.
Rating: Four out of five