Reliving the Last Launch with Dan Winters (#bookreview)

From its first image of an early Space Shuttle schematic, published back in July of 1972, to its final image of an empty launch pad under cloudy skies, Last Launch: Discovery, Endeavor, Atlantis Hardcover is a visually stunning tribute to the modern era of spaceflight.

Dan Winters bookends his introduction with a pair of father-son photographic memories, beginning with his father taking a picture of the television to capture the launch of Apollo 11, and ending with his own son assisting him in photographing the launch of Discovery STS-133. In just two short pages he reminds us of how far we've come in the past forty years.

Al Reinart follows that with a fascinating history of how and why the American space program reached for the stars, complete with the "hubris and muddle" that was designed into the Space Shuttle. He takes us from the launch of Columbia in 1981, through the Challenger disaster of 1986, and the return to flight with Discovery in 1988; from the initial multinational docking with the space station Mir in 1995, to the multinational construction of the ISS in 1998; and through the loss of Columbia in 2004, to the return to flight in 2006, and the retirement of the Space Shuttle six years later.

Really, though, this book is a visual tribute to the power, the majesty, and the spectacle of the Space Shuttle program. Winters shoots his subjects from near and afar, providing us with glimpses of not only sheer size and scale, but also of the minute details. On one page you're staring at the pillar of smoke left behind by a successful launch, and on the next you're scrutinizing the very texture of the Shuttle's skin. He also takes us deep behind the scenes, offering up snapshots of suits and gloves, of bags of candy, and cockpit seats. For anybody who never had the chance to make it to a launch, this is a goldmine of material that's sure to rekindle those early dreams.

Wisely, Winters allows the photos to speak for themselves, presenting them in all their glossy glory, without encumbering them with text. There is a thumbnail gallery at the end, explaining each photo, but I recommend leaving that for last. Take your time enjoying the photos, running your fingers over the seams and rivets, and allowing memories to rise to the surface. It's the good times that are captured here, the evidence of human imagination and ingenuity. That's not to gloss over the sacrifices made by those who are no longer with us, but this is celebration, not a memorial - and it's nice to come away from it with that childlike sense of wonder alive and well.

Published November 8th 2012 by University of Texas Press
Hardcover, 176 pages


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